Herbarium preserves plant history and inspires research of delicate communities


Plant samples gathered decades ago from high-elevation rock outcroppings for Western Carolina University’s herbarium intrigued Kathy Gould Mathews when she joined the faculty in 2003. Among the repository’s approximately 30,000 specimens was “Flora of Southern Highland Rock Outcrops,” a collection with more than 1,400 samples gathered from 1966 to 1974 at Southern Appalachian rock outcrops between 2,000 and 5,700 feet in elevation. “I’ve been interested since I came here in revisiting some of the sites of the unique rock outcrop plants and seeing if those plants are still surviving there,” said Mathews, the H.F. and Katherine P. Robinson Professor of Biology and WCU’s herbarium director and curator.

This summer, she returned to the high cliffs where those samples were taken. Mathews and Beverly Collins, associate professor of biology and director of the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity and Ecology Center, won funding from the WCU Public Policy Institute to conduct research at the sites – work that, at times, required steep hiking. On the outcrops, they worked with two students to count and document the plants and insects living within the rare and endangered plant communities.

Kathy Mathews (left) shows students one of the thousands of
specimens from the university’s plant herbarium.

“These plant communities may be among the most sensitive communities to climate warming, in part because their flora includes rare species thought to be relicts of the last glaciation,” said Collins. “Further, they may be particularly sensitive to human disturbance, such as trampling by hikers, because the plants grow slowly and are rooted in soil that detaches easily from the rock.”

Mathews and Collins will submit a report with policy recommendations on outcrops access and conservation based on their findings. The report will be shared with organizations that manage these lands in Western North Carolina. “We don’t want to lose these unique communities,” said Collins. “Finding out more about their ecology can help guide policy for protecting them from both human and climate change threats.”

The high elevation rock outcrop collection is just one of several at Western Carolina’s still-growing herbarium, one of the largest plant biodiversity resources in the WNC region. Pressed and dried plant specimens are stored in nearly three dozen oak cabinets, and the collections are used for plant identification by botanists, students and researchers alike. It is the main repository for Blue Ridge Parkway collections of North Carolina and also maintains collections from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The late Clinton Dodson, who was a professor and department head, worked with botany students to build the initial core of the collections starting in 1953. The collection continued to grow under the leadership of succeeding directors James Horton and Dan Pittillo, who contributed much of his personal collection to the herbarium.