Herbarium reopens in WSU Libraries, hosts one-of-a-kind research project

The Marion Ownbey Herbarium hosts an open house on Oct. 3. Photographed by Frankie Beer.
The Marion Ownbey Herbarium hosts an open house on Oct. 3. Photographed by Frankie Beer.

Since she was 7, Aiko Yamada has always been known as the “plant person.”

When a family friend and biologist visited her from Honduras, her mother’s home country, Yamada knew for sure that plants were her path. Trying to make conversation with Yamada, the friend asked about her favorite color, to which she replied, “blue.” 

“[Then] she told me her favorite color was green because it was the color of all the plants in the world. That, like, blew my little 7-year-old mind,” Yamada said.  “From that moment on, green was my favorite color.”

Yamada is the only person at WSU—and one of two graduate students in Washington state—who studies bryophytes, which are nonvascular plants like moss, liverworts, and hornworts. 

Washington does not have a state checklist documenting the diversity and distribution of bryophytes, unlike Oregon and California. Yamada said she is part of a team forming a checklist to eventually help identify and conserve species, given that less than one-fourth of mosses in the state have been studied for whether or not they have been threatened. 

“It’s a lot of pressure. I feel like I kind of symbolize bryophytes in my lab and my department, but it’s for a good cause,” she said.  “Someone needs to do it.”

The Marion Ownbey Herbarium hosts an open house, Oct. 3.

Yamada, a second-year graduate student in biology, conducts her research through the Marion Ownbey Herbarium, a natural history museum of plants founded in 1890, which lies nestled on the fourth floor of the Owen Science and Engineering Library. Herbarium staff held an open house on Oct. 3 to celebrate the herbarium reopening in June after a yearlong closure.

It took six months to move the herbarium from Heald Hall. After the building was slated for demolition in 2022, WSU received $500,000 in state funding to move the herbarium to its new home, said director Eric Roalson. More than 400 bright, yellow cases line the herbarium walls, filled with more than 400,000 specimens of plants. 

“These herbarium specimens allow us to kind of understand how plants are distributed in space and time in a way that can help us understand our past, but it can also help us project expectations for the future with climate change,” Roalson said. 

Herbarium staff documents species’ diversity, particularly in the Pacific Northwest. Collections date back to the 1800s, with some of the earliest plants collected by Western botanists like Wilhelm Suksdorf, who gave all his collections to WSU in his will, Roalson said.

Shelves of 400,000 specimens line the Marion Ownbey Herbarium walls, Oct. 3.

Yamada modeled her thesis around Suksdorf’s bryophyte collections in southwestern Washington and whether the species he found still exist today. She said it was a privilege to travel to his study site in the Indian Heaven Wilderness over 100 years later and rejuvenate his collection. 

“Everything I do is kind of an ode to all the people that previously studied bryophytes back then,” she said. 

Yamada’s collections of more than 1,000 specimens from the site will eventually be preserved at WSU long after she graduates in May 2024. As the sole bryologist at WSU, she said it is difficult to identify bryophytes alone and self-check her work, but as a first-generation graduate student, and only child of immigrants, pressure is familiar to her.

Aiko Yamada studies bryophytes in the Indian Heaven Wilderness, Washington.

Yamada spent her summer staring intently at the ground, conducting a floral inventory of the site—the first floristics study in her lab since 2001. After finding sphagnum moss and an uncommon liverwort species, Yamada began to identify the species, using a glossary, two microscopes, and a dichotomous key. 

Research has barely paused since the herbarium reopened in June, and Roalson himself is working on a study of the Carex genus of sedges, a group of grasslike plants, he said. The herbarium provides material on loan for researchers from other regions and vice versa, which is how Roalson could study species from China and Japan in Pullman. 

Providing this service is crucial for research, especially when researchers cannot access herbaria in their area and can only reference plants online, which requires a steep learning curve, he said. 

This year, Roalson hopes to improve the herbarium’s digitization efforts to make high-resolution photographs of species more accessible to researchers and consortia across the state. Databasing of plants at WSU began in 2007, but the system did not allow staff to upload images along with the plant descriptions. 

After Roalson became the herbarium director in 2020, he worked on getting a digitization station, equipped with a lightbox and camera. Over the last year, students and staff have digitized about 16,000 specimens and are working on uploading them to a Symbiota portal, he said.  

Students take on a plant-identifying challenge, Oct. 3.

While researchers from far and wide come to visit WSU’s collections, undergraduate researchers and students are interested in the space as well. Students from classes like “Plants and People” visit the herbarium for tours. Roalson said even anthropology classes take a peek, discovering what indigenous plants people used historically compared to collections found at archaeological sites. 

Roalson found his place in botany during his undergraduate years, and he was always interested in nature and finding out what things are—something he is glad to help encourage in students ranging from elementary to graduate school. 

“My mom was always scared to reach into my pockets to do laundry because she never knew what she was going to find,” Roalson said. “I collected things in my pockets on my way home from school every day.”

Students press plants, Oct. 3.

As a teaching assistant for introductory biology, Yamada said she always tries to sneak a question about botany into her quizzes, hoping to encourage more students to go into the field. Her dream is to have a Public Broadcasting Service special and speak with children. Growing up without cable, Yamada saw many PBS shows that made science feel less daunting. 

Her childhood hobby was identifying plants around her neighborhood in Southern California, and she continued to explore botany in middle and high school despite friends not knowing what the term meant. 

“I’ve gotten a lot of things. People will be like, ‘You want to study boats?’” she said. 

For Yamada, bryophytes are a passion project that may never have become possible without the collections resting on Owen Library’s fourth floor.