Friday, April 8, 2016

From the field to the Emory Herbarium: How knowledge of nature blooms

Graduate student Daniella Cicka, left, and senior Rina Lee, in the field in South Florida, collect a DNA sample from a plant species.

By Carol Clark

Adam Mackie will never look at a red maple the same way. “Native Americans made an infusion from the tree’s bark to treat gunshot wounds,” says Mackie, a senior majoring in biology. “It was also used to treat bug bites.”

Stachys floridana
Mackie is one of six Emory students who spent a recent alternative spring break in the field in rural South Florida. The students looked for plants used in indigenous medicine in the past, and collected specimens for the Emory Herbarium, under the guidance of medical ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave. They learned to identify endemic plant species in the wild, how to dig deep roots out of the thick mud of a marsh – even how to harvest and cook a swamp cabbage and make a mean guacamole.

"The best part was learning about plants from local people who knew how they were traditionally used," Mackie says.

Florida rancher Bob Brewer spent several days with the students in the field, introducing them to the gopher tortoise, a keystone species, and pointing out plants such as a thorny vine of smilax, which the locals call pipe briar.

We kept pulling and pulling on the stem," Mackie says, "and finally we got to this big tuber. He told us that old-timers used to hollow out these tubers to make pipes for smoking tobacco."

“Plants teach students to be more aware and appreciative of the natural world,” says Quave, a professor in Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health and the School of Medicine’s Department of Dermatology. Quave’s lab researches how traditional uses of plants can inform modern medicine. Interviews with traditional healers in rural Italy, for instance, led to her recent discovery that the leaves of the European chestnut tree contain ingredients with the power to disarm dangerous staph bacteria without boosting its drug resistance.


The Emory Herbarium, founded in 1949 by members of the biology department, was closed for decades, and its collection of more than 20,000 specimens was kept in storage. The facility, which recently reopened in the Rollins Research Center, needs $10,000 to help restore and annotate some of its damaged specimens, including rare plants in the Granite Rock Outcrop Collection, which grow in the vernal pools of Arabia Mountain and Stone Mountain. The funds will also support digitizing the specimens so they can be posted online and accessed from around the globe. Check out the Herbarium’s Momentum fundraising campaign to learn how to contribute.

A graduate of Emory herself, Quave found her career path after she went into the Peruvian Amazon as part of a tropical ecology class in the department of environmental sciences.

“When I first get students in the field, they look at a meadow and just see what looks like overgrown grass. It’s like they have blinders on,” Quave says. “Then the blinders come off and they begin to use their ‘plant goggles.’ They start seeing the world in a new way.”

Jennifer Ko, a freshman, grew up in Manhattan and considered herself a city girl. That view was broadened somewhat, as she recounted in a blog post about the trip on the Center for Human Health web site. “I am no longer scared of laying down on the grass and, by the end of the trip, even embraced dirt,” she wrote.

Seniors Jessie Cai and Rina Lee prepare to press an epiphytic air plant from the Bromeliaceae family for deposit in the Emory Herbarium.

Ko also learned to spot and collect specimens such as the frilly white plume of Saururus cernuus (lizard’s tail), deep in a swamp.

“The Choctaw and Creek Indians called this plant ‘widow’s medicine’ because they used it in a tea to help the bereaved get over their loss,” Quave says. She pulls a thick book, “Florida Ethnobotany,” off a shelf in her office to show a picture of widow’s medicine and a flattened sprig of yellow flowers falls out from the pages. “Oh, that’s a neat little Hypericum I collected,” she says, using the Latin name for St. John’s wort.
Ladyfinger bananas

The students rose before dawn and worked 12-hour days while in Florida. They explored scrub pine forests filled with 150-year old trees, still bearing what old-timers call “cat-facing” marks:” V-shapes cut into the bark during the 1800s to harvest turpentine. They took an airboat ride up the Peace River – the habitat of roseate spoonbills, bald eagles, alligators and other wildlife. They squelched in rubber boots through the mucky soil of cypress swamps, in search of species such as the Salyx willow tree, the original source of aspirin.

The group stayed in Quave’s hometown of Arcadia, in the home of her father, Raymond, who runs a business as a heavy equipment operator. “We shopped at a produce stand and bought gorgeous avocados and flats of the freshest, local strawberries to take home and prepare,” Quave says.

Ko cited time spent preparing food as one of the trip highlights. “In my 18 years of life, I never learned to cook,” she wrote in her blog post. “When Dr. Quave watched me struggle even cutting a tomato, she taught me all I needed to know to make my portion of dinner: The guacamole. She taught me the importance of a healthy meal, which is something I never fully understood. During the trip, I was forced to opt for the healthier choices and loved almost every meal I ate.”

Exploring the Peace River by airboat, from left: Cassandra Quave, Jessie Cai, Adam Mackie, Rina Lee, Jennifer Ko and Justin Robeny.

Raymond Quave showed the students how to chop down a swamp cabbage palm and pull the heart of it, then taught them how to boil the heart for their dinner, seasoned with milk, bacon and salt and pepper.

“As an educator I see many extraordinarily bright and talented students who have few outdoor survival skills,” Quave says. “I want them to appreciate the importance of different plants, for the health and sustenance of humans as well as ecosystems.”

The students brought back more than 170 species to add to the Emory Herbarium, which they will also help preserve and annotate.

Capsella bursa-pastoris
“It was an amazing experience,” Mackie said of the Florida trip. “I had worked in the Herbarium and in Dr. Quave’s lab, but that isn’t the same as learning about plants in the field. Now I’m able to grind and preserve some of the dried plant materials that I collected myself.”

Quave, who serves as curator of the Herbarium, spearheaded efforts to reopen it in 2012, after decades of neglect. She recently launched a fundraising campaign to restore some of the specimens and keep the facility in operation (see box, above).

The Herbarium’s original collection manager, Madeline Burbanck, who researched the rare and endangered plants on Georgia granite outcrop ecosystems, played a pivotal role in the official designation of Arabia Mountain as a National Heritage Area.

Tharanga Samarakoon, a plant scientist from Sri Lanka, now serves as the Herbarium’s collections manager, overseeing student volunteers who are working at restoration and digitization efforts.

“The Herbarium is not just a musty room filled with dried plants,” Quave says. “It’s a window into the natural world and a valuable resource for research and education, across disciplines. We need to not only maintain natural habitats, but collect and preserve plant specimens over time, to better understand and monitor ecosystems.”

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