Unlike most summers, this year the museum’s botany team was happy not to go to the Arctic. While we love collecting plants out on the land, eliminating non-essential travel north has been a keystone of governmental programs working to keep the territories safe. Community-led research programs and partnerships based in northern communities have continued to do excellent science, while researchers based outside of Inuit Nunangat have postponed expeditions until it’s safe to do so. In a year without fieldwork, our team is getting caught up on writing and lab work, but also uncovering new Arctic biodiversity data from our backlog cabinets. 

A bearded man poses in an Arctic coat.
Dr. Nicholas Polunin posing in Nunavik during his 1946 fieldwork (photo from Arctic Unfolding). Image: © Hutchison & Co Publishing 

Contrary to popular belief, backlog is not a dirty word. All herbaria have one, and our National Herbarium of Canada is no exception. This is because it takes much longer to identify, label, mount, image, and digitize a plant specimen than it does to collect it in the first place.  

A dot map displaying collection sites in the Canadian Arctic.
Polunin collected across Nunavik (northern Quebec) and eastern Nunavut in 1946 (orange dots), and across the Northwest Territories and western Nunavut in 1947 (blue dots). Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature 

Even though these backlogged specimens are safely stored, they must wait for us to have the time and resources to properly process them and discover what new knowledge they hold. Thanks to a generous donation from the Sitka Foundation, we have been able to process some important Arctic plant collections over the past few years. While we are working from home these days, we have taken the opportunity to tackle one of the largest of these lots: the collections of Dr. Nicholas Polunin. 

A large table with piles of pressed plant specimens.
Polunin’s 1947 collections came bundled in large presses sorted only by collecting site. To process them, our team separated out the plants into piles of the same species. This massive effort was aided by Avery Tyrell, Cassandra Robillard, Lyndsey Sharp, Chris Deduke, Kim Madge, and Jennifer Doubt. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature 

Polunin was an English botanist who collected specimens across the Canadian Arctic while working at McGill University in 1946 and ‘47. Traveling under the auspices of the Canadian Government, Polunin’s collections were all delivered to the museum at the end of these trips. Unfortunately, since they required a large amount of sorting and the notes were incomplete, they had been stored in the backlog until only recently. 

A pressed plant specimen with a small slip of paper containing field notes.
Polunin’s unprocessed 1947 collection notes were all jotted down on torn slips of paper. Entering this data, and deciphering Polunin’s handwriting with help from his children Nicholas and Xenia, was a critical first step in processing this collection. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

While we were able to sort much of his 1947 material last year,  (his 1946 specimens were kindly sorted out by herbarium staff long ago), we have continued to study this lot from home, combining ongoing databasing with archival searches and a read-through of Polunin’s research travelogue in Arctic Unfolding. Critical to our success have been the efforts of previous herbarium staff that have tackled this important collection. 

A woman poses in her office. [='''''''''''''''''
Thanks to a massive effort to digitize Polunin’s 1946 collection data by Sergio Capetillo Bolaños, as well as additional archival research, we discovered that many of Polunin’s collections were made by colleagues he enthusiastically recruited during his expedition. One such colleague was Ella Manning, a naturalist who collected plant specimens on several islands in Hudson Bay.  Image: © Hutchison & Co Publishing 

This “at-home” archival fieldwork will allow us to fully process these collections when we return to regular operations at the museum, ultimately freeing this biodiversity data for multiple uses and giving us important insight into the state of Arctic plant biodiversity from 74 years ago. 

Plants laid out on a plain background.
Processing this large lot will increase our knowledge on Arctic plant biodiversity, like these members of the blueberry family (Ericaceae) collected by Polunin in 1946. By processing the backlog, we can add many important collections to the National Herbarium of Canada without ever leaving the building. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature 

Herbarium science is a team sport, and the author would like to thank the following people for their critical help in tackling these backlogged specimens: Sergio Capetillo Bolaños, Avery Tyrell, Jeff Saarela, Lyndsey Sharp, Troy McMullin, Chris Deduke, Cassandra Robillard, Kim Madge, Laura Smyk, Chantal Dussault, Lynn Gillespie, Kevin Xiong, Junyi Meng, Erin Johnston, Magean Ng, Katelyn Gao, Sarah Cook Rosanna Wong, Anastasia Bell, Avery Tyrell, Jennifer DoubtNicholas Polunin, and Xenia Polunin. 

Texte traduit de l’anglais.