University Park

Pa. Agricultural College Herbarium has dappled history, deep roots

Established by Evan Pugh, the herbarium represents one of Penn State's oldest natural history collections.

Seed specimens are stored in a wooden seed-storage cabinet with shallow drawers to accommodate the tiny glass vials. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Ever wonder how you can identify a plant you’ve found in your yard or while conducting fieldwork? What about determining how plants in a particular location have adapted over time due to climate change? You can get help at the PAC (Pennsylvania Agricultural College) Herbarium, a kind of museum for plants.

“The PAC Herbarium provides a variety of services to the University and larger botanical community including research and teaching support, tours, and training workshops,” said newly appointed curator Sarah Chamberlain.

The PAC Herbarium represents one of the oldest natural history collections at Penn State, holds the third largest collection of archival plants and seeds in the Commonwealth, and is the only significant, scientifically functioning herbarium in central Pennsylvania.

Established in 1859 with 3,000 specimens donated by Evan Pugh, Penn State’s first president, the collection has since grown to more than 100,000 items, and will soon include plant specimens collected from Riparia’s 222 reference wetlands. (Riparia is a wetlands research center in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.)

Without permanent funding, the herbarium has relied upon volunteers, donations and the personal influence of its supporters to survive. Chamberlain, a senior research assistant with Riparia, is the first paid staff member in nearly 20 years.

“I visited the herbarium a few years ago to identify some grasses for a book I was writing and met then-curator Alfred Traverse,” Chamberlain said. “As we were identifying the specimens and talking, I could tell he was testing my botanical knowledge.”

Traverse, professor emeritus of palynology (the study of fossil pollen and spores), donated 5,000 specimens to the collection and was the volunteer curator of the herbarium from 2007 until his death in September 2015.

Temporarily housed in the basement of Whitmore Laboratory, a cramped, low-ceiling space with ventilation ductwork running along the ceiling, the herbarium is emerging from a period of relative obscurity. Traverse wrote in the Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in 2013, “for some decades in the 20th century, natural history collections, including herbaria, were out of favor at universities. They were expensive to maintain and regarded as not for the most part connected to modern developments in science. However, with the realization that herbaria provide banks of DNA, the tide turned in their favor.”

Currently, the herbarium is involved in a research project developing DNA and RNA barcodes and a tissue bank for all accessioned plants of The Arboretum at Penn State. This effort is being led by Marcos Caraballo, graduate assistant in the herbarium.

“We are studying the systematic relationships, conservation and functional genomics of the Arboretum plants,” Caraballo said.

Under the direction of Claude dePamphilis, professor of biology, the herbarium has been selected to participate in the Museum Assessment Program (MAP). Funded by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services and administered by the American Alliance of Museums, MAP advances best practices and fosters improvement in museums through guided self-study and on-site peer review and consultation.

“Museums use the assessment process to strengthen operations, build capacity, and enhance communication throughout the organization and in response to community needs,” dePamphilis said, “The herbarium is using the assessment to develop strategies to increase funding opportunities, assess facility needs and develop programs to engage the community.”

The yearlong MAP process is expected to be completed this summer. The goal, dePamphilis said, is to place the herbarium in a stronger position to make a case for permanent funding and a permanent home.

In the meantime, the herbarium is open weekdays during the academic year except Tuesday. The herbarium is also conducting several workshops this spring, open to the public:

March 9: Fabulous Ferns!

April 13: Common Trees and Shrubs of Pennsylvania

May 11: Get ready for the field!

The first two workshops will cover the morphology of each plant type and the technical terms and characteristics needed to identify them. Participants can also get experience in using collected specimens and herbarium sheets. The fourth workshop is for faculty and students who are planning summer fieldwork involving plants. This workshop will focus on the tools and techniques needed to prepare voucher specimens, including field collecting, pressing, and creating herbarium-quality mounts.

All workshops will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. in 13 Whitmore Laboratory (take the stairs located on the Mueller Laboratory side of the building to the basement, then turn left) at University Park. Registration is required and space is limited to 15 participants. To register, send an email to Chamberlain at A $5 donation is suggested but not required. Refreshments will be served.

For more information about the herbarium, visit

Barcoding project: Biology graduate student Marcos Caraballo collects samples of plants at The Arboretum at Penn State for DNA and RNA barcoding. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated March 09, 2017