Text By Noelle Darilek
Audio By Armando Maese
Photos By Meredith Knight
One the first floor of the University of Texas Tower tucked around a corner, there is a nearly invisible door which opens up to a small room with low ceilings, file cabinets, stacks of folders and files, and a small kitchen and office areas stuck off to the sides.
This is the UT Plant Resources Center, hardly the herbarium you’d imagine it to be. The space could almost double as a basement.
Bob Jansen, UT Plant Resources director, meets with George Yatskievych, botanist and curator at the resources center, every Wednesday to discuss topics like funding and future plans for the center.
Jansen has been a member of the university faculty since 1991. Fairly soft-spoken, he sits at the round kitchen table in a striped t-shirt next to Yatskievych and describes the resource center as a “hidden treasure.”
The university was founded in 1881 and the herbarium was created shortly after in the early 1890’s when Dr. Frederick W. Simonds came to work at UT. Simonds was interested in plant research and collected various plant specimens in the process, thus the herbarium was created.
However, it wasn’t called the Plant Resources Center until the mid-1980’s when the university took on a second major herbarium that was donated by famous botanist and archaeologist, Cyrus Lundell. Today it houses over a million different specimens, from wildflowers to seaweed, and is the largest herbarium in the Southwestern United States.
“All of our resources are dead,” said Yatskievych. “We are a giant morgue with plant cadavers.”
With specimens that date back to the 1760’s and the most recent being from last month, the resources center has seen a lot of changes in the type plant growth in the world over time. The center collects specimens and documents the plant, which was growing at a specific location and time.
“We take in about 7,000 new specimens each year,” said Yatskievych. “We accept well prepared plant specimen donations from anyone who has a need to have such specimens housed in a publically accessible museum where they can be catalogued, made available for study, and preserved for perpetuity.”
This includes donations from students and faculty, botanists, environmental consultants and even members of the public. The center relies on the person who collected the specimen to supply them with the information on where, when, and by whom it was collected.
The plant specimens are stored in folders in horizontal piles on shelves in specially constructed museum cabinets. These cabinets are tightly sealed to prevent insects, fire and flooding from ruining them. The specimens are then used mainly for scientific purposes, such as genetic testing.
Amalia Diaz, assistant curator, said the valuable plants are more than just plants – the plants have a lot of important data associated with it.
For example, the center has a plant called Eupatorium organense, a member of the sunflower family, from Captain Cook’s first voyage in the South Pacific. It is from 1768 and was found in the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil area. Several other plants from Captain Cook’s first voyage collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander can also be found here.
Being the only plant collection located on the UT campus, students studying a related field also utilize the resources center.
“We’re still finding uses for our collection,” said Yatskievych. “Last semester we had an artist who visited and imaged some of our specimens as inspiration and as raw materials for some of his art projects. So it’s not all science.”
With a staff of three, plus help from 10 undergrads who work part-time as herbarium assistants, the center wants to show that it is an important contribution to the university.
UT has been one of the lucky ones, as natural history collections, such as the one at Northeastern Louisiana University in Monroe, is facing impending closure.
“Natural history collections at public universities are especially vulnerable to loss of support and closure,” said Yatskievych. “Other institutions are scrambling to figure out how to arrange a transfer of the huge volume of materials…fortunately, the collections at UT appear to be stable for the immediate future.”
Jansen notes that universities tend to close resources centers down due primarily to limited funding and changing priorities.
“Collections are an easy thing to cut because at some places it probably doesn’t serve that many people at the university,” said Jansen. “At the Louisiana institution, they’re taking the space to build an athletic facility, so athletics is obviously more important to them than having collections.”
The 13th largest herbarium in the United States, the UT Plant Resources Center has a couple hundred visits annually for those coming to work with the plants, not counting visits from students for class related activities.
