Home » News from the spirit world – behind the scenes in the Ethanol Store

News from the spirit world – behind the scenes in the Ethanol Store

by Dan Park

How specimens were held in the past (photo Manaaki Whenua)

For the past seven years, and more recently since October 2019, in a lesser-known part of the Allan Herbarium at Manaaki Whenua, a quiet metamorphosis has been taking place.

The Ethanol Store, also known as the Wet Collection or the Spirit Collection, stores 3-dimensional plant materials that complement the dried specimens in the Herbarium. It contains a large number of Pacific fruits, orchids, and various other rare plants, as well as a large algae collection.

Spirit collections are predominantly used for preserving succulent or delicate structures (e.g., flowers or fleshy fruits) that shrivel upon drying, or when the structure or shape of the specimens is required (e.g. for botanical illustration, microscopy, etc). They are particularly useful when studying certain groups such as orchids and succulents, which make poor specimens when pressed. Measurements taken from spirit material (especially from fleshy organs) are usually closer to the fresh specimen than those based on dry material.

Carefully, systematically, the collection is being entirely rebottled – a task being managed by Mary Korver of the Herbarium staff. The old storage bottles were many and varied and, coupled with poor storage conditions and ventilation direct to the outside, the collection had problems with mould and inconsistent temperatures. All of the crusty old vials are gradually being replaced with new glass Wheaton vials to keep the specimens in good condition.

The rebottled collection (photo Manaaki Whenua)

It’s a huge task – there are 8700 small 30 mL “size 1” vials, plus another 700 or so of larger sizes, including 50 1 L jars – and each specimen has had to be recurated in a 56% ethanol dilution. Each size 1 drawer contains 273 vials with 18L of ethanol. It is now possible to accurately predict how much ethanol is used in the store, which is important as the area is a registered Dangerous Goods store.

Cabinets holding the wet collection (photo Manaaki Whenua)

Mary, aided by summer students Finn Scheele and Lottie Boardman, has spent a lot of time recently in the store’s fumehood, but says she can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The collection is now fully digitised for vials of sizes 2-5, and for part of size 1 – see https://scd.landcareresearch.co.nz/ The next aim is to complete the curation of a collection of old vials still stored in the spirit collection area, and to continue the digitisation as time permits.

With the installation of an internal ventilation system throughout the later part of 2019, the spirit collection is now properly housed, making it an important ancillary collection of the Herbarium, used by researchers in many fields and as an identification tool in border biocontrol.

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