Discovering Golden Treasure

September, 2014

Lincoln -- The goldenrod on our prairie northwest of Lincoln has been in full flower this month. Bright orange Monarch butterflies on bright yellow goldenrods make for irresistible photo opportunities.

So we had a smartphone photo of a local goldenrod handy when visiting the Bessey Herbarium in Nebraska Hall last week. Exactly which species of goldenrod was it, we asked. Turns out it was Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida). The oldest such specimen in the herbarium's collection dates from September 18, 1873; it was collected in Lancaster County by none other than the early Nebraska naturalist and professor Samuel Aughey, promoter (and perhaps originator) of the "rain follows the plow" theory and a great favorite of railroad companies.

But it was another goldenrod specimen in the collection, Tall Goldenrod (Solidago gigantea), that convinced us we had discovered golden treasure. Tall Goldenrod is the Nebraska State Flower. In the herbarium, in a special cabinet, is the actual speciman that the Nebraska Legislature had before it when it made the designation in 1895. The backing paper has a note from Charles Bessey himself verifying it. The speciman was collected in Holt County in 1893 by Frederic Clements. This was the year Clements and Roscoe Pound crossed northern Nebraska, collecting plants for their subsequent publication Phytogeography of Nebraska, a work of far-reaching influence well beyond the borders of the state and nation.

The Bessey Herbarium is a remarkable place with both a current and historic collection but it receives scant support from the University and State. Its budget was cut severely in 2003 and funding has not been restored.