Do You Know What an Herbarium is? CSU Chico’s Excellent Herbarium

This article was originally published in March of 2009, and with spring and summer workshops as well as an upcoming open house at the Chico State Herbarium on May 14th, it seemed like a good time to run this again. Enjoy!

Do you know what an herbarium is?

We have at least two here in the North State. Did you know that?

I did not know either of these things – at least not precisely or with complete confidence, and nor did most of my gardening friends when asked this question.

An herbarium is to plants what a library is to books. If you love plants (and if you’re reading this, you’ve already raised your hand) AND you love the idea of preserving and expanding knowledge about them – then you will love the idea of an herbarium. An herbarium is a catalogue, a collection, a record, a repository and a protectorate of plant life and knowledge about plant life. Photo: A new plant specimen is carefully examined before it is accessioned into the collections at the CSU Chico Herbarium.

The California State University, Chico Herbarium was established in the late 1950s with specimens donated by the late Professor Vesta Holt. It now contains more than 100,000 dried (mostly pressed flat) and mounted plant specimens. The CSU Chico Herbarium is the most complete repository of plant specimens from northeastern California and includes a great number of rare, threatened, and endangered plant species. Recently, the herbarium joined the family of the Northern California Natural History Museum being built in Chico as I write. Photo: The flower heads of a Fritillaria recurva collected in 1991 still holds its color due to careful preservation, including being frozen to kill any bugs present on the fresh plant.

Lawrence Janeway, Curator of the CSU Chico Herbarium, is a professional botanist and has worked with the CSU Chico Herbarium collection in some capacity for close to 30 years. Jenny Marr is also a professional botanist and is currently serving as the President of the Friends of the Chico State Herbarium, a group formed to help support the work and programs of the CSU Chico Herbarium. Photo: Jenny Marr and Lawrence Janeway standing beside one of the collection cabinets at the SCU Chico Herbarium.

You can look at an herbarium collection through a variety of lenses, Lawrence and Jenny explained to me as we walked around the CSU Chico Herbarium. An herbarium and its collections help to illuminate the range and quality of plant life at a given time or in a given place. When looked at comparatively, an herbarium and it collections help to illuminate how plants are related to one another and how they form communities with other plants. An herbarium’s collection can illustrate the characteristics of plant families, individual plant species and general plant structure, among other things. Looked at comparatively over time, Jenny goes on, the collections can show you how plant life has changed – for instance how the ranges of some plants have changed within an area or if new plants are beginning to occur in an area. “The CSU Chico Herbarium’s collections are used to track invasive species, and to track rare or threatened plant species we may be worried about losing in our region or altogether as climate changes occur.” Photo: Researchers, volunteers and natural science students work in the Herbarium where special microscopes and tables are available.

“The majority of plant specimens at the Chico State Herbarium are flowering plants, conifers, and ferns, but bryophytes, lichens, and especially slime molds, are also well represented.” Now – and I am not being sarcastic – if you have a general interest in plants, wouldn’t you like to just take a quick look at a slime mold? I would. Photo: How to preserve a cactus? “It takes quite a lot of dehydration before we can mount cacti or other succulents,” admits Lawrence.

If you’re thinking – like I was – that you would like to take a peek at a slime mold, but would not necessarily want to feature them in your summer garden, you’d be as wrong as I was. “Slime molds are awesome and actually a positive beneficial addition to any home garden. Technically fungi, slime molds are a fabulous amazing order that are critical to the ‘processing’ and decomposition of garden ‘litter’ if you will in any plant community, garden, habitat. We love slime molds!” Jenny enthuses. Ok, so as good ‘composters’, I will welcome slime molds into my summer garden. Photo: A display of fruit types of flowering plants – many of which can be found in the herbarium’s collections.

See what you can learn at the herbarium (and from a botanist)?

“The herbarium is used extensively for identification of sensitive and other plant species by various agencies and individuals. Loans of herbarium specimens are made to any higher academic institutions that request them.” Individual specimens are added to the collection all the time by botanists, students and plant enthusiasts who bring in suitable plant specimens. The specimens are then labeled, prepared and mounted by trained volunteers and staff, added to the database and filed in the collection. Chico State Herbarium’s collection is close to 90% catalogued in an on-line database that is linked through a Consortium of California Herbaria so that state-wide research and plant tracking is possible. Photo: A full sample of a Fritillaria recurva – including rootlets and bulb, stem, leaves, and flower.

