The million-some-odd pressed plant specimens in the National Herbarium of Canada are full of little notes and bit of intriguing information; oftentimes these are the tips of icebergs that can lead on some pretty interesting tangents. Every sheet is one small part of a larger, richer story.
Recently, while locating specimens from the Coppermine River (we’re examining all the plants from this region of Nunavut, including those from our recent fieldwork, for a new floristic paper), I came across a herbarium sheet that caught my attention.
This sheet, a very nicely pressed Arctic lousewort (Pedicularis langsdorffii subspecies arctica), had a neat, handwritten annotation written under the equally neat and tidy script of the handwritten herbarium label.
The note, “Museum slide no. 203”, got me wondering: Could that mean our museum? Do we have an over-50-year-old slide of this species somewhere? So I sent off a quick email to our always helpful archives staff, and not 20 minutes later they had something to show me.
Raymond Wood, the collector named on the plant specimens—and, as it turns out, a great enthusiast of photography—was a lawyer whose passion for Arctic plants was stoked only after visiting our herbarium and learning about them from the Dominion Botanist at the time, the museum’s own A. Erling Porsild. (Read Wood’s obituary in PDF).
Along with his wife Mildred, Raymond traveled across the Arctic photographing many different species. Mildred, apparently the botanist of the duo, carefully pressed and preserved these specimens so that they could serve as vouchers for the photos in our collection; each of their 775 photographed plants was pressed and added to the herbarium.
We still photograph many of the plant species that our teams collect in the Arctic each year, though now we’re more concerned with high-capacity SD cards and server space than rolls of film and slide-storage trays. These photos, new and old, serve to illustrate field guides, websites and publications, and to capture the imagination of plant lovers—like they did with Raymond and Mildred.
Just like with our plants, we never throw out old slides because you never know when they could come in handy. I’m sure that Mildred and Raymond would be thrilled that their old photos keep finding new life.