Diana Horton


Dismantling of the UNIVERSITY OF IOWA HERBARIUM was completed on April 21, 2004 when the vascular plant and bryophyte collections were taken to the Iowa State University Herbarium. This concluded a process begun on January 30, 2003 when all four cabinets of Iowa grass specimens were taken to Iowa State. The University of Iowa Herbarium paleobotanical collections were transferred to the University of Iowa Paleontology Repository in June, 2005. Below is an overview of the University of Iowa Herbarium, including taxonomic representation, historical development, and recent use of the collection.

The UNIVERSITY OF IOWA HERBARIUM was a repository for dried and fossil plant specimens from all over the world, but the primary focus was Iowa and North America. There were approximately 175,000 collections of vascular plants (flowering plants, conifers, ferns and fern allies), 80,000 bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts), and 5,000 fossils. This Herbarium was larger than 92% of nearly 600 herbaria in the United States, and it housed the only major collections of bryophytes and fossils in the state.


To trace the history of the Herbarium is to trace the establishment and development of the Biological Sciences and the Museum of Natural History at this University. Charles White, a geologist, founded the Herbarium in the Cabinet of Natural History (later the Museum of Natural History) in the Old Capitol by 1869, but possibly as early as 1867. It was the first Herbarium in the state, and it was established earlier than 89% of herbaria world-wide (data from P. Holmgren, 2002). In 1880, Thomas Huston Macbride became the first Professor of Botany and Curator of the Herbarium. Between 1880 and 1935, Macbride, and particularly Bohumil Shimek, contributed more than 25,000 specimens of vascular plants and bryophytes, most of which were collected in Iowa. In the 1940s and 50s, Henry S. Conard incorporated his bryophyte herbarium after he retired from Grinnell College. Robert F. Thorne and his students were actively engaged in floristic surveys throughout the state in the 1950s and early 60s, and these were well-documented with voucher specimens. As a result of the addition of Conard's, Thorne's and many more specimens in the 1980s and 90s, the Iowa collections of vascular plants currently numbered over 55,000 and there were over 13,000 bryophytes.

The University of Iowa Herbarium housed the only major plant collection with significant world-wide holdings in eastern Iowa. Collections were a vital resource for research and teaching activities at the University of Iowa, as well as for personnel from government agencies, conservation organizations, and the general public. Specimens provide the earliest documentation of the natural vegetation of Iowa, as well as documenting the ranges of indigenous species, and the introduction and naturalization of alien species. University of Iowa Herbarium specimens were a major resource for The Vascular Plants of Iowa by Eilers and Roosa (1994), and specialists utilized them to prepare their treatments for the multivolume Flora of North America. Specimens provide scientific documentation for the Iowa Administrative Code lists of endangered and threatened plant species. The Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) recognized that Herbarium specimens are an important resource for studies of the impact of climate change. Specimens are essential aids for identification, and those in the Herbarium were used routinely for this purpose by faculty and students, not only in Biological Sciences, but also in Anthropology, Geoscience and the Office of the State Archaeologist. Specimen labels are an invaluable source of locality data and ecological information, and specimens also are referenced frequently by those who want to get a 'search image' of a species, genus or family to facilitate field studies. Over the last 20 years, application of these techniques with specimens in the University of Iowa Herbarium led to the discovery, and documentation, of numerous new county records of both vascular plants and bryophytes, and several new state records. These and other voucher specimens, collections that physically document scientific investigations, were reposited in the Herbarium.


At the time the University of Iowa Herbarium was dismantled, activity levels were robust, reflecting active use of the collection by faculty, students, staff and the public of eastern Iowa. Between 1989 and 2002, 100 publications/reports/creative works and over 30 theses have been based on use of the Herbarium, and class use averaged over 300 students/yr in 10-12 courses. The Herbarium was a particularly important resource for 'green track' (Biosciences Track) students in the Environmental Sciences Program. We had an active outreach program that included presentations to conservation groups, schools and colleges, and the University of Iowa Herbarium website averaged over 6,200 Requests for Pages and over 1,300 Distinct Hosts Served monthly.

Between 2000 and 2002, Herbarium projects included development of the University of Iowa Herbarium website and the online, searchable database of state listings of Iowa endangered and threatened species (the Fragile Flora Database), as well as a database program in Access for entering collections' data and generating specimen labels. At the time the decision to divest the Herbarium was made public, we had just begun data entry and anticipated that it would take approximately a year to record the Iowa vascular plant collections in the Herbarium. Ultimately, we planned to make collections' data for the entire state available online in an interactive format that would have included county distribution maps.

In spite of the historical significance of the Herbarium and the fact that it currently was a vital resource for faculty, students, other professionals and the public, University of Iowa administrators signed a Memorandum of Understanding to transfer this irreplaceable collection to Iowa State University. Considerable opposition to this decision was expressed via letters and e-mails to administrators, as well as letters and editorial comments in the public press.

Last Updated: 03/21/2006

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