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A new future for fungi from the past

As Jack Rogers and Dean Glawe gently flip through volumes of fragile books filled with fungi collected more than 150 years ago, they say it’s like peering back to the beginning of modern biology.

Glawe, director of the Charles Gardner Shaw Mycological Herbarium at Washington State University, points out a tiny specimen growing on a piece of wood from West Virginia found in 1864.

“There it is,” he said. “It looks like little trees.” It’s one of several thousand fungi recently added to the mycological collection at WSU.

The collection of 5,500 specimens was a gift to WSU from the National Fungus Collections. There are 55 books of 100 dried fungi (exsiccati). Each book of 100 specimen packets is called a century. While the contents may be historic, their relevance is contemporary; they will be used as reference for many fungi found in North America, Rogers said.

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Jack Rogers with one of the centuries holding fungus collected from early WSU mycologist, Charles Piper. Photo by Shelly Hanks, WSU.
Not many old exsiccati are intact, the packets having been removed and put into general herbarium collections. But the “contents of these packets are almost uniformly in beautiful shape,” said Rogers, retired director of the herbarium and WSU emeritus professor of plant pathology. “They will really enhance the collection available at the herbarium.”

Each of the 55 books contains packets with individual fungi that represent major parts of two important collections from the late 1800s through the early 20th century: North American Fungi, constructed and distributed by J.B. Ellis and B.M. Everhart, and Fungi Columbiani, by Elam Bartholomew. Glawe said these naturalists likely examined the specimens under microscopes lit by kerosene lamps and took publishable notes in calligraphy.

Rogers points out one small envelope with a fungus collected in Pullman, Wash., just two years after the Agricultural

College of Washington State opened in 1892. The specimen was found by one of the first university biologists, Charles Piper.

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Dean Glawe and Jack Rogers glimpse into the collections from some of the earliest mycologists. Photo by Rachel Webber.

“There was quite a network of collectors and they did it because they loved nature. These were real naturalists,” Glawe said. “Curiosity is still what drives the best research and the best universities.”

While mycological taxonomists still use similar methods to collect and categorize specimens, the contents of collections are nowadays made available online. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the Charles Gardner Shaw Mycological Herbarium, a foundation of the plant pathology program and WSU and one of only a few mycological herbaria  that remain in the U.S.

The Shaw herbarium contains about 74,000 specimens from around the world and specializes in the Inland Northwest. For more information, visit http://plantpath.wsu.edu/herbarium/.

For more information about plant pathology at WSU, visit http://planthpath.wsu.edu.   

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