Desert Museum Herbarium Digitized and Registered

by John F. Wiens, Massimo Boscolo

Did you know that the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has a herbarium? A herbarium is a collection of preserved plant specimens that are organized, databased, and safely stored for the purpose of scientific research and education. Botanists, ecologists, ethnobotanists, and plant enthusiasts in the general public may consult herbariums to study, learn, and conduct research.

Housed in the Botany Department building, and not open to the general public, the herbarium is available for use by Desert Museum members and scientists. It is currently under the guidance of Botany Curator Erik Rakestraw, nursery horticulturist Massimo Boscolo, and myself, John F. Wiens, but the work is done by dedicated volunteers.

Herbarium Origins

The story of the Desert Museum Herbarium begins fifty years ago with a volunteer named Al E. Garwood (Gar to his friends). He came from Ottawa, Canada, where he worked in the herbarium at Queen’s University. Upon retirement, he began spending winters in Tucson, collecting specimens for our nascent herbarium, as well as volunteering at the Desert Museum.

Gar began collecting the local plants of Avra Valley and the Tucson Mountains in 1971 and continued doing so through 1980. Don Ducote, curator of the botany department at the time, set Gar to work creating a herbarium at the Desert Museum, and the first cabinet was full by 1973.

Gar especially enjoyed creating herbarium sheets, saying that they should not be just pressed plants, but works of art. Herbarium sheets are similar to the books of a library, or fossil specimens in a natural history collection. They are sheets of paper containing plant specimens that have been preserved, organized, and labeled.

Mark Dimmitt came on board as curator in 1979, adding collections from the Sweetwater area of the Tucson Mountains, where he lived, and continued encouraging Gar.

In the early 1980s the Herbarium received a sizable contribution of plants from Gene Joseph, nursery horticulturist at that time, who, alongside Paul Martin and Chuck Hansen, studied the Sierra de Alamos in southern Sonora. Bob Perrill, assistant curator of botany in the early 1980s, added collections from his work with Jacqui Soule on the Rio Cuchujaqui of the same region. Other early contributing collectors included Muffin Burgess, Tony Burgess, Vicky Phelps, Merriam Fritts, and Mike Mentus.

A Flourishing Collection

Agave deserti (Desert agave, Mescal, Century plant, Maguey)

Gar left the Desert Museum around 1985, but not before spending a season training Mark Goldberg for his position. Mark was an amazing self-taught botanist who started as a docent at the Desert Museum in 1982. A year later, he began helping Gar to collect, label, and mount specimens. Mark immersed himself in the job with much enthusiasm and by 1987 he was also volunteering at the University of Arizona Herbarium (ARIZ). He spent a great deal of time collecting specimens from Museum grounds and the broader Tucson area.

In the mid-80s, George Montgomery, lead horticulturist at the time, began adding local grasses to the collection while researching plant needs for the mountain woodland and grassland exhibit. With the help of Connie Foster, another Desert Museum docent, Mark was in the process of cataloguing and computerizing the entire collection when vision problems forced him into semi-retirement few years later.

Gaining Focus

Yucca baccata brevifolia (Banana yucca)

Our collection gained focus when University of Arizona masters student Renée Rondeau began working on the Tucson Mountain Flora around 1990. She collected specimens for our herbarium as well as for those of the University of Arizona and Saguaro National Park West.

My own work in the 1990s at Ragged Top, the Picacho Mountains, and other areas around Tucson, has contributed many sheets. Others who brought us Tucson Mountain plants during that project were Tom Van Devender, Rebecca Wilson, Dave Bertelsen, Philip Jenkins, Paul Martin, and Jeffrey Spaulding. Renée went through our entire collection at that time, annotating and entering the Tucson Mountain specimens into a database.

Mark Dimmitt saw our limited herbarium space disappearing quickly and decided that we needed to dedicate our space and time to the local flora. Many of our southern Sonoran specimens were then donated to the University of Arizona Herbarium (ARIZ).

From that time onward, our herbarium has focused primarily on the plants of the Tucson Mountains, with further collection efforts being done on the Avra Valley and the watershed to the west, as well as the Ironwood National Monument.

Milestones Reached

Foquieria splendens (Ocotillo)

Thanks to the diligent and mostly unseen work of our volunteers, Jacqui Saltz, Billie Oakley and Mike Bauer, the entire content of the herbarium has been meticulously organized, digitized, and now uploaded to SEINet, the Southwest Environmental Information Network. SEINet is a consortium of herbaria, museums, and agencies that supply botanical knowledge through a shared web interface.

Now, researchers from all over the country can study high-definition images of all our pressed specimens, avoiding travelling or long-term loans, which are often constrained by inadequate funding and staff shortages.

Our herbarium is now large enough to be registered in the Index Herbarium at the New York Botanical Garden, and we officially use the acronym ASDM when citing specimens.

The wealth of information contained in small regional herbaria like ours cannot be overstated. The focus and thorough exploration of a particular area allows for a deeper understanding of landscape-scale biogeography, which is the baseline for any conservation effort.

We have recently filed the latest of about 5,000 specimens of over 2,000 taxa in approximately 100 families. They are organized alphabetically by family, and within those, by genus and specific epithet. We want to acknowledge the work of our volunteers and the many contributors to the collection in achieving these exciting milestones!

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