Botanical Rescue Goes Digital

Taylor Barron, Partnership Coordinator and Resource Assistant, Shasta-Trinity National Forest

Jamie Hinrichs, Public Affairs Specialist, Pacific Southwest Regional Office

Dec. 22, 2022

A woman stands next to an open cabinet filled with file folders.

Shasta-Trinity National Forest Botanist Lusetta Sims with her Weaverville collection, organized in folders by plant family and genus and stored in a large metal cabinet. (Photo courtesy of Alison Colwell)

What would you save from a fire? For Botanist Lusetta Sims, the answer came easily.

“I've often thought, what would I take out of my office,” said Sims. “And the plant vouchers are irreplaceable.”

A woman sits looking over a table covered with plant specimens.

Julie Kierstead, the Shasta-Trinity National Forest botanist for over 30 years, assists with the delicate work of mounting specimens, fall 2022. (USDA Forest Service photo by Merissa Strawsine)

In 2021, as the Monument Fire moved toward her U.S. Forest Service office on the Weaverville Ranger District of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Sims wasn’t taking any chances. With the aid of her botanist husband, she evacuated 1,751 plant vouchers, or herbarium specimens, to safety.

The need for this botanical rescue rekindled discussion of a long-held concern — collections stored in offices within fire-prone landscapes are perpetually at risk of incineration. But now, relocation is not the only protective measure. Forest Service botanists have joined a statewide effort to transport plant herbaria into the digital age.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the California Phenology Network (CAP Network) has been leading a project that provides California’s herbaria with lightboxes and cameras to digitally image specimens. Over one million imaged specimens have been uploaded to the Consortium of California Herbaria’s CCH2 database, including collections from the Inyo, Klamath and Shasta-Trinity national forests. 

“Herbarium specimens lay the foundation of what we know about the botanical world,” said Katie Pearson, who oversees training and outreach for the CAP project. “They provide the baseline we need for restoration by allowing us to compare where we are to where we used to be.”

The nearly 500-year-old process used to make specimens is both a science and an art. Plant or plant parts are collected, dried, then pressed and affixed to paper with a label noting the time and collection location. This preserves the plant’s appearance, DNA, and phase of growth at a particular point in time. By comparing these historical records to the plants growing today, we can see how the changing climate is impacting plant distribution and life cycle events. This knowledge can be used to plan projects to protect plants from extinction.

Papers with plant specimens cover a table.

Unmounted specimens are extremely fragile. When mounting specimens, plants are laid out on special paper and glued or taped down with their label. (USDA Forest Service photo by Merissa Strawsine)

“It’s a lot of work to make and store [herbarium] specimens, but it is worth it,” said Dr. Alison Colwell, former botanist at Yosemite National Park and current herbarium curator at to the UC Davis Center for Plant Diversity. Colwell was the one who took in the evacuated Weaverville collection. “A specimen is the accepted voucher of taxonomy [classification system for organism] and a cost-effective way to document biodiversity.” 

In addition to creating backups for physical herbaria that might burn in a wildfire, digital images increase access to specimens. This is especially important for specimens from national forests, which are often stored in and gathered from out-of-the-way locations.

Three plant specimens are displayed on a mounted paper.

A mounted herbarium specimen from the Klamath National Forest collection. The label (bottom right) lists the plant scientific name, common name, collector’s name, collection date and location. The barcode (bottom left) serves as a unique digital identifier for each specimen. (USDA Forest Service photo by Kimberly DeVall)

“Now somebody anywhere in the world can go on the internet and see specimens in the Klamath or Shasta Trinity herbarium with high resolution images without having to physically borrow the specimens or get on a plane and come here,” said Julie Kierstead, former Shasta-Trinity National Forest botanist of 30 years. “It's very exciting that these will be available globally, not just locally.”

Plus, many specimens in these small, regional herbaria are not found in larger collections. While it is common to send duplicates of samples to multiple institutional herbaria, that is not the case for rare species, which botanists are careful not to over collect.

“One of the interesting things about California is that many national forests have a lot of endemic species, which means they don't grow anywhere else,” Kierstead said. “And there is a prevalence of new species being discovered in herbaria.”

When digitized, rare or novel species from national forests are at everyone’s fingertips and can contribute to big-data science and research on a wide variety of topics. For example, based on their collection dates, we can study specimen flowering timing – a life-cycle event that shifts in step with climate conditions – to track the history of temperature rise. Similarly, geographic coordinates found on specimen labels can help us monitor species distribution to protect plants from extinction.

A man and woman look at a plant specimens using a light box that is connected to a computer.

Alexander Ebert and Emily Jackson (left to right) – botany crew lead for Weaverville Ranger District and Mount Shasta Ranger District on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest – position a specimen inside the light box for imaging. After using the computer to ensure a clear image, a DSLR camera mounted on top will take a photo. Computer software will recognize the specimen’s unique barcode and store the image. (USDA Forest Service photo by Taylor Barron)

“The process has helped us understand what species have and haven’t been collected on our forest, so we can better target our future collection efforts. And I’m proud that our digitized specimens will contribute to broader studies on climate change and phenology [the scientific study of life-cycle events],” said Blake Engelhardt, botanist on the Inyo National Forest. “By making these images accessible on the internet, it really expands the opportunity for virtual participation by citizen scientists around the world.”

Want to get rooted in this botanical rescue mission? Contact the botanist at your local national forest. Or transcribe specimen labels from the Inyo National Forest online through Capturing California’s Flowers expedition on Notes from Nature. Select the Inyo National Forest button, just below Get Started. An illustrated tutorial will guide you through the process of transcribing specimens. Once you start, botany may quickly become a fixture of your spare thyme (along with plant puns).