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UNG professor and students creating herbarium

April 11, 2018

In a perfect world, Dr. Tom Diggs could access the details and location of a dogwood stored in the University of North Georgia's (UNG) herbarium with the click of a mouse.

A herbarium is a core collection of dried plant specimens mounted, labeled and filed in an organized way. Diggs, assistant professor of plant biology at UNG, and three UNG students plan to establish a herbarium on UNG's Gainesville Campus and upload the information to an online database.

"I was inspired by a friend at the University of West Alabama (UWA) who developed the Alabama Plant Atlas," Diggs said, explaining the joint effort by the Alabama Herbarium Consortium and UWA provides users with a comprehensive searchable database of plants found in Alabama.  "It gives you the location and all of the details about the plants."

Diggs and his students are developing a similar project on a smaller scale at UNG. He received a Presidential Incentive Award in January to assist with the project, which is no easy task.

The labor-intensive work has already started with UNG sophomore Hannah Umstead mounting and archiving the plants and UNG senior Katie Horton organizing and identifying more than 1,000 specimens.

"We’ve gone through all of these," Horton said, pointing to a metal shelf filled from top to bottom with file folders holding plants pressed and divided by newspapers. "Each folded newspaper has a plant inside it, and each folder contains only plants that are in the same family."

Horton said the team is working through a backlog of plants from the past 30 years. The biology major from Clarkesville, Georgia, said she is checking the plants quality, ensuring they meet the standards for use and labeling properly. The label's information includes the plant's scientific name, family name, common name, the location of the plant, and the person's name who collected the plant.

"The most important information is the location with GPS coordinates," said Samantha Shea, who is the student lead on the project. "If anyone needed to see the plant in person, he or she could put that into a smart phone and go to that spot."

The second most important information is the name of the collector.

"Without that name, it is useless," Diggs said, explaining the names offer a way to verify the information.

Once the label information is verified, Horton hands the pressed plant, its label and its barcode to Shea. The senior majoring in biology and anthropology from Dacula, Georgia, photographs the plant, corrects the color to specific requirements and uploads the information to a database.

"We are also partnering with a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on their labeling app," she said. "They are creating the label app and we are doing the test run."

Diggs said sharing the herbarium information online has several applications. For example, UNG students in his botany class can see a specimen collected in northeast Georgia on their computer.

"Students in the art department could use it to identify the plant they are looking at," he said. "And it is a fantastic research tool for scientists."

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