Herbarium News

Winter 2015

UCLA Herbarium Gets Green

The UCLA herbarium, which was established sometime in the late 1920s, maintains a collection of over 170,000 dried plant specimens stored in 128 specially designed, cabinets in the Botany Building next to the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden. The collection is one of the largest in the state, and contains plants collected all over the world, from the Himalayas to Terra del Fuego to our local Santa Monica Mountains and the UCLA campus itself. Some specimens are over 130 years old, but despite their age look as if they were pressed and dried only last week.

But until recently, access to the collection was hampered by a powdered insect repellent that had been liberally applied to the specimen cabinets in the 1980s. The powdered insect repellent was applied to deter insects from eating the plant specimens, but it also required protective gear and made the specimens hard to handle…until now!

In keeping with the goals of UCLA’s Healthy Campus Initiative, Herbarium Manager Tom Huggins and garden director Philip Rundel, instituted a new method of integrated pest management that uses freezing treatment rather than chemical insecticide as the herbarium’s primary method of insect control. To institute this new method, all 128 herbarium cabinets had to be cleaned of the pervasive insecticide that covered the inter-surfaces of each cabinet. Insecticide removal was complicated because each cabinet contained as many as 1,500 delicate plant specimens mounted on herbarium paper and organized in over-sized manila folders.

The daunting task of insecticide removal was lead by William Wences, an undergraduate herbarium tech and president of the Latino Greek Council. To eliminate the insecticide, Wences donned protective gear, and carefully removed each delicate specimen from each cabinet. He then sucked up large deposits of insecticide within the cabinets using an industrial vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter to insure that insecticide was not re-circulated into the herbarium (see picture below).  Once the larger deposits of insecticide were removed by vacuum, Wences hand-wiped all the interior surfaces of the cabinets, each of which contain 26 specimen shelves. Finally, the exterior of specimen folders were wiped clean and the specimens were returned to their now pristine cabinets. The effort began in October 2014, and required 5 months to complete.

“It was grueling, but really worth it”, says Wences. “The specimens are beautiful and important to conservation and scientific research, and people need to be able to see them. I’m glad I was able to complete the job before graduating.” Wenses graduates this spring with a degree in English literature, and feels satisfied that by removing toxins from the herbarium collections, he both helped increase its usability and contributed to a healthier campus environment.