Bringing yesterday’s plants to digital life

Serina Taluja scanned thousands of specimens belonging to the Illinois Natural History Survey Herbarium.

As an undergraduate student at Illinois, Serina Taluja scanned thousands of specimens belonging to the Illinois Natural History Survey Herbarium. Her work contributed to a National Science Foundation effort to preserve about 2 million historic plant specimens in digital form.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

A hybrid of the family Orchidaceae, genus Cattleya collected from the U. of I. floriculture greenhouses, January 1941.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – It’s about 65 degrees Fahrenheit in the herbarium, and the archival paper on which the plant specimen is mounted feels soft between my cold fingers. My hands are instantly warmed as I place the sheet in the light box. I check the computer monitor; everything looks good. I hit the spacebar.


The camera captures an image of the plant and sends it directly to a folder that will later be uploaded to an online database of worldwide plant specimens.

And, just like that, the analog becomes digital, and the past becomes present in preparation for the future.

Arisaema triphyllum, collected May 3, 1942, in White Pines Forest State Park, Illinois.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Calypso bulbosa, found four miles west of Vermilion Bay, Ontario, Canada. Collected June 1, 1968.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

I repeat this process 500 times daily, on average. And, while it is easy to do this type of work quickly and quietly, it amounts to something much bigger than even the Illinois Natural History Survey Herbarium, which is the 10th-largest in the country. This imaging process is part of Endless Forms, a National Science Foundation digitization project. Our part of the project aims to digitize specimens from across the country in three groups: succulent plants, carnivorous plants and epiphytes.

Arisaema atrorubens, Peoria County, Illinois. Collected May 2, 1957.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

I had to learn what an epiphyte was for this project. It turns out, I was growing them in my own home. Epiphytes include air plants, a botanical enigma with no roots, long spiraling leaves and the ability to live off of air and rainfall. They are often seen in trees, but they don’t use the trees as an energy source at all. Rather, they use the trees for support. Orchids fall into this group, too. From bright purples to fading pink speckled patterns, orchids in the herbarium are exciting to find and are a brilliant example of the endless forms this project is working to conserve and celebrate.

Gaultheria glomerata, collected in Venuzuela, Jan. 20, 1993.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

These plant groups were chosen in part because of the dramatic environments they call home, and how each plant’s form is adapted to its environment. By observing how they have evolved over time, we can determine how likely they are to become endangered as the changing climate alters the environment.

A specimen of the genus Furcraea, collected in 1918 in Barbados.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

The types of plants I encounter never cease to amaze me, and while I can’t identify many of them, it’s rewarding to see a few that I recognize. Venus flytraps are one of my favorites. The herbarium happens to have an entire folder of these that I get to work with this summer.

A Venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula, collected near Folkstone, North Carolina, on Aug. 21, 1948.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

While the scent that attracts insects to this particular plant tends to be absent in the specimens, the spines that the Venus flytrap uses to capture its prey remain intact. In nature, these spines are usually red and green, but dehydration and preservation have completely blackened them.

Fourcroya gigantea, collected in 1904 in Mexico.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Succulent plants also are easy to recognize. These plants store water in their leaves and stems, giving them a swollen look when they’re alive. While the rounded shapes of their leaves are preserved in the herbarium specimens, photographs of the plants that are sometimes included alongside the plants show what they looked like when they were alive, making them much easier to identify. In this way, photography has preserved much of the information that the dried, mounted specimens have lost.

Tilandsia polystacha, collected in Pine Crest, Florida, Feb. 18, 1930.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

The herbarium specimens look flat and brown, but the photographs reveal their original colors: turquoises, purples, greens and reds. The photos also give them context, to help scientists better understand how the plant existed in 3D space.

While it’s sometimes difficult to get good photos of the specimens – I spent 30 minutes one day pulling cactus spines out of my fingers – it is rewarding to know that my work will help conserve these beautiful forms in the wild for future generations to enjoy.

A specimen of the family Asclepidaceae, collected in Pope County, Illinois.

Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

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