Snapshots of (Natural) History

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.

Collage of Arctic lousewort (collection #CAN26547; archive slide S78-303).

The specimen that started it all: an Arctic lousewort (Pedicularis langsdorffii subsp. arctica). It was pressed and preserved in Kugluktuk by Mildred Wood and is shown with Raymond Wood’s photograph of the same specimen. Images: Paul Sokoloff, Raymond D. Wood © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

A woman holds a photo slide beside a bank of storage drawers.

Archives assistant Laura Smyk shows off one of the thousands of slides that can be found in the museum’s archives. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

A capitate lousewort in bloom (archive slide S78-304).

A capitate lousewort (Pedicularis capitata) in Kugluktuk.

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.

A photographic slide held by tweezers, showing an Arctic water sedge (archive slide S78-268).

One of the many slides that Raymond and Mildred presented to the museum: the Arctic water sedge (Carex aquatilis subsp. minor). Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

Arctic willow in bloom (archive slide S78-318).

The red flowers of a male Arctic willow (Salix arctica). Ephemeral in the spring, they are now immortalized on film in the museum’s slide collection. Image: Raymond D. Wood © Canadian Museum of Nature

Richardson's milkvetch in bloom (archive slide S78-262).

Richardson’s milkvetch (Astragalus richardsonii) from the Coppermine River area. Image: Raymond D. Wood © Canadian Museum of Nature

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

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