Friday, May 9, 2014

Going to the dogwoods

One of my new year's resolutions -yes, I know it is May & hey I never said this year anyhow- was to document more of what I am doing at the herbarium.  I think I have said before, but I know it has been awhile, a herbarium is to plant specimens as a library is to books.  It houses the specimens under a system that allows retrieval, etc.  It is hard for people, even people who are my age, to contemplate a catalog that does not have any connection to computers what-so-ever, but the reality is that the wood collection at the herbarium is still on index cards; you want to see a particular family, you go to the card file that the plant was assigned to circa whenever the cards were written which was anywhere from the 1930s to the mid 1980s, pull the card, find the number which can be tricky all on its own as there is no standardized way of recording information on these cards but if you are lucky some kind soul will have written the number in the upper left hand corner, you take that number & go to the cabinets, search through hundreds of pounds of wood & pull up your specimen.  If you are lucky.

Enter me.  I am slowly but steadily recording the information on the cards in a single database (OKay that's a lie: for convenience & archival safety I use smaller databases in the same format & merge them into one periodically) so that some day it will be possible to look up some random specimen & locate it -or at least where it should be- quickly.

Yesterday I wrapped up Cornaceae.  Most of our samples in this family are actual Cornus whatever (Cornus drummundii, Cornus nuttallii, Cornus sanguinae & so forth).  & most of the Cornus themselves are Cornus florida.  Yes, yes the herbarium is in Florida, but most of these are from trees that never were.  Besides the "florida" in a botanical name means flowering & is not intended as a regional designation. 

It is impressive how unremarkable the wood alone of this favorite tree is.  Don't get me wrong, it is a nice looking wood, gentle rings, subtle shading.  After years spent in a wood collection I have developed an affinity for these things & I can tell you the dogwood is lovely in an unremarkable way.  Because that is what these are:  dogwoods.  Imagine my astonishment to learn this tree is actually listed as threatened or endangered in several of the northern states where it used to be abundant.  it is frequently listed as a "rare native".  That this was not always so is driven home by the sheer volume of specimens from all over the US. 

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