Zombie plants!? Not quite. Illustration by John Megahan.

Zombie plants!? Not exactly – but when Jacqueline Popma undertook the graduate student curatorial project at the University of Michigan Herbarium, little did she know she would be bringing many plant specimens “back to life.”

The University of Michigan Herbarium (UMH) recently acquired the herbarium of the Edwin S. George Reserve (ESGR). The plant specimens received little use for many decades, and there was no comprehensive inventory. Popma, a graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology, inventoried all specimens and found many surprisingly well-preserved and unique specimens that the UMH did not have in its collection, including some rare species, and even one federally threatened plant – a rare orchid.

“There were almost 60 plant species we found that until now, were not known to have occurred at the ESGR, one of them was even new to the state of Michigan,” Popma said.

"Jackie's ES George Herbarium project is a wonderful example of how EEB graduate students can obtain curatorial experience while advancing scholarship and stewardship of our historical collections," said EEB Professor Christopher Dick, associate chair for museum collections, U-M Herbarium and Museum of Zoology.

The ESGR has been maintained by U-M since 1930, to provide research and educational opportunities, and to preserve the native flora and fauna. There is a rich history of long-term biological research studies at ESGR, some dating back to the 1930s.

For many decades, the ESGR maintained a small herbarium documenting native flora. Much of the collecting was done in the 1940s and 1950s, and eventually there was nearly a full herbarium case, with about 1,000 sheets of mounted and labelled specimens. The ESGR Herbarium had a formal acronym designation, MGR, in the global index of herbaria. The collection provided a snapshot of the reserve’s flora of 60 - 70 years ago and was used by Edward G. Voss for the three volume “Michigan Flora” published in 1972, 1985 and 1996.

Trifolium pratense collected in Livingston County, Mich. in June 1941 by F.N. Hamerstrom, Jr.

“More recently, however, the herbarium was essentially dormant, receiving little use, and was stored under less than ideal conditions,” said Anton Reznicek, assistant director and curator of vascular plants. The decision was made in 2017 to transfer the specimens to the UMH, known as MICH in herbarium circles. “In fall 2017, the specimens were loaded into boxes and brought to MICH for evaluation, repair and, as appropriate, incorporation.”

The specimens, dating back to the 1930s - 1960s, were collected by renowned Michigan botanists, including Voss who wrote “Michigan Flora.” “Two other collectors who contributed specimens to the ESGR Herbarium during this time were Frederick N. Hamerstrom Jr. and Jarl K. Hiltunen,” said Popma. “All specimens were pressed and dried, determined to species, and accompanied by typewritten labels with information on the precise location, date and collector’s name. This information was used to cross-reference all specimens with the UMH Michigan Flora database, to determine how many specimens were represented by duplicates in the UMH collection and which were unique. We found many unique specimens with no corresponding record in the UMH collection, providing a significant addition to their holdings for southern Michigan.”

Because the specimens had been stored in a barn for decades, they were exposed to fluctuating temperatures and humidity and, in some instances, hungry bugs. Some mice even nibbled at the edges of folders and mounting sheets. Popma repaired specimens for incorporation into the UMH collection. The specimens will be barcoded and digitized, each with a unique identifier. All specimens can then be photographed, to form a “virtual herbarium” for continued use by the ESGR, as needed, and the information will be uploaded into the Michigan Flora database.

Popma worked on this project as a graduate student curatorial assistant, with several people, including collection managers. She primarily worked with Anton Reznicek, assistant director and curator of vascular plants, and Beverly Walters, collection manager of vascular plants. From January - April 2018, Popma inventoried the scope of the ESGR collection, cross-referenced all specimens with the UMH database, repaired and imaged specimens, and worked on some geo-referencing. Popma’s advisor is Professor Knute Nadelhoffer.

Professor Robyn Burnham, the director of ESGR, is planning to georeference the specimens with the new Geographic Information Systems map of the reserve. This will make it possible to pinpoint where a plant was collected, including date and collector.

“I enjoyed learning new techniques in plant preservation,” said Popma. “It's a nice combination of science and art. I also became more familiar with southeast Michigan vascular plants, which is helpful for my research because I am interested in how deer browsing affects soil biogeochemistry via changes in plant communities.”