A crypt full of Rose’s lichens | Identification Trainers for the Future

In our next blog from the Identification Trainers for the Future trainees, Mike Waller gives you an insight into his curation placement. Mike has been working through lichen collections made by Francis Rose MBE. Rose (1921-2006) is perhaps best known for being the author of The Wildflower Key, for many the guide to British & Irish plants, however he was also an expert in lichens and bryophytes (mosses & liverworts) and much of his lichen collection is housed within the Museum’s cryptogamic herbarium, Mike’s work area for the last 3 months.

Deep within the dark, towering wooden cabinets of the cryptogamic collections, I’m tucked away at the end of a small corridor from where my seemingly endless journey has begun. The cryptogamic herbarium is also known as the Crypt in the Museum, but fortunately our crypt only contains the seedless plants and plant-like organisms such as mosses, lichens, ferns and fungi that are known as Cryptogams.

I’ve been tasked with preparing Francis Rose’s 5  years’ worth of Kent lichen specimens for incorporation into the main collection. With around 700 small packets containing lichen fragments from across 2 vice counties between 1965 and 1970, it’s far from simple.

Methodical attention to detail is key in order to correctly transcribe each data label onto a pre-prepared spreadsheet before checking each given name on the British Lichen Society’s taxon dictionary for nomenclatural shifts. Each specimen must then be housed in a new archival quality packet and barcoded before returning to it’s original folder.

It seems Francis was a prolific collector to say the least, so prolific in fact that this collection represents a backlog of Rose material that has, quite possibly, never had the chance to be converted into biological records. This is of course a real shame because with such extensive geographical and taxonomic coverage, such records would be a vital addition to the National Biodiversity Network (NBN) and the soon-to-be published Lichen Flora of Kent.

Luckily I’ve had the expert guidance of Holger Thues – my supervisor for the last 3 months – to help when things get confusing. I’m continually amazed by his passion for these ‘strange beasts’ and his innate ability to efficiently convey complex biological processes to mere mortals like myself. It was Holger who masterminded this project idea with the broader goal of assessing the relationship between voucher specimen collections such as this and record collectors like the NBN.

But for now the process of preparing the specimens for incorporation into the main collection continues. Over the last 2 weeks I have been painstakingly preparing fresh new data labels for each specimen through a process of standardisation which essentially involves weeding out spelling mistakes and putting full-stops in the right places – again a deceptively long process. Once they’d all been printed and cut to shape, I then spent a further week affixing each label to its relevant specimen with my trusty glue pot. Who said being a curator was easy!

Photo showing the newly curated specimens in their new paper sleeves in a green tray

After lots of painstaking work, the specimens were ready to be added back to the collection

The final stages of the placement involve tackling the identity of some of the specimens to which Frances, nor subsequent observers, could not place a species name. These are mostly the nightmarishly difficult Cladonia which require chemical sequencing using a technique called Thin Layer Chromatography (TLC). This allows you to see exactly what composition of chemical compounds are found within the specimen which should then, in theory, lead to a clear species identification.

The other trainees too will now be drawing to the twilight of their curatorial placements. With weeks of collection-handling experience now under our belts, I know for a fact that we emerge from our different departments with a whole new array of skills to call upon should we find ourselves amongst museum collections in the future.