Interview of Linda Curtis by Eric Ribbens

for The Wired Herbarium #15. 2013

Why did you write the Carex of the Zion beach-ridge plain?

 I was trying to find all the Carex species in the Dunesland Area. I had given many field trips to the Illinois Beach State Park while a Botany Instructor at College of Lake County and Lake Forest College, so I had seen many Carex there and estimated I’d find about 10-20 species. (Little did I know.) I was granted permission to collect with very stringent requirements from the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission. The requirements are in my state report and you can see the Erigenia article is based on it.

I had already written Woodland Carex of the Upper Midwest (2006) sold on website My next book, Bog-Fen Carex of the Upper Midwest is now finished and I will hopefully self publish again next year.  That required WDNR permits to collect for bogs in Wisconsin and the INPC permit in Illinois.  I had been  the herbarium coordinator at Volo Bog State Preserve and had requested permits before. My article on the new plants discovered there was published in Erigenia #23 as Additions to the Volo Bog Herbarium (2010).

When you read the report Carex of the Illinois Beach State Park, the last page has the requirements of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Specifically, no specimen could be taken if it had already been collected and put in a vouchered herbaria with curator. But, INPC had no list or inventory to guide me. My attempts to find such lists from other agencies were ignored or did not exist. The only avenue left was to contact all Midwest herbaria and ask for IBSP (originally purchased 1946) or prior to 1946  labeled Lake Michigan coast or Waukegan Dunes or Moors.

How important was virtual herbaria? More than important, it was essential. How easy was it to use? All the curator responses by email were different, and all the websites were different. It was confusing at first, and the time delay of download was extraordinary on some sites like vPlants. As you see from the list of herbaria, 12 of the many Midwest herbaria contacted had some specimens from LM coast, Dunesland or IBSP. Since then, Harvard has responded with a specimen, so it is actually 13 herbaria. Although not a Midwest college, I began to realize I should track collectors and their affiliated colleges rather than Carex itself. So I’ve contacted more out-of area herbaria by email, and other countries, too. There’s more out there, I’m sure.

Some of the curators without interactive websites with specimen images, made the trip to the stacks themselves and personally scanned them and then sent them to me by email. Some curators assigned student workers or assistants. One herbarium emailed that although they had no early collector’s specimens of Carex, they later found some in old collections and began cataloging them. Perhaps if I hadn’t inquired, they wouldn’t have been put in priority cataloging. So there is no blanket evaluation of how easy it was to use. Some days were hair-pullers. I guess it could be statistically analyzed by: 0= no response.1= responded but unable to help for various reasons, and then higher numbers in order of information received in a reasonable amount of time, maybe a week or so. The highest ranking numbers could bypass the curator altogether and the virtual images of the specimen sheets could be easily downloaded for inspection. I do screen capture instead of download. Only some of the Carex specimens on web site lists had images, and those were designated with a camera icon. Those were so helpful.

The Morton Arboretum and University of Wisconsin also scanned some that were not already imaged. My list of acknowledgements is long, and one in particular, Dr. Anton Rezicek, gave insights on many specimens since he is also familiar with the variable Carex along the Western Lake Michigan Coast. Carex are naturally variable, which makes them under-studied, under-reported, and under-inventoried in Herbaria. This will now change, if this Erigenia article did one thing, it was to open the door of opportunity to study from virtually from afar.

What challenges did I encounter? Oh, my. I felt this was eventually the equivalent of the doctorate I was never able to pursue because I provided college educations for all three of my children instead.

Fortunately, I was retired and sedging in Florida as the emails came in and more websites accessed. Time was my resource. I had finished the IBSP report and sent a possible Erigenia article based on it to George Yakskievych (MOBOT) for proofing and he responded about the scope of the article which led to a complete rewrite and expansion to the Carex of the entire Zion beach-ridge plain of Wisconsin and Illinois.  Curators do more than curate. I am so thankful for all the willing-to-correspond herbaria contacts.

What should the herbarium world do to improve this kind of venture?

