K-State museum houses rare plant specimens

MANHATTAN — When one thinks of carnivorous plants, they think of bogs or tropical locales — not Kansas. But the hungry vegetation does exist in the Sunflower State.

The Herbarium, a research natural history museum of about 200,000 preserved plant specimens at Kansas State University, has a sample of an aquatic plant collected from Seward County that consumes insects.

"The type of plant that was found in Kansas has a bladder trap," said Carolyn Ferguson, K-State associate professor of biology and curator at The Herbarium. "It forms a small, bulbous bladder with a flap-like door, and then it creates a vacuum that it uses to trap aquatic insects or crustaceans inside."

The Herbarium has other species of carnivorous and insectivorous plants in its specimen collection, ranging from pitcher plants to Venus flytraps.

"These plants usually grow in nutrient-poor areas, like acidic bogs," Ferguson said. "They trap insects to draw nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous from them."

Carnivorous plants are interesting because they have evolved several times, she said. The largest pitcher plants can grow to nearly a foot in diameter and can trap small rodents.

Ferguson said carnivorous plants make up a small portion of the Herbarium's specimens, most of which come from the Great Plains of North America. The museum, which was established in 1877 and houses the most complete record of Kansas plants from the late 1800s, also has specimens from Mexico, the Philippines and several other countries.

All of the specimens are dried, pressed and mounted on heavy cotton, archival-quality paper. A label lists the plant's name, the collector's name, when and where it was collected and other information about its habitat or plant structure.

Ferguson said when she began working as curator, the museum was using mothballs to prevent insect infestations in its collection. Now, the specimens are frozen for several days before they are mounted to kill any insects or their eggs that may be on their stems or leaves.

The plants are filed in large metal cabinets using a system that first classifies them by family and then files them alphabetically by scientific name.

Mark Mayfield, a research assistant professor in biology who works at the museum, said one of the rarest Kansas specimens in the collection is the ranunculus flabellaris, a type of buttercup that grows under water. The sample was collected in 1888 in Mitchell County.

At one time, he said, the plant grew in Eureka Lake near Manhattan; the lake no longer exists because of changes in land use and water flow.

"This is a rare specimen for Kansas, but it still exists elsewhere," he said.

Another rare specimen is platanthera praeclara, a type of fringed orchid that is on the federal threatened plant list. The sample was collected in 1896 in Riley County.

"On a global scale, it is a rare plant," Ferguson said. "Every state tracks it."

In addition to preserving and protecting the specimens of the Great Plains, the museum acts as a resource for studying plant diversity, she said. Researchers can compare plants from different geographical locations, related groups, different habitats or a given area over time.

The specimens also are used in various classes at the university and shared with researchers at other institutions.

"K-State really values this collection," she said.

The Herbarium has digitized its entire collection of North American plants, a process that was started in 2006 with support from the National Science Foundation.

The collection can be found online at http:// biodis.k-state.edu/.