History sprouts from herbarium

Tomy Hillers

While many may see the Ada Hayden Herbarium as a simple storage room, a wealth of information and history lie stacked on its shelves.

The herbarium, located on the third floor of Bessey Hall, contains a variety of plant life dating back 130 years for study and reference purposes.

Deb Lewis, curator of the herbarium, said she found out firsthand the importance of this resource when she received a call from a doctor at the Mary Greeley Medical Center, 1111 Duff Ave.

The doctor said he had a young boy in the emergency room who had ingested an unknown species of plant. Lewis said that after receiving a fax of the plant she was able to cross-reference the picture with the specimens in the herbarium’s files.

“After some quick searching, I discovered that the plant was in fact a poisonous species,” Lewis said. “I then relayed that information to the doctor, and he was able to take the necessary procedures to save the boy’s life.”

Lewis said the 130-year-old herbarium’s history at Iowa State began in 1870 and now has over 425,000 specimens.

Donald Farrar, professor of botany, said the herbarium is also important internationally.

“If you want to see stuff from a particular species in a particular part of world, you can write that herbarium and get it,” he said.

Farrar said herbaria serve as important resources for botany students.

“The fact that we have a herbarium here – that’s one of the requisites to having a strong botany department,” he said. “Just like the library is a resource, so they benefit directly from the research that goes on and the general quality of the herbarium.”

Besides varieties of different plant life, the herbarium has specimens of historical significance.

“The herbarium also holds specimens collected by George Washington Carver, from the 1870s,” Lewis said. “It also contains a priceless collection by Charles Parry that was collected in the late 1800s and sold to Iowa State for $5,000 in the 19th century.”

The herbarium is an important resource for Iowa plant histories.

“We are responsible for keeping accurate data of the many species that are endangered or weeded out,” Lewis said.

He said this kind of information was one of the motivations behind one of the herbarium’s most prestigious curators, Ada Hayden.

“Ada was curator from 1934 ’til her death in 1950,” Lewis said. “In this time she was able to set aside preserves of Iowa’s natural prairies for later generations.”

Farrar said providing this information is a very important role of the herbarium.

“Lots of people in the state want to know what’s growing on their particular property, so they will send it in,” he said. “That happens on a weekly basis.”

Lewis said the herbarium is ranked 26th in the world. “Considering there are hundreds out there, that is a pretty impressive fact.”