Searching the Spontaneous Flora

by Jon Hetman, Director of External Relations & Communications

February 12, 2018

Lilium superbum herbarium specimen

Searching the Spontaneous Flora

Lilium superbum herbarium specimen

Lilium superbum (Turkscap lily) specimen collected by E.J. Palmer on July 25, 1924.

A “spontaneous” plant is defined as one that grows and reproduces without human care or intent. In the early twentieth century, Arnold Arboretum botanist Ernest Jesse Palmer collected over 2,000 herbarium specimens to represent the spontaneous plants that occurred on the Arboretum grounds. Palmer wanted to know how spontaneous vegetation reacted to the drastic changes that occurred on the land, and knew the importance of documenting this information.

Before the founding of the Arboretum, the grounds comprised a mixture of spacious meadows, hills and brooks. The property belonged to Benjamin Bussey, a wealthy merchant and farmer with a passion for plants, who cut trees to supply wood to the city and make space for growing hay and grazing animals. When Bussey died in 1842, he bequeathed a great deal of his fortune to Harvard University, including his property. Though remnants of Bussey’s natural woods and open spaces were left to grow wild, the majority of the the Arboretum landscape would be used to cultivate temperate woody plants from around the world.

After Palmer’s retirement in 1947, former Arboretum staff members and visiting scientists continued collecting spontaneous plants on the grounds. These collectors included horticultural taxonomist Peter S. Green in the 1960s, manager of The Herbarium of Cultivated Plants Ida Hay in the 1980s, and naturalist and curator of the George Safford Torrey Herbarium of the University of Connecticut, the late Dr. Leslie Mehrhoff, from 2008 to 2009. The 2017 Isabella Welles Hunnewell Interns accomplished a collaborative project focusing on the herbaceous layer of the Arboretum, and cataloged new spontaneous species not documented previously. The sum of these herbarium specimen collections has been titled The Spontaneous Flora of the Arnold Arboretum.

Thanks to the Spontaneous Flora collection, one can discover when and where certain species of plants established themselves at the Arboretum. The information contained on the labels of these herbarium specimens was digitized and stored in the Arboretum’s database for ease of access. If a visitor or staff member stumbles across an interesting spontaneous plant, they can now find where the plant historically grew. The Spontaneous Flora collection also holds phenological data that could indicate changes in flowering or fruiting periods over time in response to climate change. Learn more about the Spontaneous Flora herbarium collection here.

How to Search the Spontaneous Flora

From the Plant Search page, select “All” under Condition and “Spontaneous Flora Herbarium Specimens” under Refine. Below these selections, search by plant species (scientific or common name), collector name, or habitat/location. For example, enter “pond” to retrieve all of the specimens collected from plants growing in and around the Arboretum ponds.

Users can download an Excel file containing the data on all Spontaneous Flora herbarium specimens by using the link found under Download.

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