Kids’ Corner: Homemade Herbarium
By Elizabeth Kubey
Herbaria are like libraries, but instead of books, they’re full of preserved plants. Scientists use herbaria to identify and study plants collected all over the world. Every so often, a scientist may find a plant she thinks has never been seen before, but before she can be sure, she’ll look in a herbarium to see if the plant is already there. In California we have collections from as early as the 1800s, and scientists are still using them!
- Herbarium (plural: Herbaria): A collection of preserved plant specimens and related data (information) used for scientific study.
- Specimen: A pressed plant mounted on paper and stored in an herbarium.
To preserve plant specimens, scientists put them on special paper with labels showing where, when, and who collected the plant. To make your own herbarium sample, you’ll want to have some tools on hand to help with your plant collection
✓ Pruning clippers ✓ Camera ✓ Collecting bags (plastic and paper) ✓ Paper and pencil for field notes ✓ GPS unit or a phone to capture exactly where you are
Before you cut anything, make sure to ask an adult to point out which plants are okay to collect! Only collect plants that are not rare species. For this project, choose smaller plants that can fit on 11 x 17” paper. You can bend parts of the plant to make them fit.
Try to collect all parts of the plants that you can see. A well-represented specimen will include the roots, underside of the leaf, and all flowering and fruiting structures. This will help with finding out what kind of plant it is and creating an herbarium specimen that shows what the plant looks like.
Take pictures and write down notes about the soil, surroundings of the plants, and different parts of the plant. It’s also important to note the setting of where you are, including as much detail about the location as possible. What county, city, or town are you in? Are you in a city or a rural setting? Near the beach? In the mountains?
What makes pressed plants beautiful is that they preserve stories from snapshots in time. A well-pressed and mounted specimen is also a work of art. If well preserved, a plant specimen can last hundreds of years.”
— Terri Barry, UC Davis Collections Manager
Botanists use a fancy plant press to help their plants dry quickly, but we can make one easily from materials you can find around your house.)
✓ Cardboard ✓ Newspaper ✓ Heavy books ✓ Blotting paper or paper towels (absorbs moisture)
Place the plant between two pieces of newspaper. You want to position your specimen to show as many parts as possible. Show both the top and backside of leaves. Make sure you open up the flower petals and showcase all parts of the plant. Once you press the plant you can’t rearrange how the plant looks.
Place the newspaper between two pieces of cardboard, then stack a few heavy books on top of it. This will help your plant dry. Leave it for a week and check if it is completely dry. It’s important that your plant is dry before you move on to the final step, storage.
✓ Glue ✓ Tape ✓ 11 x 17” acid-free paper ✓ Paper for label
When dry, carefully glue your plant vertically (hot-dog style) on 11” x 17” acid-free paper (the same size as most printer paper) to have enough room for your plant and an information label.
Make a label (see below) and glue to the bottom of your page.
Congratulations! You just made a beautiful herbarium specimen for science. You can make multiple sheets and place them in plastic protectors to keep in a binder
Online herbarium visit
You can use a computer to visit the Consortium of California Herbaria Portal (CCH2) website to find herbaria and see photographed plant specimens: http://www.cch2.org/ Try completing this exercise to sharpen your plant knowledge:
Look at three different families of plants. Then ask:
- How are their plant specimens preserved differently?
- How are they similar?
- How are flowers, fruits, seeds, roots, leaves, twigs displayed?
- How does an herbarium deal with bulky specimens like pine cones?
Share your activity photos with Elizabeth! Post on social media and tag @californianativeplantsociety or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to CNPS Student Advisor Hannah Kang for reviewing and providing photos for this column.