Collected on this day...
a weekly blog featuring specimens in the Carnegie Museum's herbarium.
each specimen has an important scientific and cultural story to tell.
each specimen has an important scientific and cultural story to tell.
It is that time of year in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Kennywood and Idlewild are open!
Although they’ve changed ownership over the past 100+ years of operation, both amusement parks have similar origins and remain favorite recreation spots for many across western PA and beyond.
Located in Ligonier, PA in the heart of the beautiful Laurel Highlands, Idlewild goes back to May 1, 1878 when land owner William Darlington gave rights to Judge Thomas Mellon to use the grounds for picnic and pleasure. Judge Mellon owned the Ligonier Valley Railroad, and Idlewild was started as picnic park to attract people to the Ligonier Valley Railroad. Darlington gave Mellon the permission “Without compensation in the shape of rent for three years from the first of April 1878 provided no timber or other trees are to be cut or injured – the underbrush you may clear out if you wish to do so.” The park was an immediate hit, with the “tops of the [train] coaches were covered with boys.” You can still see the Idlewild train station in the park today. You can also visit the Ligonier Valley Railroad Museum to learn more about the history of the region and the Ligonier Valley Railroad at the recently restored Darlington Station in nearby Darlington.
Collected in late May, 1923, the specimen below was found by in by E.H. McClelland at Idlewild Park, near Ligonier, PA. This herbarium sheet actually contains two different phlox species, Phlox stolonifera (creeping phlox) and Phlox divaricata (wild blue phlox). There are at least seven species of phlox native to Pennsylvania. Phlox is a popular choice among wildflower gardeners. Phlox can be easily confused with Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis), a non-native plant in the mustard family common along many wooded streams and roadsides. An easy way to tell the difference is by the flowers: wild phlox have 5 petals while Dame’s rocket has 4 petals. Dame’s rocket is in the mustard family, whose flower petals characteristically form an “+” or cross (hence its former family name Cruciferae; family now called Brassicaceae). Take the Idlewild train through the woods and see if you can spot these species now, 95 years later.
Located in West Mifflin, PA near Pittsburgh, PA, Kennywood has strikingly similar origins. It opened as a “trolley park” in May 1899 as an attraction at the end of the Monongahela Street Railway (also owned by the Mellon family). It was long known as a popular picnic spot, even before the park’s opening.
The specimen below of Trillium erectum was collected in May 1903 in Kennywood (4 years after the park opened!). This beautiful spring flowering forest understory plant is commonly known as “Wake robin,” “red trillium,” or even “stinking Benjamin” (the flowers have a bit of a wet dog scent). Trillium is done flowering in southwestern PA now but can still be seen, but with withered or no petals.
Deer don’t just eat your garden, they eat native wildflowers too. That in of itself is not a problem. After all, white tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) are native to Pennsylvania. Deer in PA were once hunted to local extinction, having to be reintroduced. But deer are now well beyond historic densities. There are many reasons for this, including land use change (deer do well in forest margins resulting from forest fragmentation), absence of major predators (like the mountain lion, which is now extinct in PA), abundant food sources (like your garden and farms), and hunting management practices. Deer management is a controversial topic, both for ethical reasons and for competing interests (e.g., managing deer herds for trophy hunting vs. maintaining historic levels for forest management). The high densities of deer in PA has many consequences ranging from public health (disease carriers esp. tick-borne diseases), car accidents that result in human injury (and higher in car insurance rates), as well as the many ecological consequences (declines in native wildflowers, changes in forest tree composition and forest regeneration, and facilitation of non-native, invasive plants, to name a few).
But how do we really know the effects of deer overabundance? Some impacts are quick, but many others result from chronic deer overabundance. Long term deer exclosures provide one method to study the effects of deer on the landscape (monitoring fenced forest plots paired with unfenced plots). These studies are important, but require maintenance and few date to more than a few decades.
A recent study introduced a method to measure the effects of deer overabundance using herbarium specimens in Quebec (Canada). Marie-Pierre Beauvais and others paired historic herbarium specimens (dating back to 1848!) of the large flowered, white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) with recent observations to find that plants in sites today (with deer) have significantly smaller leaves than those of herbarium specimens.
Read the abstract of the study here: http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/cjb-2016-0206#.WwLeZakh3OQ
This study shows the potential of herbaria as time capsules to understand the direct and indirect effects of human activities on our environment. There is so much knowledge in these specimens waiting to provide insights into the Anthropocene.
The specimen of White trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) below (left) was collected on May 21, 1908 by Carnegie Museum of Natural History Botany curator Otto Jennings in Washington County, PA.
Note the specimen on the left, collected in 2005. I admit this particular comparison only shows two specimens at two time points (too small a sample size to be meaningful on its own) and is cherry picked, but I show these just to illustrate the immense potential to measure hypothesized changes in our plants as a result of human induced environmental changes. I hope someday to follow up on the cool 2017 study by Beauvais and others using specimens to study changes in the flora western Pennsylvania as a result of historic and recent changes in our deer populations.
Collected on March 3, 1992, this specimen was found in Franklin Township, Ohio (Adams County) by Allison Cusick. Although not at the time of collection, this site is now protected for conservation. Allison was a state botanist for Ohio and currently, an active Research Associate at the museum. He has collected more than 4,800 specimens (and counting) for the Carnegie Museum’s herbarium!
A rare species of conservation concern, Trillium nivale (snow trillium) grows less than 4 inches tall and is the smallest of the Trilliums. Found in rich forest understories, it is one of the earliest spring flowers to bloom in our region, sometimes even while snow is still on the ground! Spring will arrive soon, although this year it seems it already arrived...