Besides enabling more herbaria with professional help in upgrading digitally, my personal wish would be to use the available space on the herbarium sheet with images of scanned crops, and bioscope images of parts. When scanning, many images can be cropped in the inflorescence and sheath area and those images enlarged and increased in resolution. Currently, the photo pages are a separate link. But, we evolve, and the next wave of virtual herbaria improvements will surely include that.

Since most herbaria are part of a University or College, exploring the virtual herbaria should be a requirement of Botany majors upper level courses, not just grad courses. The next wave of instructors need that instruction, no doubt.

You know more about this than I do, Eric. How do you use the virtual information? This is an interesting subject.

Regards, Linda,

July 2013

Next interview.

How important were the scanned images of Carex?

Another essential, since I can no longer drive distances to herbaria in the Midwest. (Motorcycle accident, driving leg.) Perhaps this is handicapped botany or duress botany research. One month after my permit was granted, we flew to Florida for a week to catch some late maturing sedges that I was researching there.  My husband had a massive heart attack while there and we could not return to Illinois for a month.  Once we returned, he would wait in the car while I did my “speed collecting” in less than10 minutes. Although we like to think of the research botanist as an unimpeded Thoreau, the truth is hard work often becomes more difficult by outside factors.

Images of Carex are important because some are morphologically similar to other species. The label data is also important as the  time of year is a clue for some of the Carex in Section Ovales that have a different form of inflorescence in the early summer than in late summer, in rows rather than clustered.

The full specimen scanned images either verified the species or set off my mental error-detection alarms and then I would email the curator that I believed a plant was labeled incorrectly. While annotations by email are allowed by some curators, others had an in-house team check on the species and one of the team annotated the label  after verification. The scanned images are diagnostic for the “gestalt” of the plants. Culms are different in leaf and culm arrangements, and even though pressing a plant flattens its plane, a botanist remembers and conjures how the three-dimensional structure would appear.  Which brings in the novice, who has not seen the plants and therefore needs, yes, essential also, the photos of the living plants in more recent specimens. (In fact, when I send a photo of Carex to the Florida Atlas of Plants, it must be of a collected specimen that I have also sent to the UF-Tampa herbarium). Birders use a mental “search image”, so do sedgers.

The specimens collected in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s were identified by using different plant manuals than we use today or used European names for similar plants. This  “Forensic Taxonomy, “ the searching for clues that will contribute enough diagnostic evidence to verify a species, will result in adding an annotation to the old specimen’s label data giving its current accepted nomenclature.

Part Three

What mistakes do you think you made?

I thought by the end of 2011 that I could write my IBSP Carex Report and then be done. Revision after revision occurred as more herbaria responded and I continued to add species to the tables. Then the reverse happened and I had to remove some species from the tables as the old specimens were annotated. Recently I annotated a C. festucacae from the Illinois Beach Dunes to C. brevior at the Illinois State Museum herbarium. Its website does not show individual specimens, so Dr. Qian scanned the specimen and e-sent the image and then I was in doubt, so asked if he could mail me some perigynia.

The sac-like perigynia are like a fingerprint of the plant in shape and vein design and it was indeed C. brevior. How grateful I am. Still, there is that one species mistake in the list of Carex that I discovered after the article was published. It grumbles in the soul. Fix it. Fix it.

A global search? I did ask the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens for Lake Michigan Coast Carex and the answer returned was no. As I was tracking a German collector, I learned from Anton Reznicek (U-Michigan) that his specimens were placed in the herbarium of the University of Berlin that was bombed and specimens lost during WW2. Isn’t that a botanical angst!

How can to searches be made easier?

All right then! Someone had to write a prototype article listing the most accessible websites in their references. I hadn’t found any literature that was helpful for the genus Carex so I did it myself, the little red hen syndrome. Beginnings are always difficult. The editor of Erigenia quizzed me over and over and I had to repeat again and again this was wave-breaking botany, that virtual herbaria website’s specimen images are now as valid as journal articles and book citations.

