Precinct 4's world-renowned botanic center at Mercer Botanic Gardens just got bigger. The botanic center recently acquired 47,000 new plant specimens on long-term loan that will aid researchers in preserving Texas’ most endangered species.
Now with more than 50,000 specimens, Mercer Botanic Center is becoming one of the top research institutions in the Houston area. Mercer’s herbarium provides a convenient location for local botanists.
Anita Tiller, a botanist at Mercer Botanic Gardens, manages two collections at Mercer Botanic Center: Mercer’s MERCA collection of 5,000 specimens and the Spring Branch Science Center collection of 47,000 samples. The collections include botanical drawings, a seed bank, as well as dried and pressed plant specimens.
“Herbariums serve as a reference library for research and training botanic garden volunteers and staff,” she said. “Many of the rare native plant species that Mercer maintains for the Center for Plant Conservation’s National Collection of Endangered Plants are documented in this collection.”
Sifting through thousands of botanical drawings and preserved plants, researchers can compare plant populations, study reproductive differences, document lost populations, track climate changes, and discover the best times for seed collection.
Tiller says the samples help researchers and volunteers studying plants, such as the endangered Neches River rose-mallow and Houston camphor-daisy. Botanical artists also use the samples to prepare illustrations required for published research and reference books.
A Team Effort
Herbaria are also used for training purposes. With thousands of new plant specimens, interns, volunteers, and researchers at Mercer Botanic Center now have the resources they need to compare, identify, and study plants, said Tiller.
“Mercer depends upon teams of highly skilled volunteers, students, and interns to input specimen data into the herbarium’s database; mount the specimens to archival papers; prepare and attach labels to the specimens; file and inventory specimens; and repair damaged specimens,” said Tiller. “Highly skilled volunteer librarians and their supporting volunteers maintain Mercer’s library and botanical illustration collections.”
For the past few years, Mercer has maintained a partnership with Lone Star College’s Honors program. Teams of students visit the center to conduct their own research during the school year. Once the semester ends, many honors students return as interns to continue their research. Already, several interns have used the botanic center’s resources to advance their own research.
In 2015, Mercer intern Edwin Umanzor worked on germinating the endangered Neches River rose-mallow as a student volunteer with the Lone-Star College Honors College program. His work later qualified him for the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Award, which helped fund his undergraduate and graduate studies.
Mercer also focuses on restoring plants that play a vital role in the region’s ecosystem. Since starting at Mercer in mid-January, Lone Star student Stephania Naranjo has made strides in documenting milkweed populations in Mercer’s digital database. Naranja’s work will help future researchers locate the best sources of milkweed seed, which could have far-reaching effects for the monarch butterfly. Once she documents the populations, researchers all over the world will be able to use the database in their restoration efforts.
Honor student Lauren Crain is also helping monarch butterflies by propagating aquatic milkweed, a nectar source and food source for monarchs and caterpillars. This plant grows naturally on the Mercer property and along Spring Creek Greenway trail.
In April, Crain presented her research at the Great Plains Honors Council Conference hosted by the Read Honors College at Lamar University in Beaumont, which spans college and university honors programs from Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas.
“I was able to combine field research relating to my honors biology experiment with office data administration,” said Crain. “This exposure to both areas proved to be an invaluable experience that I will be able to apply in my studies as well as future employment.”
John Dethloff, director of Lone Star College - Kingwood and honors English professor, praised the partnership for helping students such as Crain conduct their own research.
“I don’t think this level of scholarship would be attainable without the support of our science division, our library, and our partnership with Mercer,” said Dethloff. “I look for this to be only the beginning for Lauren, and I hope to be able to offer opportunities like this for future students.”
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