Plant collection is an overlooked ‘treasure trove’
Some people collect stamps, some collect coins, and some collect plants, which they dry, press and mount onto sheets of acid-free paper, each measuring 18 by 24 inches. The result is what is called an herbarium.
More than 1,200 local plants make up the Wilton Garden Club’s herbarium, which is arranged by family, such as trees, shrubs, wildflowers, ferns, and grasses. They are kept in 20 boxes in the Wilton Library History Room, and while not off-limits, they are not easily seen.
To make this resource more widely available to scientists, scholars and members of the public, the club undertook a project to digitize the information, which it recently accomplished with the assistance of Yale University.
To talk about the herbarium in layman’s terms and its value to both the local and greater scientific community, Dr. Patrick Sweeney, collections manager of the Yale University Herbarium at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, will present Herbaria: Treasure Troves of Botanical Knowledge, on Thursday, Nov. 19, from 1 to 2:30, at Wilton Library. Registration is suggested by calling 203-762-3950, ext. 312 or visiting wiltonlibrary.org.
During Sweeney’s talk, and for an extended period afterwards, the digitized version of about 100 entries of the garden club’s herbarium may be viewed. Club members will also display packets of notecards it has created from pages of the herbarium including ferns, wildflowers, trees and shrubs, and grasses.
The garden club’s herbarium stems from two sources: the late Anna Carpenter and the late Mary Beth Wheeler, who was a club member and for whom the herbarium is named.
Born in 1833, Carpenter was a teacher and amateur botanist who lived from 1892 to 1933 in Wilton Center, in a house that no longer exists, across from the library. From early on she took up collecting plants, which she pressed onto herbarium sheets noting relevant information about each specimen. She submitted her first specimen to Yale when she was 19.
In 1921, Carpenter donated more than 200 sheets of her personal herbarium to Wilton Library. The remainder of her collection she donated to the Connecticut Botanical Society Herbarium at the Peabody.
Carpenter continued collecting specimens well into her 90s, and encouraged others to appreciate the plant life all around them. She became a mentor to Leonard Bradley, for whom Bradley Park is named, who in turn mentored Mary Beth Wheeler.
Wheeler may have inherited her interest in botanical pursuits from her father, who kept his own small herbarium. She moved to Wilton and in the 1960s she got the garden club involved in creating a herbarium.
“It was her life’s work,” Carol Russell, a garden club member, recalled last week in the history room. Club members followed her lead, picking specimens and then classifying them. The names of the collectors are included in the notations on each sheet, along with what the plant is, where and when it was collected, and any other relevant comments.
Efforts intensified when the state moved to build the Super 7 highway through Wilton.
“They may just look like weeds to a developer, but to us they are special plants,” Russell said.
“When you see them dried and preserved, they are really quite beautiful,” said Jackie Algon, a member of the club’s conservation committee.
Some of the plants in the herbarium, particularly some collected by Carpenter nearly 100 years ago, are extinct in this area.
All this work prompted the club in 1992 to publish a book, Ferns & Flowering Plants of Wilton, which is available at the library. It discusses the ecology of Wilton, gardening with native plants, plants that need protection, Wilton parks and public gardens, and a checklist of ferns and flowering plants.
When Wheeler died, she left a bequest to the club, a portion of which was set aside to digitize the herbarium. Work began last fall as members entered information into a database.
The sheets themselves were taken to Yale where they first were put into a large walk-in freezer to kill any microbes that might endanger the university’s own herbarium that numbers more than 660,000 specimens, some of which were collected by Charles Darwin.
Then, each sheet was photographed and bar codes were created for identification. The collection is now part of the Consortium of Northeastern Herbaria, which maintains a searchable database of members in the U.S. and Canada.
“At Yale they were excited about having a local collection,” Algon said, adding that often when scientists collect plant matter around the world they often share it. “This is something that’s not been shared. It’s unique.”