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Preserving the flora

The Fowler Herbarium, a museum of over 140,000 dried plant specimens, is critical for identifying, monitoring, and conserving plant biodiversity in Eastern Ontario.

[A Fowler Herbarium specimen QK18296859 Pale Smartweed, Persicaria labathifolia (Linnaeus) Delarbre]
Specimen QK18296859 Pale Smartweed, Persicaria labathifolia (Linnaeus) Delarbre from the Fowler Herbarium.

Biodiversity refers to the variety of living species on Earth, including animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria. Healthy and biodiverse ecosystems provide biological resources (e.g., food, medicines, construction materials), ecosystem services (e.g., soils formation and protection, purification of water, erosion prevention), and many other economic and social benefits. Experts rely on myriad strategies for studying the biodiversity of a region, country or even continent.

A herbarium is a museum of plant specimens (usually dried), providing a permanent record of new plant species discoveries, past and present distributions, and variation within species. Herbaria are key tools for documenting a region’s history of plant exploration and supplying valuable anatomical, chemical, and ethnobotanical information for years to come.

The Fowler Herbarium, named after Rev. James Fowler (Queen’s second Professor of Natural History, 1880-1907), is located in the Jessie V. Deslauriers Centre for Biology at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS). The collection includes over 140,000 plant specimens from Kingston and surrounding areas, the Canadian Arctic, and Russia. Some specimens date back to the mid-1800s.

[Fowler Herbarium specimen QK18290396 Black Chokeberry, Aronia Melanocarpa (Michaux) Elliott]
Specimen QK18290396 Black Chokeberry, Aronia Melanocarpa (Michaux) Elliott from the Fowler Herbarium.

Herbarium reference collections have been used worldwide for teaching, research, and public outreach purposes. They can help to confirm the identity of unusual or rare plants. Additionally, they have proven useful for comparing species diversity from different areas or habitats. The specimens housed in a herbarium allow assessment of contemporary patterns of plant diversity but also how those patterns may have changed over time. Such information is essential, for example, for describing pre-European settlement landscapes and thus understanding the effects of human activities, such as forest clearing, and climate change on plant communities. Herbaria like the Fowler Herbarium also represent vast repositories of DNA, enabling exploration of new and interesting research questions related to the evolutionary history of species, population genetics, and biotechnology. Herbarium specimens not only include information about the species itself, but also feature ‘metadata’ with the name of the collector, the location (historically with name but more recently with geographic coordinates), and date. This rich cultural component to these databases, helps to illuminate the travels and activities of specific collectors over their entire careers.

[Book Cover: Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium by Helen Humphreys]
Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium

The Fowler Herbarium has been an extensive archival resource for student theses and faculty work. For example, in 2013, then-undergraduate student Angela Boag and supervisor Christopher Eckert (Biology) used herbarium samples to explore the spread and efficacy of biological control agents. Yihan Wu (MSc19) and supervisor Robert Colautti (Biology) analyzed herbarium records to better understand the limits of evolution. 

For scholars and nature lovers alike, herbaria also offer a unique opportunity for time travel – a way to discover what was and explore what can be. Enthralled by this notion, award-winning poet and novelist, Helen Humphreys, spent a year at the archive, treating it like an actual wilderness and uncovering hidden mysteries found in its samples. Her introspections about life, loss, and the importance of finding solace in nature during this time are detailed in her wonderful new book, Field Study: Meditations on a Year at the Herbarium, released on Sept. 21, 2021.

In coming years, Fowler Herbarium collections will be digitized when QUBS can find funds to do so. The herbarium is always looking to receive new plant specimens.

For more information about the Fowler Herbarium, visit the website.