What Good Is a Library Full of Dead Plants?


BERKELEY, Calif.—It is (there is no better way to put this) a dead-plant library. Not a library of books about dead plants—though there are books here, and photos and oil paintings—but of plants themselves. They lie in wait on big, stiff sheets of yellowed paper, wrapped gingerly in envelopes and stacked on top of each other, before being inserted into dozens and dozens of cabinets. This is the fifth-largest dead-plant archive in the country, and you can turn a corner and see yards and yards of these cabinets. It is a menagerie of dead plants.

This is a herbarium. There is a network of them stretched across the country: one in St. Louis and one in New York, one in Chicago and one in Fort Worth. Each holds more than a million dead plants. This, the Jepson and the University Herbaria at the University of California, Berkeley, contains more than 2.3 million specimens.

Herbaria are physical spaces—but they are also, increasingly, digital resources. For the past half-decade, the National Science Foundation has helped fund the processing of turning these dead-plants—many of which come with a species title, a collection data, and a geotag—into a database. Now, researchers at Princeton University and elsewhere have figured out how to use this database to reveal how climate change is mangling California—and the world’s—ecosystems.

Learn more at theatlantic.com