This is particularly important when you put it into a larger context: We in the North State are lucky enough to live and garden in is what is known as the California Floristic Region. As summarized by the organization (, the California Floristic Region is “has nearly 3,500 species of vascular plants, more than 2,120 (61 percent) of which are found nowhere else in the world. Around 52 plant genera are also endemic. The high levels of plant species endemism in the California Floristic Province are due to its varied topography, climate zones, geology and soils. The number of vascular plant species found in the California Floristic Province is greater than the total number of species known from the entire central and northeastern United States and adjacent parts of Canada, an area ten times larger than the California hotspot.” Think about that – it’s amazing. Such bounty brings us the garden plants and conditions we love, but also carries responsibility. Photo: Fritillaria flower petals.

The CSU Chico Herbarium – all herbariums -help to preserve information about – and therefore protect – this amazing richness of plant life in the greater North State garden.

If you are interested in learning how to make collections for an herbarium, contact your closest university and see if they have an herbarium – if they do, they probably run classes to teach people how to properly take specimens. California State University Chico offers this kind of class every few years or so. But here also is also a good link to some basics: To summarize, before collecting, you should make sure you are not violating any local or state plant-picking rules. You should ask permission of private property owners and/or get a permit from your local Forest Service for collecting on public land. While ideally you want to collect the whole plant – with flower, stem, leaves, roots and flower buds or flower fruit if present, you should NEVER collect even the flower until you have seen 6 of the same plant in the area, and you should never collect the whole plants (roots and all) until you have seen 10 of the same plant in the area. Make sure to note where and when you took the specimen and if you know its name, note that as well. Once collected, you need to dry your specimen under pressure and most botanists that i have spoken with who take collections use a large press (24? x 24? at least) that often they have made themselves from sheets of cardboard, acid free paper, and ratchet-mechanism bindings – like you would use to hold things down on the back of an open pick-up. Some people also freeze their specimens for a long enough period of time to feel confident that they have killed any bugs or eggs that may have been on the plant when it was collected.

The CSU Chico Herbarium has always hosted well-respected, academic plant programming – aimed for the most part at professionals or students. As part of the Natural History Museum, herbarium programming will also begin to include some more general horticulture subjects. Workshop and class schedules are listed on the CSU Herbarium website where you can also download registration information. Photo: A portion of the CSU Chico Herbarium’s botanical library.

In addition to educational programming, the CSU Chico Herbarium has a wonderful botanical library for use on the premises, and publishes a series of books, Studies from the Herbarium, with titles of interest to plant lovers of all levels, for more information on this go to:

Now I am not suggesting that this is the right spot for your date night out, or that you’ll want to visit weekly. While it is a library of sorts, it is not your average town lending library with children’s story hour. It is perhaps closer to the Special Collections Room at an academic library and as such it is awe-inspiring and absolutely worth a visit at least once in your plant-loving life. But visiting does have special procedures and protocol – perfect for a garden group outing or a class (any age really) field trip. If you or your group are interested in visiting, your best bet is to call ahead to schedule an appointment and tour. The number to call is: 530-898-5381. While there is no charge to visit, donations to support the CSU Chico Herbarium’s valuable work are always happily accepted. The CSU Chico Herbarium is located in Holt Hall Room 129 and is open to the public during the academic year on Thursdays 8 am to 12:00 noon and Fridays 8 am – 5 pm. Shasta College in Redding also has an herbarium. While it does not have regular public hours, it is available for by appointment if you call Professor Morgan Hannaford at 530-242-2324. Photo: A label from a specimen collected in 1894 and still displaying the old Chico State Normal School name. If you find dried plants in an elderly family member’s belongings, take them to your local herbarium for evaluation.

And come on – who would not want to see how to preserve a cactus or what a slime mold even looks like? As a plant lover, you will definitely one-up your gardening neighbors with information like that.

The mission of In a North State Garden is to celebrate the art, craft and science of home gardening in California’s North State region. The program is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved. To read more from In A North State Garden or to listen to the podcasts aired on Northstate Public Radio KCHO/KFPR radio, click on

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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