What is a Herbarium?

Specimen from the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium

Specimen from the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium

Many people confuse greenhouses and herbaria. A greenhouse is a glass-walled building filled with living plants. A herbarium is a place that stores dried, pressed plants. Today we mount these plant specimens on single sheets of archival-quality paper. Each specimen has a label that tells the name of the plant, the family to which it belongs, where and when it was collected and who collected it.

The world's herbaria are listed in Index Herbariorum. Every listed herbarium has a unique acronym. The oldest and/or largest herbaria have acronyms of one or two letters; Minnesota State University, Mankato's Darlene & William Radichel Herbarium's acronym is MANK.

 

History of Herbaria

Old Physic Garden of the Society of the Apothecaries at Chelsea

Lascelles, Thomas W. 1750. Old Physic Garden of the Society of the Apothecaries at Chelsea; engraving.

The earliest herbaria probably were "physic gardens" where physicians grew medicinal plants. These gardens were the pharmacies of their day. They also provided plants for reference and for educating future physicians.

Many medicinal plants contain strong chemicals. A physician needed to know exactly what dose was required to cure the patient. A little too much, and the patient's problem was "cured"…permanently. And physicians needed to know one plant from another. The cure for pink eye won't help a patient with athlete's foot.

No one knows when people discovered that dried plants last a long time and can be used year-round for reference. Physicians in Europe were pressing and preserving plants during the Middle Ages. Very early herbaria were bound into books like the 300-page herbarium of Gregorio a Reggio, dated 1606.

How long do dried plant specimens last? We don't know yet! The specimens in Gregorio a Reggio's herbarium are just over 400 years old. Many don't look much different than 30-year-old specimens in the Radichel Herbarium.

History of the Radichel Herbarium

Minnesota State University, Mankato opened its doors on 7 October 1868 as Mankato Normal School—the second of its kind to open in Minnesota. With 27 students, classes were held in space rented from the Methodist Episcopal Church. There was no tuition; students made a pledge to teach upon graduation. By 1870 Mankato Normal had moved into its downtown location, "Old Main," where it remained until the 1950s when expansion to the hilltop began. A 20-year period of shuttling between upper and lower campuses came to an end in 1979 when everybody moved to the hilltop.

In 1921 the institution became the Mankato State Teachers College. In 1933 the first tuition was charged: $10.00 per quarter with an additional $5.00 for out-of-state students. In 1957 the institution became Mankato State College, and in 1975 it became Mankato State University.

The smaller herbarium, openWhile it is impossible to pinpoint the exact time the Herbarium began, it likely dates from the School's earliest years. Collecting and preserving botanical specimens was a common activity for students at all levels. Our collection includes several bound herbaria made by Mankato high school students in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps the teachers who oversaw this work were graduates of Mankato Normal School. The bindings and pages (left) were printed by the Ulysses Cox Company in Mankato. The smaller herbarium (right) dates from 1891; binding and pages were printed in Boston.

Specimens came from a variety of sources. Some were purchased and some were probably acquired in trades with other herbaria. Most of our specimens, however, were collected by students and staff. This journal dated 1965 was prepared by Richard Ray Davis to catalog the Herbarium's holdings. One of the oldest specimens listed is a horsetail collected in Sweden in 1896.

The herbarium houses specimens collected by Gilbert H. Trafton, Professor of Biology from 1911 to 1943 and Chair of the Division of Science and Mathematics. It houses voucher specimens for the graduate students of LaRoy Zell. Zell oversaw at least 20 floristic surveys between 1957 and 1974, most of them focused on ferns and fern allies of southern Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

Professors Donald Jacobs, Daniel Burton, Merrill Frydendall, and many students contributed to the collection. Don Gordon's students pressed and identified plants as part of his Plant Taxonomy course between 1968 and 1999. Many of these specimens are still waiting to be mounted. Alison Mahoney and Matthew Kaproth's students have been adding specimens to the collection since 1999. Dr. Mahoney contributed more than 200 specimens, including an isotype for a plant variety she named. Dr. Kaproth has expanded the collection by 500 specimens to include moss, lichen, and many oaks!

Radichel Foundation Endowment

Brad Radichel and Alison Mahoney

Brad Radichel and Alison Mahoney examine a specimen in the Radichel Herbarium.

Many dedicated student assistants have volunteered to work in the Herbarium since 2000. However, without funding, it was difficult to get much done. In 2006 the fortunes of the Herbarium improved. Brad Radichel, Christina Caulkins, and Brenda Quaye wanted to honor their mother, Darlene Radichel, a master gardener. The William D. Radichel Foundation's generous endowment provides funds to pay student assistant curators and plant collectors.

The Radichel family has lived in the Mankato area since 1883 when D.W. Radichel moved his family from Wisconsin and bought a harness shop. In 1888, D.W. sold the shop and built a concrete drain tile plant he called North Star Concrete. His grandsons, William and Paul, built up and diversified the business from a four-plant operation to a 19-company conglomerate. Today, D.W.'s great-grandson, Brad, is the chief executive of Condux International.

Darlene and William Radichel

Darlene and William Radichel

"My parents were active in this community and I'm trying to continue that tradition," Brad Radichel said. "We like the idea of giving to the community that gave to us."

Darlene Radichel served as campaign manager for three former State legislators, volunteered at Immanuel St. Joseph's Hospital, served as a deacon at her church, and was president of the Mankato Figure Skating Club. And she was an avid gardener. Brad said, "My mom took a home horticulture class from Prof. Don Gordon, the former head of the Herbarium. They became good friends. Don helped Mom develop a landscaping plan for our Madison Lake home. We continue to reap the benefits today."