If it’s true that plants hold all the mysteries of life, a room in Illinois State University’s Felmley Hall contains tens of thousands of clues.
The George S. Vasey Herbarium, located in the Laboratory for Plant Identification and Conservation, boasts more than 50,000 plant specimens, stacked and filed carefully in protective folders. An herbarium is a vast collection of dried plants that support plant science research and teaching.
Looming steel cases filled with specimens fill half the room in Felmley Hall. “The doors seal in a way so that no dust or insects can make their way into the specimens, some of which are 200 years old,” said Professor Emeritus of Botany and Head Curator Joseph Armstrong.
The herbarium is named for its first director George Vasey, who was curator of the Natural History Museum from 1869-1872. The museum was housed in the Old Main building of Illinois State Normal University (ISNU).
“Vasey was one of the first five faculty members hired at ISNU to teach biology,” said Armstrong. “He started collecting specimens right away, because that is how plant biology was taught in those days—by identification of species, or taxonomy.”
Armstrong opens a folder to display a plant, with thin, spindly stems opening into three spade-shaped leaves. Penned in delicate script, a card at the bottom of the page reads, Hepatica acutiloba. Acute leaved Liver leaf. Ex. Herb. Geo Vasey, 1865. “We still use these samples he collected more than 150 years ago,” he said.
Some familiar names grace the identification cards of other plants. Signatures can be found of Rachel Fell—daughter of ISNU founder Jesse Fell—who collected samples in the 1870s, and Mildred Felmley—daughter of ISNU President David Felmley—who contributed dried plants in the early 1900s. “For Victorian women, botany was an acceptable subject to study in biology,” said Armstrong. “Although largely unknown, their contributions continue to be useful.”
Many of the samples in the herbarium stretch far beyond the borders of Illinois. Vasey travelled with famed naturalist John Wesley Powell to Colorado in 1868, and collected plants along the way. Another set of samples from the West came with Mary Strong Clemens, who collected across Utah and along California from 1909-1912. “We know her husband was an Army chaplain, and he traveled from fort to fort with his wife,” said Armstrong, “but we really have nothing more than guesses about how her collection ended up with us.”
Amid the plants are those that have been lost to Central Illinois. Armstrong picked up a yellowed piece of paper with the words Indian paint brush explaining the identity of the dried specimen. “You’ll find that plants like this don’t grow here anymore,” said Armstrong. “We know this one came from near what is now the Parklands Nature Preserve.”
Like the landscape of Illinois, the study of biology is shifting, with plant taxonomy classes rarely taught. Yet the herbarium still hosts botanical visitors from other institutions, from historians to gardeners. “It’s an incredible resource,” said Horticulture Center Director Jessica Chambers. “It’s rich in history and information, and Joe makes it real for the students.”
Demonstrations of plant drying techniques, and tours of the herbarium are available by contacting Armstrong at (309) 438-2601, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.