In a nation where nearly as many people have a cell phone as a TV, social media has replaced social hour, and cars are on the verge of driving themselves, the centuries-old practice of collecting, pressing, and identifying plant specimens can seem somewhat quaint and old-fashioned. Yet these carefully labeled and stored plant specimens are now not only part of the information age, but key to helping scientists understand our environmental future.

This week, a massive virtual library of plant specimens will pass the 2 million record mark. Conceived at the University of California and known as the Consortium of California Herbaria (CCH), it is an online database of the carefully dried and preserved plant specimens located at over 30 herbaria from California and beyond. This event establishes the CCH as the second largest regional herbarium network in the United States.

“Now people are better able to understand as a whole the flora of California,” says Staci Markos, a botanist and administrative co-chair of the CCH.

Greater than the sum of its parts

The combined power of the herbaria in CCH is far greater than that of any individual institution, large or small. “If you only look at a single herbarium to understand a species’ range, you’ll get a very underrepresented picture because many collections have a very local emphasis,” Markos says. “But when you combine all the records of the herbaria together, you get a much more complete picture of where the species occurs throughout the state.”

Pushing the CCH over the 2 million mark are the 7,000 specimens from the herbarium at Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center. Jim André, director of the reserve and an expert botanist, is largely responsible for amassing this collection, which is focused on the plants of California’s little-explored deserts. The reserve is part of the UC Natural Reserve System, a network of 39 protected natural areas including more than 756,000 acres in habitats across California.

“Jim has been very active filling in floristic black holes. If we didn’t have his collections, there would be a part of California we wouldn’t know anything about,” Markos says. “His collecting is at the heart of floristic work in California and what we believe is a core function of herbaria.”

A benefit for reserves

Having some Granites herbarium records on CCH has already drawn visitors to the reserve, André says. “We’re attracting three or four additional research projects a year because data from the CCH are so readily available to researchers everywhere.”

The NRS’s Sagehen Creek Field Station, which has a herbarium of about 1,000 specimens, already has been incorporated into the CCH. More NRS collections may join the CCH in future as time and funding permit.

“The CCH is my favorite tool in the botany toolbox. No other state in the U.S has compiled such a comprehensive database of vouchered flora,” André says. CCH staff have streamlined the process of incorporating databases and made it easier to include smaller, more specialized collections.

A treasure trove of plant information

Having access to such a large set of information from plant specimens is a boon for botanists, Markos says. “The specimens in herbaria represent an irreplaceable record of biodiversity as it existed in a particular time and place. Collections from California date back to the mid-1800s. Together with modern-day collections, these specimens help us understand biodiversity and how it is distributed across the state.”

CCH can be searched for any of the data included on a plant specimen’s label. Labels typically include where and when the plant was collected, the species, and the name of the collector. This allows CCH users to find plants gathered at a particular season or year, or in particular places. This information in turn can help inform studies of plant ecology, prevailing climate conditions, and models of how plant ranges might shift with a changing environment.

“I study the demographics of rare plants,” André says. “The data from centuries of herbarium vouchers allows us to examine and verify long-term patterns of extinction and migration. Coordinating CCH and climate data helps link environmental variation with shifts in species distributions.”

Other uses of the CCH include analyses of rare plant critical habitat, which helps scientists better understand potential impacts and threats such as looming renewable energy development in the desert. The CCH also informs conservation status rankings made by the California Native Plant Society and state Fish and Wildlife. And at the University of California, researchers with the Institute for the Study of the Ecological Effects of Climate Impacts are already drawing upon the CCH for studies of climate change on NRS reserves.

Bringing botany to a computer near you

The online nature of the CCH also makes California’s botanical riches available to people located in far-flung corners of the state and world. “Before the CCH existed, the only way for researchers to access most specimen data was to personally visit a herbarium,” Markos says.

That all changed in 2003, when UC’s California Digital Library provided a grant to database the California plant specimens at seven UC campus herbaria. Markos, together with UC Berkeley professor Brent Mishler and software architect Richard Moe, developed the portal. Additional funding expanded the CCH, administered at UC Berkeley, to its present scope.

Now anyone with Internet service can browse through the CCH’s vast records, and with a few keystrokes create maps of where each specimen was found. In this way, CCH helps enable local experts and individuals to participate in the ongoing conversation of science.

Once someone has identified a plant specimen in CCH, visiting it in person can yield even more useful information. For example, the size, shape, and thickness of leaves can be used to infer a lot about the environmental conditions the plant experienced. In addition, DNA can be extracted and sequenced from many herbarium specimens for studies of plant evolution or biomedical assessments, or to collect seeds to grow live plants.

“Herbaria have long been important repositories of information. In the face of climate change, development, and ever-increasing pressures on our natural resources, there couldn’t be a better time to make this information available to the world, ” Markos says.