“U Presum”, or, Advice on Collecting Plants

by Chris Laning

Collecting is really best learned by working with someone more experienced, who can show you a lot of little tricks that are hard to put across on paper. Take advantage of any such opportunities you get. Meantime, here’s a list of some suggestions that may save you from some common mistakes. They were compiled by a herbarium researcher who has seen things done wrong more ways than you can imagine.

  1. IN THE FIELD
    1. Learn first what not to collect. Rare and endangered species, or those which regenerate slowly (such as long-lived bulbs), should be collected only for a specific—and very good—reason.
    2. Having said that—if you’re going to collect, collect enough. Fill your newspaper sheet—whether it takes one small tree branch or several dozen tiny annuals. Collect a bit extra to dissect for keying.
    3. Take time to look at the plant in the field. Some collectors bounce around like mountain goats. Slow down—make sure you have all the material and information you need. A list of features to check in your field notebook is a good reminder.
    4. Collect all parts of the plant. Bring a trowel and dig up the roots of herbs. Be sure you have basal leaves. Get both flowers and fruits. Be sure to get both male and female if flowers aren’t bisexual. If everything isn’t on one plant, look for other individuals. Many plants can’t be keyed without certain parts—keys to Apiaceae, for example, are based on fruits.
    5. Try to get average, representative plants. Don’t choose a dwarfed specimen just because it will fit in your sheet. If something is too tall it can be bent in a V- or N-shape. If it is too tall for that, collect the base of the plant and as much of the top or inflorescence as possible.
  2. PRESSING
    1. If a leaf or branch refuses to lie flat, try pressing hard with your thumb where it joins the main stem. Strips of paper with slits in them are also useful to slip over bent stems that refuse to stay bent. After 24 hours in press, most herbs “relax”, and can be rearranged if they wouldn’t behave before.
    2. Press plants before they wilt, twist, or crumple, or they won’t lie right. Be sure they’re pressed in their natural attitude of growth—erect, spreading or whatever. Otherwise you may be misled when identifying them.
    3. Try to arrange specimens so all sides of leaves and flowers are visible without turning the specimen over. Press most leaves facing up, but turn one or two face down. Press most flowers sideways but turn a few face-up and flatten them that way; spread out their petals. If petals are united it’s helpful to remove a few corollas, split them open, and press them separately.
    4. Thick stems, shrubs or branches may keep the attached flowers from being properly flattened, even when foam sheets are used in pressing. It helps to remove some flowers and press them in a separate sheet.
    5. Shake off loose dirt, but don’t clean specimens too much. Never prune off branches or leaves without leaving a stub to show they were there. Leave things like old dead leaves, stolons, onion bulb coats, etc. on the plant; they’re often necessary for identification.
    6. Sticky specimens may end up glued to the newspaper when dried. If you think this might happen, put a sheet of waxed paper between the plant and the press sheet.
  3. ABOUT DATA
    1. A specimen without data is next to worthless. But better no data than wrong data. Don’t guess about things you don’t know. Any item you’re unsure of, do write it down, but put a question mark after it; e.g., if you forgot to look at the odometer, say “3.5(?) miles north of....”
    2. Don’t rely on memory. Make notes on the spot, not later. (Especially not after reading in Jepson about the plant you think you have.)
    3. It’s worth saying again: if you don’t know, don’t guess. If your theory is wrong, good data will fix it. If your data are wrong, nothing will fix them.
  4. COLLECTING LOCATION
    1. Give each specimen a collection number, and write it on the collection sheet or on a tag or label attached to the plant. All the plants of one species collected at the same place and time constitute one specimen.
    2. Write the date in your notebook—day, month, year. Specimens without date and place are worthless as scientific records.
    3. In the field, keep track of where you are. Take odometer readings at county lines, road junctions, towns, landmarks, and collecting stations, and make sure you get the name of the road you”re on. Then sit down with a good map and translate this into locations.
    4. Always specify state and county, even if it seems obvious, like Los Angeles.
    5. Location—for posterity and scientific purposes—means distance and direction from the nearest town. Your station should be roughly locatable on a big road map or atlas. In townless areas, major permanent landmarks (like mountains) can be used, but include other data too. For example, there are at least three places called “Sulphur Mountain” in Ventura County.
    6. Always give compass directions—north, northwest, etc. Avoid saying “from” or “above”. Remember you are giving this information for people who have never been there and don’t know the ground. (Which way is “up” a road?)
    7. For the same reason, local place names like “Box Canyon” often aren”t identifiable unless they”re also given a location. Check your map.
  5. HABITAT
    1. Name the plant community; be specific. Say “foothill woodland”, not “mixed trees and shrubs”. (However you don’t have to list all associated species.)
