The Vermont Cynic


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The largest natural history collection in Vermont was located in Torrey Hall, but a near-disaster in August 2017 brought the collection to a new home.

A fire was started by workers who were soldering copper roofing tiles around the attic August 2017, said Steven Locke, chief engineer at the Burlington Fire Department.

While some minor specimens were lost in the accident, most of the plants and other materials were saved and moved to Jeffords hall, where they continue to act as learning resources for plant life in Vermont and around the globe.

“We have 300,000 specimens currently, and we have around 2,000 new ones added every year,” said David Barrington, director of the Pringle Herbarium and chair of the plant biology department.

Barrington, a tall, lanky professor with round wire glasses, has a sharp glean in his eyes whenever he speaks about the collection.

“UVM has the third-best herbarium in New England, number one being Harvard and two Yale,” he said. “Some of our oldest specimens date back to 1810.”

Not only does the herbarium serve as a representation of plant life in Vermont, but it’s also a tool for teaching at the University.

“I have been using it since 1984,” said Elizabeth Thompson, a current lecturer in plant biology. “It is an incredibly important tool for research and conservation efforts.”

One can’t truly realize the immense size of the collection until they turn the corner to see the rows upon rows of metal storage containers carrying plant specimens.

Though the collection is spread throughout the hallways of the third floor and basement, there is one room in the basement that holds a majority of the specimens.

It looks like the server room of a data center. Boxes, filing cabinets and a large freezer stand in neat rows.

“We have a bug problem,” Barrington said. “They try to eat the plants and to kill them off before they destroy our specimens, we cycle the plants through the freezer.”

There are plants from all over the world in the collection. 22 percent of the specimens are from Vermont, Barrington said.

Susan Fawcett, a UVM graduate who is pursuing a doctorate, used to have an office in Torrey until the fire.

“I actually had to change my dissertation since I lost some of my specimens and other materials in the fire,” Fawcett said.

But, she has found a silver lining in the incident, she said.

One wonderful thing that has come out of the fire is that since the herbarium was moved to Jeffords, there is a better connection between the herbarium people and the plant biology department”

— Susan Fawcett

“It really is an understatement to say that this is a good resource.”

When the Herbarium eventually moves back to Torrey Hall, there is even more good news, Barrington said.

“We have taken substantial steps toward fire prevention within the building once it is finally fixed up,” he said. “Though that’s still two to three years away.”

The Herbarium welcomes visitors from 8:30 to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursday or by appointment.

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