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Dayton museum's 200-year-old herbarium preserves the natural history of early Ohio

 A woman in a grey dress with white flowers and blue gloves stands in a long hallway lined with a large metal drawers. She has her hands on a table that has preserved and dried plants on large pieces of old, yellowed paper.
Anna Helmig with samples John Van Cleve's herbarium.

In grade school many of us learned the simple method for preserving colorful fall leaves with wax paper and a hot iron.

Creating a leaf collection was a fun school project that typically ended up in the trash after a few months. But, thanks to Ohio’s early pioneer botanists, like Dayton’s John W. Van Cleve, we have collections of dried and pressed plants, known as herbariums, that recreate the environment during the state’s early pioneer days.

Anna Helmig is the registrar and collections manager at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery. She pushed a cart containing pressed and dried flower specimens down a row of natural history artifacts in the museum's collections vault.

“We are taking a look at some of our herbarium specimens from the John W. Van Cleve collection,” Helmig said. “He collected over 200 plant specimens from around Dayton in the 1830’s and these are some of the best pieces from that collection.”

 Botanical plant samples from Dayton circa 1830s.
Renee Wilde
Botanical plant samples from Dayton, Ohio circa 1830s.

In the 1700s early explorer naturalists began collecting and preserving plant specimens from the Ohio region. Unfortunately many of these private collections didn’t survive, and those that did reside in herbaria outside of Ohio.

European settlers who came to live in Ohio, continued the practice of recording the area's flora and making herbarium specimens for private collections. These private plant collections were the first resources for documenting the state's early native landscape.

“It can tell us a lot about the environment when you collected the plant,” Helmig said, displaying some of the plant samples on the cart. “These are around 200 years old, which is really remarkable for herbarium specimens to still be around. These are very fragile, as you can see they are pretty dried out at this time.”

John W. Van Cleve was the son of one of early Dayton’s most prominent residents.

Helmig said that “Van Cleve’s father, Benjamin Van Cleve was a lot of firsts in Dayton. He came to Dayton with the original White settlement in the area, and he was the first postmaster in Dayton, the first school teacher in Dayton, the first clerk of courts in Dayton, and he also had the very first marriage in Dayton to Mary Whitten in 1800”.

John Van Cleve was no slouch himself. Born in 1801, a year after their marriage, John would go on to become the mayor of Dayton for three terms and served as the city's engineer. Helmig added that “he was also a paleontologist, a geologist, and he loved nature, he loved going on nature walks, and he is actually the creator of Woodland Cemetery.”

 Plant preserved at Boonshoft Museum of Discovery
Renee Wilde

There is no date on the pages of Van Cleve’s herbarium, just the name of the flower and the month it was picked, and sometimes the location, which was common practice at the time. But Helmig said they can estimate when the samples were taken.

“Now this one is one of the earlier ones, you can tell because the paper is different, it's a different texture, and these were collected around what would have then been the city center of Dayton. So, things that were still wild growing around all the development, “ she said. “But the leaves of this are just beautiful.”

The leaves on the plant still retain their silvery color.  It’s called "Mouse Ear,” Helmig read off the page, “and it says ‘Early site, everlasting. Dayton. April’.”

Helmig admires the artistic arrangement saying, “He was an artist, he did engravings, and there is actually a lost book by Van Cleve where he took some of these specimens and would do engravings of their artistic renderings of how they would look like next to the actual specimen. But that’s lost, we have no idea where it is."

Some of the herbarium samples are in pretty rough shape. “From 1893 when they came to the museum until around the 60’s the museum did nothing with these,” Hemlig said. “They were kind of shoved in a drawer in the collection spaces. No one really curated them, no one really did much with them.”

The fragile collection of 198 plants has existed for almost two centuries and have come full circle into the hands of the Boonshoft museum. The Dayton Museum of Natural History, which became the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in 1999, was originally part of the Dayton Public Library.

Van Cleve founded Dayton’s first public library system - The Dayton Library Association - and that would become the Dayton Metro Library, which is of course how we got our start in 1893,” Helmig said. “So in this weird way we are around because of Van Cleve and because he saw the need to create a library for the people of Dayton.”

Van Cleve’s Herbarium has never been on public display at the museum because of the fragility of the dried specimens — Helmig hopes to change that.

“We would love to see these pieces out because they tell such a good story about Dayton’s natural history and Van Cleve is such an interesting guy,” she said. “I’d like to make these accessible on our online database, so people can see them without stepping foot in the museum and they are not harmed. They’re safe and kept preserved but they can still be appreciated.”

Renee Wilde is an award-winning independent public radio producer, podcast host, and hobby farmer living in the hinterlands of southwestern Ohio.