While many visitors enjoy the Murdough Greenhouses on the fifth floor of Gilman Hall, few know that the Jesup Herbarium, another Dartmouth botanical treasure, is located just three floors below.
Named for Henry Griswold Jesup, Dartmouth's Chandler Professor of Natural History from 1877 to 1899, the herbarium contains over 10,000 preserved plant specimens, including two collected in Concord, Mass., by Henry David Thoreau.
"Herbaria are the essential museums for plants," explained David Peart, Professor of Biological Sciences and Chair of the Herbarium Committee. "They are depositories of official specimens and are essential for species identification and research." The herbarium is managed by Curator Robert Downs, who has worked there for almost 30 years.
Increased awareness of the need for plant biodiversity and conservation during the past 20 years has spurred renewed interest in herbaria, according to Peart. Conservationists conduct biodiversity surveys to identify plants and areas in need of protection, and they use herbarium specimens as references.
"Reference books and online databases are powerful identification tools," said Peart, "but they can't replace original specimens.
"The study of the evolutionary origins of plant species has given more depth and rigor to the study of diversity," he explained. "The field of phylogenetic systematics seeks to understand the genetic basis of diversity, which makes herbaria all the more important." Research at the DNA level relies on herbarium specimens. Scientists can do DNA analysis on specimens of extinct plants, or on those that have evolved into different forms.
The hebarium specializes in plants from Vermont and New Hampshire. "We preserve the plants that are most relevant to our students, students at neighboring institutions and conservationists in our region," said Peart.
Dartmouth students doing field research, thesis projects and conservation internships make frequent use of this little-known resource.
"Jesup is the principal herbarium for this region and a great resource for all Vermont and New Hampshire," said Peart. "It would be impossible to replace and is part of Dartmouth's legacy to science and the community."
By SARAH BENELLI
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Last Updated: 5/30/08