In an 80-year-old building, the small room in the UT Tower isn’t quite constructed to double as a plant resources center. Yatskievych said being located in the tower is kind of a trade off. While being centrally located for students, it can be hard to park at and get to for others that are not on campus.
The small staff knows their center can be hard to find, but are currently working on new strategies to get noticed.
The UT Plant Resources Center is currently awaiting the opening of a new biodiversity center to use as an opportunity for outreach. The center will bring together the various biodiversity collections at UT to have all in one place.
“In the past there were scattered collections, but the idea is to have a biodiversity center to have them under an umbrella,” said Diaz. “It’s going to have its own building and it’s going to be more visible to people.”
Jansen said the center would be more convenient and better for interaction, as UT’s collection would be housed with the other related ones.
“We’re on multiple floors of the tower and we’re grateful to have that space, but it isn’t very convenient,” said Jansen. “The curators and staff and directors of those other collections, it would be to their advantage for interactions to be in the same place.”
The center will not be open until the start of the upcoming fall semester and is part of the Integrative Biology Department, directed by Dr. David Hillis.
“Having the center creates opportunities for better communications and potential shared projects among the collections and station staff, even though we are rather spread out in terms of locations,” said Yatskievych. “Having a center also hopefully will lead to a new building in the future where the natural history collections can be housed in a more state of the art museum facility.”
Even when the biodiversity center is created, the goal of the resources center will remain the same – to be as useful as possible to other people, whether it’s helping them with projects or identifying plants.
Although for now most people don’t know the resources center exists, Yatskievych said he and his staff are trying to help as much as they can. They want to continue serving the Texas population more and more.
“We want as many different people excited about plants and nature as we can get in through our door,” Yatskievych said.
Since the 1890’s, the Plant Resources Center has been one of the UT Tower’s hidden treasures. It houses over one million dead plant specimens that have mainly been donated by people outside of the university.
“We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t able to show that we are important for research education and outreach. The university doesn’t just allow things to exist just because they are. Nothing is safe in that sense, everything has to show that it’s part of the community and contributing to the university’s mission.”-George Yatskievych
George Yatskievych is the head curator at the center and runs it alongside two other officials and a handful of undergraduate assistants. He believes that the plant resources center is a valuable resource for all kinds of projects, such as standard biology projects history dating projects and art collages. The Center does not receive any money from UT, it solely relies on donations from others and grants from research projects. The Center is not in danger financially, but it is running into some other concerns.
“We’re open to the public so we don’t exclude anyone. We want as many people as possible excited about plants and nature as we can get through our door. It’s a little difficult because first off a lot of people don’t know we exist, we’re still working on marketing ourselves, branding ourselves, but also being at the university, parking is an issue. The university is big so sometimes it’s just a matter of being at the right part of campus and we try to help people with whatever type of questions they have, whether it’s a beginner or whether it’s someone who is very technically advanced.”- George Yatskievych
Bob Jansen, director of the plant resources center, says that another issue is the fact that many UT collections are scattered all over the place.
“A lot of the collections are over at the Pickle Research Center, which is 14 miles from here. That’s not very convenient for the people that are out there. It would be more convenient if everyone was out there or if it was somewhere else together. So that I think is something that we would like to see in the future and there’s certainly been a lot of discussion about it now. So I think there’s a reasonable chance it could happen.”- Bob Jansen
There have been talks of a biodiversity center, which would include the Plant Resources Center. Assistant curator Amalia Diaz believes this is a step in the right direction.
“When we talk about the new Biodiversity Center, this new initiative at UT, it’s giving us that opportunity to reach out to people in a different way, not only the enclosed collections but also different activities and they can see what we do and they can get involved so when it’s time to defend something you know what it is and you can go for it.”- Amalia Diaz
As the Plant Resources Center continues to grow, its variety of uses will also expand, as they are currently trying to reach out to property owners and others that did not know about the center before. Through this, it will be even more beneficial for not just UT, but rather the entire state of Texas and beyond. Armando Maese, multimedia newsroom.