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Duke Herbarium
The thousands of specimens of the Duke Herbarium are housed in cabinets in two buildings on campus, including this space below the Duke Phytotron. Photo by Chris Hildreth

Nowhere to Grow

The Duke Herbarium needs a bigger home for its more than 825,000 plant species – including the Lady Gaga ferns

On a tour of the Duke University Herbarium, biology professor Kathleen Pryer, herbarium director, stops with curator Michael Windham at the cabinet where they keep the type specimens. An herbarium is a sort of plant library, and a type specimen is something like a first edition, or perhaps even an original manuscript. It’s the specimen based on which the species got its scientific name and classification, and the original type specimen generally stays in the herbarium of the person who discovered it.

“Did you know,” Pryer asks, “that Mike and I were the ones who named the fern after Lady Gaga?” Absolutely true, but this is what journalists call “burying the lede.” Pryer has been discussing the herbarium for more than an hour, yet this is the first time Lady Gaga has come up. 

You can understand it. Pryer has focused on explaining the herbarium and its work, to say nothing of its complex future. Still, it turns out Lady Gaga and her eponymous fern – an entire genus of 19 ferns, mind you, not just one species – actually help do that work.

Herbarium director Kathleen Pryer holding specimen of Gaga monstraparva
Herbarium director Kathleen Pryer with a specimen of Gaga monstraparva.

The herbarium houses science that is utterly foundational. Scientists go into the field and see plants: “What’s that?” They grab a specimen and take it home, where they do molecular, morphological and genetic work to figure out where it fits. Then affix it to a piece of archival quality cardboard, label it with information about its species, genus and surroundings, and if it’s something new, the world knows about a new plant, and the scientist’s organization has something new to share. There are about 3,500 herbaria in the world, and their 400 million specimens include every plant we know about.

The Duke herbarium holds more than 825,000 plant species, making it one of the largest among U.S. universities. Protected in envelopes or affixed to archival card-stock sheets and filed, specimens allow scientists to return to particular species at any time: Does it for sure have those little hairs? Do seeds really weigh a quarter of a gram? New scientific capacities only increase specimen value: Scientists can now, for example, test DNA in specimens gathered before DNA was even discovered. Herbaria send specimens to scientists who need them, and  the scientists annotate them before returning, further spreading knowledge. “It really is the fundamental archive of plant and fungal biodiversity,” says professor of biology Jonathan Shaw, who focuses on bryophytes (mosses and such), of which Duke’s is one of the world’s primary collections.

But those samples are stashed in rows of cabinets in two separate areas on West Campus. The herbarium is out of space, and their future is uncertain. Campus space, staff and resources are scarce; specimens remain uncataloged and unfiled. Advances such as digitization make Pryer fear that some think actual plant samples are not worth keeping around. A “unique and irreplaceable resource,” according to a 2023 strategic plan, the herbarium faces an uncertain future. 

Pryer tours a visitor through the part of the herbarium housed in the Biological Sciences Building – three levels of cabinets stuffed full of plants in folders, squeezed into two stories of building. The other half of the collection resides two buildings away, beneath Duke’s Phytotron, where plants grow under controlled experimental conditions. At times the herbarium, which got its start with botanist Hugo Blomquist, who joined Trinity College in 1921, has lived in building hallways; at others it’s been banished to unreliable off-campus storage. Pryer describes various hopeful strategies for managing the herbarium in coming years. One hope is a possible home in Duke Gardens, where it could be made easily available to researchers and the public, or possibly sending some of its resources to other herbaria, leaving more space for the Duke herbarium’s stronger collections. That new strategic plan organized by Pryer and co-director Paul Manos says the herbarium averages 80 citations in peer-reviewed publications per year, which they note outperforms the citations of an average Nobel laureate, bringing the kind of attention universities crave.

Which brings up Lady Gaga. In 2012 Pryer and other researchers were going over the genetics of some desert ferns found in Central America, and they had an herbarium moment. “When you start comparing material,” she says, “you're working on two type specimens, and you realize, this [one] isn't even anywhere close to this thing. It's something new.” They realized that a new plant wasn’t just a new species – they were dealing with an entirely new genus of fern.

That meant it was naming time, and the lab loved Lady Gaga. More, the fern’s gametophyte looked like one of her costumes, and they produce spores that are sexually fluid; they even sometimes reproduce asexually. “It became a very exciting way” to support Lady Gaga’s “born this way” acceptance of sexual complexity. Sexuality “isn’t just blurry in humans,” Pryer says. “It’s blurry across animals, blurry in plants.” Finally, when graduate student Fay-Wei Li Ph.D.’15 was checking the ferns’ DNA, he found, among the G (guanine), C (cytosine), A (adenine) and T (thymine) base pairs that all similar ferns had, a unique string of four pairs: GAGA. And found them only in the new genus.

Most of the ferns had previously been cataloged, assigned to a different genus. After the DNA analysis, they were reassigned to the Gaga genus. But two of the species were brand new: Gaga monstraparva, named for her “little monsters” fans, and Gaga germanotta, for her original last name – she was born Stefani Germanotta. The new species drew media attention to the herbarium from all over the world.

Windham proffers a labeled archival card with the plant gently affixed: “This is the holotype of Gaga monstraparva,” he says. Holotype means it’s the single type specimen, from which the new species was identified. Duplicates of that are called isotypes, but monstraparva has none. “That is the only known specimen at this point,” Windham says. Staff is so short and time and space so tight that the specimen, from that 2012 identifying work, is still not yet filed in its special yellow type-specimen folder.

But it’s in the herbarium – as Lady Gaga says, “whether it’s broke or evergreen.”