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BHSU Herbarium provides resources for region and continues to grow

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Grace Kostel, BHSU herbarium manager, examines one of the more than 35,000 plant specimens housed in the herbarium. The BHSU herbarium is undergoing a major data base project and the collection is becoming increasingly valuable for scientific research, especially in botany and ecology.
All of the specimens housed in the Herbarium at Black Hills State University are dead, yet the Herbarium continues to grow as the number of collections expands and the staff are called upon to provide plant identification for public and private entities.

The BHSU Herbarium, which has been housing plant specimens for research and teaching since the founding of the Dakota Territorial Normal School in 1883, has approximately 35,000 plant specimens. The oldest specimen in the herbarium actually dates from 1877, before the founding of the University.  Numerous other specimens date from the late 1800s.

Specimens continue to be added including the accumulation of voucher specimens for various research projects that has added nearly 1,000 specimens in 2007. In addition, the Augustana College Herbarium in Sioux Falls has recently been accessioned which added 5,000 to 8,000 specimens, many from the Black Hills.

The herbarium, essentially a “library” of plants, preserves most specimens pressed, dried, and mounted on archival paper accompanied by a label that provides the scientific name of the plant, the plant family, the locality from which the plant was collected, characteristics of the habitat, the collector and the date of collection. In addition to plant specimens, the Herbarium also holds approximately 3,000 fungal specimens thanks to the recent research efforts of emeritus faculty Audrey Gabel. 

The BHSU Herbarium is home to one of the largest collections of Miocene age (approximately 5 to 24 million years before the present) plant fossils from the Great Plains of North America. With more than 10,000 fossils from throughout the Great Plains, the fossils are a key to an understanding of the environment that created the Great Plains. 

According to Mark Gabel, BHSU emeritus professor and curator of the Herbarium, the primary goal of the Herbarium staff is to document the little known flora of western South Dakota and the Black Hills including the Bear Lodge Mountains of Wyoming. An example is the ongoing study of the flora of Harding County that is an example of combining field studies with collection based research.  The Herbarium is a vital resource for conservation research.

“The flora of the Black Hills (including the Bear Lodge Mountains of eastern Wyoming) is unique, with elements of the eastern deciduous forest, the Great Plains, the boreal forest, the Rocky Mountains and southwestern United States.  Species of plants previously unknown in the region are being discovered from the Black Hills every year,” Gabel says.

The Herbarium obtained a major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a database all of the plants from West River South Dakota and eastern Wyoming. The grant will provide a web-accessible database with all label data from over 100,000 specimens by 2009. Already included in the database are data from the BHSU, Badlands National Park, U.S. Forest Service herbaria at Newcastle, Spearfish and Rapid City, and Dakota Wesleyan University. Databasing will continue in the coming year as data from herbaria at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, Devil’s Tower National Monument, Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Park, and Milwaukee Public Museum will be added to the database project.

All data will be compiled by BHSU and placed on the Herbarium web site ( In addition to providing all known data from plant specimens in the region, the data base will also allow interactive mapping of the location of each specimen by a user, allowing rapid visual information about distributions of plants in the region. 

The NSF grant also enabled the BHSU Herbarium to add a significant amount of storage capacity through the purchase and installation of a mobile storage compactor system. The storage system was installed this summer and is already being utilized and has more than doubled the storage capacity of the Herbarium.

The Herbarium is a vital resource for the community. Staff members are often called upon to identify plants for government agencies, ranchers, gardeners, USDA Forest Service staff, Game Fish and Parks Department staff, county weed control officers, and curious citizens. Herbarium staff members are available to give presentations to a wide variety of groups including civic organizations, visiting student groups, USDA Forest Service groups or other audiences.

“Herbarium staff members answer numerous requests for information from our specimens, plus we provide archived and living material from the unique Black Hills ecosystem for researchers from outside our region,” Gabel says. 

The collection is becoming increasingly valuable for scientific research, especially in botany and ecology, with at least seven publications resulting from Herbarium work in the last three years. Several of the publications have included undergraduate student authors. 

Plans are being made for a workshop for secondary teachers in 2009.  Regional teachers will be introduced to the database and be trained to use the features it provides as a resource for their students.

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