How Do We Know?
Herbarium Records

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In a letter written in 1845 to a colleague, Short (1845) described the plants he observed and collected on a trip “through the State of Illinois...travelling in a light covered wagon, well prepared for making extensive collections, and vigilantly on the look-out for every object of interest...” Short was one of the earliest botanists to describe the flora of the state. His writings are eloquent and extremely exacting. As he wrote in his letter, “I can safely say that few such [objects of interest] escaped our observation.”

In recording the genus and species of the plants he observed, Short preserved for later generations a veritable picture of what grew on the undisturbed prairie in the mid-1800’s, just before it disappeared under the plow. His descriptions included ecological notes, such as the types of soil in which plants grew, and the effects of fire on the grasses and woody vegetation.

In describing a large section of undisturbed Illinois prairie, Short wrote:

Thus from some elevated position in a large prairie the eye takes in at one glance thousands of acres literally empurpled with the flowering spikes of several species of Liatris (blazing star), among which the most predominant are L. spicata, L. squarrosa, L. aspera, L. cylindriacea, and L. pychnostachya. In other situations, where a depressed or flattened surface and clayey soil favor the continuance of moisture, a few species of yellow-flowered Coreopsis occur in such profuse abundance as to tinge the entire surface with a golden burnish. The species of this genus more commonly met with in such situations, were Bidens coronata, Coreopsis palata, C. tripteris, and etc., etc.

This list describes for the reader possibly every species of blazing star growing on the prairies just 20 miles west of the Wabash River. Even more remarkable is the fact that early botanists like Short and others after him, made collections that eventually came into the collections of herbaria around the state.

Cypripedium Herb Sheet
Herbarium Sheet
White lady-slipper
collected from original prairie 1906
When a botanist or ecologist identifies and records an organism in a given locality, he also collects a “voucher specimen.” Voucher specimens are "examples” of organisms collected in the field, and later identified, properly labeled, and stored in a climate controlled environment, an herbarium, in the case of plants. When Short and others made their collections, they noted the locality where the organism was found, the date, and sometimes a description of the habitat. This information was recorded on the “herbarium sheet,” on which the plant was pressed or preserved. Because we have an example of what these early botanists collected, we are able to verify the taxonomy. The voucher specimen is the hard evidence that a given plant existed at a particular place long after the collector and his/her contemporaries are gone.

The herbarium at the Illinois State Museum contains plants dating from the late 1800’s through the present. It provides a record of the plants that grew in Illinois.

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Illinois State Museum State of Illinois IDNR Search, Last modified October 21st 2003, 02:54AM.