What should the herbarium world do to improve this kind of venture?

I have too much information here, use only what you need.

Some herbaria are still in the 50’s. But even that is better than a dormant herbarium.

When I visited the UF-Jacksonville, the herbarium was stored in their golf course storage building, far from the main campus. The Biology Chair took me to the building and dropped me off for hours of perusal of their Cyperaceae (and afterward I took a taxi back to the Mayo Clinic where my husband had a hip replacement). The herbarium was splendid, but unused.  I am still saddened by that.

On the other hand, I am pleased that the Lake Forest College on the Lake Michigan coast has taken its dormant herbarium out of the basement, arg, and placed the cabinets in a small building named Ravine Lodge.  An enterprising student took the news I forwarded and took steps to bring their herbarium into a virtual herbarium. How much gratification can a soul bear? I am breathless at their progress. So, small steps by small herbaria, we are witnessing a phenomenum.

Even then, money for a scanner seems a barrier. Years ago I set up a herbarium at the Volo Bog State Preserve Nature Center. I have asked the Friends of the Bog board of directors for an herbarium sheet-size scanner. A donor was needed as funds were low. I was thanked for the information and for writing the Erigenia article about the herbarium, but nothing happened. (Addendum. One year later, the Volo Bog newsletter announced a scanner was purchased. I nearly wept for joy).

Usually someone who uses a virtual herbarium is already subject-motivated. They are looking for a plant or genus on a website with a specimen image and a gestalt photo. Most recently, an image of a rose mallow was in the Friends of the Lower Suwannee River newsletter. Labeled incorrectly, the editor discovered from the botanically alert readers, he asked me and I told him what the rose mallow species was but also sent him to the Florida Atlas of Plants for confirmation. He now knows several rose mallows in Florida, and passed the info on in the next newsletter.

I think you may be asking about making more user -friendly websites, and how to make them even easier to use.  Each website could have a first page with comments for feed back asking if the visitor found what they were looking for. I have no idea how much feedback herbaria websites get, so this is out of my realm. The worst concept would be a recorded message that said, “Press one for….” hah. Regards, Linda   Ask more, life’s an adventure.

Part Five.

What caused your greatest angst?

Writing Dr. Mohlenbrock concerning his 2nd edition of Flora of Illinois that described Carex vaginata as only found at the Illinois Beach State Park. It was instead annotated by George Yaksievych and Gerould Wilhelm as C. tetanica. No author likes hearing of  published errors. And he is just the epitome of the kindly gentleman botany professor.

I minimized it in a sentence with my own keying error (not mistakes, a phrase I believe originated that keeps one’s professional honor intact). In fact, when I published the IBSP report before the Erigenia 2013 article was even a thought, I had

C. conjuncta’s image as a new species discovered, and both Robert Naczi and Anton Reznicek emailed me promptly it was the similar C. muhlenbergii. So the number of new species dropped by one, and again as another late curator response revealed one of my new species had been collected back in the early 1900’s. Revision after revision.

Someone will coin a phrase for the power of a work-in-process to take over the thoughts of the author by degrees  and gradually steer in an unintended direction.

One last angst-filled error was my gap in the Zion beach-ridge plain list. I am collecting Carex in Zion’s Hosah Park this summer. I did not get a permit until this year, so this is one of my “fix it, fix it” tasks. I found 10 species in this 22.5 acre tract of land in Zion that is between the two units of the Illinois Beach State Park.

No new species were found,  but a population of Carex buxbaumii had morphs with separate male spikes instead of the usual mixed terminal spikes with both stamens and perigynia. The fact that Hosah Park ‘s preserve are on the Lake Michigan Beach right across the road from the former nuclear power plant and it’s spent fuel caskets, gave me pause. There is a radiation monitor aside the radio tower in Hosah Park as the power plant is being dismantled and spent rods readied for shipment to Utah. My e-questions to agencies were unanswered, so I will leave it alone.

copyright © 2014 Linda Curtis, botanist

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