A Secret Garden in the UT Tower

For more than a century, the Plant Resources Center has been building one of the best collections on campus. These days, it’s a world-renowned research destination with a great view to boot.

IMG_0062Here at UT, we have a habit of collecting. With nearly nine million books and counting, we have one of the largest university libraries in the country. We’re also known nationwide for the Blanton Museum, which has 17,000 works of art, and for the Harry Ransom Center, which holds 42 million manuscripts. But what many Longhorns don’t know is that we’re also recognized for our world-class collection of dried plants.

Since its creation in the 1890s, the Plant Resources Center—which comprises the University of Texas and the Lundell Herbariums—has collected over one million specimens. This is largely thanks to its first curator, Mary Young, a prolific collector who added 13,500 specimens to the holdings during her lifetime and set a precedent for continuous growth. Today, the Plant Resources Center adds nearly 10,000 new items each year and has become the fifth-largest herbarium in the U.S. It also occupies some of the best real estate on campus: the Tower.

But with its entrance tucked into an obscure corner of the Main Building, the Plant Resources Center isn’t easy for me to find—and when I finally do, it doesn’t look like much. That’s because the specimens are hidden away in large metal cabinets found in the stacks of the former Main Library. Luckily, curator Tom Wendt offers to show me some of the center’s greatest hits. The first is its oldest specimen—collected in 1768 on Captain Cook’s first expedition around the world. The second looks like nothing more than a small twig glued to a sheet of white paper, but it is actually the Plant Resources Center’s most noteworthy item. The specimen, Wendt tells me with reverence, was collected by Charles Darwin himself on the voyage of the HMS Beagle.

These precious plants are kept in the Main Building, but the collections also stretch into the 16th, 17th, and 18th floors of the Tower. Director Beryl Simpson leads me to the elevator and the upper levels while she explains that the floors were originally designed as office space. When the fire marshal deemed them unsafe for permanent offices a few years ago, the Plant Resources Center stepped in to repurpose the area. As luck would have it, the floors are filled with plants instead of paperwork, and the botanists have the best view on campus.

Although the Plant Resources Center now resides in former stacks and offices, Simpson is careful to note the difference between their holdings. “You can reprint a book,” she says, “But each of these specimens is unique, and that’s why in some ways we’re much more like an art museum.” The Plant Resources Center’s strongest holdings are from Texas, Mexico, and the rest of Latin America, and its collections are often studied by researchers hoping to understand the evolutionary processes of vascular plants. Like the paintings in the Blanton Museum or the manuscripts at the Ransom Center, the PRC’s unique collection makes it a destination for researchers worldwide.

Simpson is currently studying a group of plants that can be found throughout South America, from southern Peru to the tip of the continent. This weekend, she’ll be scouting specimens a bit closer to home at Big Bend National Park. Meanwhile, other biologists are sending samples from across the world, and the herbarium staff is busy shaping them into works of art. It’s clear that the Plant Resources Center is dedicated to continuing UT’s good habit of collecting, and in doing so, they’re filling the Tower with flora.

Above: Plant Resources Center curator Tom Wendt lays out various plant selections, including a Texas bluebonnet and a Sabine River wakerobin.

Larger plants, like this Corryocactus, collected in Peru, are cut into sections to give the viewer as many details as possible.

Photos by Anna Donlan.


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