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The UGA Herbarium Houses State’s Vast Plant Collection

By Kathryn Spear



Featuring some 240,000 specimens, the University of Georgia Herbarium houses the most comprehensive plant collection in the state and one of the largest in the Southeast. It also serves as a critical resource for physicians and veterinarians seeking information about poisonous plants.

Herbarium botanists helped in the 1999 case of a three-year-old Fitzgerald, GA, boy who ate the poisonous berries of a toxic American nightshade plant. Thanks to a quick-thinking county extension agent who emailed digital photos of the plant to the Herbarium, the boy received quick medical attention that may well have saved his life.

Founded in 1926, the Herbarium’s collections include primarily native and naturalized Georgia plants and others indigenous to the Southeast, but it also houses specimens from across North America and around the world.

“The Herbarium provides a record of exotic species that enter the state, as well as a record of habitats that have disappeared from the state,” said Wendy Zomlefer, faculty curator and senior research scientist. “It also serves as a DNA repository, where sequence data help us to determine relationships between plants and track evolutionary changes.”

The Herbarium is able to house so many specimens because of an automated shelving system that compacts units when not in use. An infrared laser system, funded by the National Science Foundation and installed in 2005, detects people or obstructions in the aisles before closing the shelves. The $320,000 grant also funded structural upgrades to the compactor system, a reorganization of the collection, and development of an online specimen database that’s accessible to the public.

Herbarium outreach services include tours of the facility, a specimen loan and exchange program, and plant identification services. Zomlefer and staff have all been called upon over the years to identify potentially poisonous or toxic plants in cases from the UGA vet school, the Georgia Poison Control Center, and state and regional hospitals.

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Research Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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