Collecting in our own backyard

Not many students get the opportunity to travel into the field. Even fewer students get to take such a trip accompanied by a couple of experts!

This past summer I had the honour of exploring the Pontiac region of Quebec with Canadian Museum of Nature botanists Paul Sokoloff and Jeff Saarela. We embarked on a three-day exploratory trip to sample the plant biodiversity within the local area, which is located a few hours drive from the museum’s research and collections facility in Gatineau.

A woman collecting plants in a wetland.

Shaleen Humphreys collecting bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) from a wetland habitat. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

As a co-op student from the University of Ottawa, this was my first real field experience. I was not disappointed! We did not have any target species to collect, so this allowed us to spread out and collect the species that were most abundant and representative of the area. By the end of the trip we collected close to 200 specimens!

Plants specimens in clear plastic bags on ground.

Bags of collected plant specimens waiting to be identified and pressed. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Each morning we would wake up, choose our driving route, find an area of interest and then spread out to search for interesting plants. We would repeat this for a few different sites in a day and then return to camp.

Once we returned, each plant was identified, given a collection number, sampled for DNA, and then pressed and dried. The plant specimens were stored in a plant press until they were returned to the museum for processing.

Shaleen Humphreys and Jeff Saarela stand beside a waist-high stack of flattened plants in sheets.

Shaleen Humphreys and Jeff Saarela securing the straps on a gigantic plant press containing most of the collected specimens. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Although we had no specific targets, we were constantly keeping an eye out for invasive species such as Lythrum salicaria (purple loosestrife) and Phragmites australis subsp. australis (European reedgrass).These two species are found in wetlands and ditches and are a big threat to native biodiversity.

Phragmites australis subsp. australis in particular is a growing problem in the National Capital Region. If we noticed any along the highways we would stop to collect a sample and mark the location. We found a few occurrences of this reed on our travels, but it does not yet appear to have spread as aggressively to this part of Quebec.

Jeff Saarela stands along side of road holding the long woody shoot of European redgrass.

Jeff Saarela shows how aggressive Phragmites australis subsp. australis can be. This massive rhizome is one of the ways this species reproduces and it appeared to be trying to cross the road! Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Apart from learning about the local plant biodiversity, I also learned many practical things, such as:

  • Raccoons are extremely smart animals! (They also make robot-like sounds… weird!)
  • Sleeping in a tent can be really comfortable, even when you discover in the middle of the night that your tent is not as waterproof as previously thought!
  • A dry and warm shelter can be built using only inexpensive tarps and some rope.
  • A coffee press is the most essential piece of equipment on a collecting trip!

Local collecting trips such as the one we did are extremely important to our understanding of the ecology in the immediate area.

Closeup of the green stem and white flowers of Spiranthes lacera.

Northern slender ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes lacera). This member of the Orchidaceae family was collected from a woodland habitat. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature.

By periodically sampling in the local area, comparisons can be made to past and future collections in order to better understand how biodiversity has changed over time. It is important to keep a record of plants occurring (essentially) in the museum’s own backyard!

A big thank you goes to Paul Sokoloff and Jeff Saarela for organizing the trip and sharing their knowledge and passion for plants with me!

This entry was posted in Collections, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Collecting in our own backyard

  1. I like this. If you want I can send you dried plant Specimens from Palestine\Midle East.

    • nature says:

      Thanks for reading the blog, and for your kind offer.

      Approximately 1/2 of the specimens we add to the collection each year come from sources outside the Museum’s research programs. In selecting material to add, we do our best to build the strengths of – and address the gaps in – the holdings we have. The main goal of our collection is document wild plants of Canada over time, and we do include some international specimens to help to put the Canadian material in context.

      If you are interesting in donating specimens, please contact our botany curator, Jennifer Doubt,

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