For centuries, explorers, scientists, and amateur botanists scoured the country to document and preserve plant species. Once prized like fine art, the collections were often bequeathed to institutions that housed herbaria, or libraries for plants.
Over time, the collections became obscure and fell out of use, aside from the occasional researcher who had to schedule appointments and often travel long distances to view the records.
Now, there’s a new effort to make hundreds of thousands of these dried and preserved plants collected along the East Coast available at the click of a button, creating a digital database poised to answer questions about conservation, climate change and development.
“How has the environment changed,” said Rick McCourt, botany curator at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University in Philadelphia. “What plants occur where. Do they occur someplace differently now than they used to. Are they vanished or gone from an area?”
McCourt helps manage the oldest herbarium in North America, which has an estimated 1.5 million plant specimens in its collection. About 350,000 were collected along the East Coast.
He says the data might even raise the possibility of using plant DNA to bring back extinct species.
“It’s more like a Jurassic Park dream,” McCourt says. “But DNA is DNA, who knows? Before 1952 we wouldn’t have known what DNA was, much less that you could get it out of museum specimens.”