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HISTORICALLY, A HERBARIUM is a library of dried plants labeled and recorded for use as a medicinal reference. The oldest known herbarium is in Italy and dates to the 1500s. Today, modern technology and DNA sequencing allow dried and pressed specimens to tell living stories about the past, as well as our present environment.
The Otis Douglas Hyde Herbarium, at the Center for Urban Horticulture on the University of Washington campus, collects and houses plants growing at the center and in the Washington Park Arboretum. More than 24,000 pressed plant specimens are carefully organized and filed in 24 cabinets in a climate-controlled room just off the lobby of the Elisabeth C. Miller Library.
The Hyde is a gardener’s herbarium, documenting both native and cultivated flora. According to manager Eve Rickenbaker, “Anything that grows in the Pacific Northwest is what we collect.” Rickenbaker, a research assistant in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, works at the herbarium 20 hours a week, along with a loyal and dedicated cadre of volunteers, documenting and maintaining herbarium records. The rest of Rickenbaker’s time as a graduate student is spent researching racial inclusion and public gardens.
Collecting and crafting herbarium specimens involves art and science. The physical artifact is beautiful, and every last particular matters. Each pressed specimen reveals intricate details of flower parts, stem habit and both sides of the leaves. Collection records and skilled observations are recorded with disciplined adherence to the Linnaean system of taxonomy.
In the 18th century, Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, published an organizational naming structure as a means of communicating about the natural world — common ground across language and culture. But, as Rickenbaker’s graduate work is exploring, whose culture? This decidedly Western way of documenting and naming plants is accepted practice throughout the globe, yet indigenous history and culture are often not considered. The Arboretum’s collection contains plants from throughout the world. “This is a place where cultures come together,” Rickenbaker says. “Maybe it’s time to take a critical eye — a garden is a good place to have difficult conversations.”
The Hyde Herbarium is available for school field trips, garden-club tours and hands-on workshops where participants learn to create their own herbarium specimens. Volunteers gather each Tuesday to process plant specimens for the collection. Throughout September, a public exhibit at the Miller Library will offer a closer look at the beauty and breadth of the Hyde Herbarium collection. In addition to framed specimens that will be for sale, Rickenbaker has developed supporting materials on the history of herbaria, with sections on medicinal plants, edible plants, and plants used for fiber and building materials. “And I’m going to have a section that talks about human culture,” she adds.
Far from just a collection of dead plants, this is living history, a chronicle of time and human stories. Visit the University of Washington Botanic Gardens website for library hours and more information about the Otis Douglas Hyde Herbarium.