    2. Call soils and substrates by name if you know them, or describe them if you don’t. Say so if your plant grew on limestone, sandstone or serpentine, since these rock types often have endemics.
    3. Moisture conditions for the plant are influenced by slope, shade and exposure—all of these are important, especially here, where water may be limiting. Exposure means direction; that is, the compass direction if you face downslope. (Say, for instance, “north-facing slope”, not “north slope” which is ambiguous.) Moisture and other conditions can usually be summed up in a short phrase such as “low, shaded, soggy streambank” or “dry, exposed, steep south-facing slope in full sun”. Remember that most environments look drier in summer than they are in spring.
    4. Elevation restricts many plants, and is worth recording accurately, to the nearest 100 feet. You can get this from an altimeter, or from a topographic map (at the library) if you know the location.
    5. Anything that you can see on the fresh plant that won’t show up on the dried plant should be written down. Some examples:
      1. Surface characters: stickiness, succulence, or milky sap (latex) dry up. Glaucousness is caused by wax, and may melt if the plant is dried in a hot place.
      2. Smell can also be helpful, especially if you describe it instead of saying “with odor.” (One common weed smells distinctly like pineapple, for example.)
      3. Flower color and color pattern very commonly change on drying—so record the fresh color. Pink flowers in some Malvaceae even turn blue.
      4. Any plant behavior that you notice should be recorded—leaves that fold when touched, flowers that close on cloudy days, and types of pollinators, for example.
    6. For large plants such as trees, shrubs and vines you seldom want to collect the whole plant! But in that case, you have to write more about it. Describe the whole plant of which you collect a part—don’t forget to say it’s a tree (or whatever). Include:
      1. Height of plant, and stem diameter. For trees, measure diameter at about 4.5 feet from ground—called “dbh” (diameter at breast height). This is standard in forestry.
      2. Woodiness—herbaceous, semiwoody, woody at base or woody throughout.
      3. Duration—annual, biennial, short- or long-lived perennial. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
      4. Growth angle—erect, spreading, decumbent, prostrate, etc. See Smith for precise definitions of these.
      5. Branching—relative amount, and type: opposite, alternate, dichotomous, whorled.
      6. Propagation—note root-suckers, stolons, creeping stems, rhizomes, tillers, bulbils or other vegetative reproduction.
      7. Colony type and abundance in area—clumps, groups, or scattered individuals.
  6. WRITING LABELS
    1. Now that you have all this information, you need to convey it on your specimen label. Unless it is dubious information, include everything (within reason). If it’s unnecessary, someone else can always ignore it. But anything not obvious from the shriveled, brown, fragile, dry thing your plant will be in fifty years may be essential to some future student, who will bless you for noticing it.
    2. Check your descriptive terms, to make sure they mean what you think they do. Plain English words are better than the seventeen-syllable ones from the glossary, if you understand the English and don’t understand the technical terms.
    3. Check your spelling. Misspelling a location name can make it impossible for someone else to find where you are.
    4. Avoid abbreviations. Even if it gives you writer’s cramp [how quaint!], write out names of months (don’t number them), roads, mountains, counties, colors, etc. Written out, they can’t possibly be misunderstood.
    5. If you haven’t already, check your location on a large-scale map to be sure it is clear—that you haven’t used any place names that can’t be found.
    6. Group your data so all location data are together, followed by habitat (including elevation) and plant data. The classical order is (Country) State, County, Location, Habitat, Plant.
    7. Make sure you have the correct and complete name of your plant—genus, species, variety or subspecies if any, and author(s). For most collections, common names aren’t necessary.
    8. Include the author citation with the plant name. After every plant name in Jepson is a series of short abbreviations. The first of these is the person (or people) who first described the plant. The second—if there is one—is the person who placed the plant in the genus it’s in now. All you have to do is to copy the abbreviations exactly as they are in the book: they are standard. If you have a variety or subspecies, cite the authors for both the species and the variety.
    9. In the corner of your label, put your full name and your collection number for that plant. For this collection you’ll be identifying the specimens yourself. In the future, when someone does one for you, their name (and the year) should also go on the label.
    10. Don’t forget the date of collection.
    11. Professional labels are written in “well-pruned” prose. If in doubt, include information instead of leaving it out. But don’t bother stating the obvious—“bulb present”, for example, when it’s right there. Nor do you have to use complete, elegant sentences. Telegraphic style is best, if clear.

Copyright © 1997 by Chris Laning. Used with permission.
Last revision February 24, 2002.

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