Botany and Paleobotany

BySternberg Museum

Botany and Paleobotany

Fossil and Extant Plant Collections at Sternberg Museum of Natural History

J. R. Thomasson September 2011




1. Extant fungi: This collection houses more than 10,000 specimens collected by Elam Bartholomew and contemporaries between 1887-1934 and consists primarily of rust fungi on host vascular plants.  Specimens are preserved in envelopes and include detailed locality, collector, and habitat data.  Among these specimens are at least 100 primary types.   We have recently demonstrated the feasibility of using scanning electron microscopy to study  microfeatures of the fungal specimens (Pilger and Thomasson, 2005).  A biography of Elam Bartholomew authored by his grandson (Barthholomew, 1998) reviews the historical and scientific importance of the Bartholomew specimens.


2. Extant vascular plants:  More than 48,000 specimens of primarily angiosperms (60% curated and accessioned) are in this collection.  The Plains region of central North American is especially well represented by specimens in the collection, although significant exchange programs conducted by Bartholomew from 1887 – 1932 and F. W. Albertson from 1934 -1942 incorporated important elements of other regions in the collection.


3. Fossil plants: More than 100,000 fossil plant specimens are located this collection, nearly all of which are vascular plants.  Among especially well represented groups are Tertiary Gramineae, Cyperaceae, Boraginaceae, Ulmaceae and other flowering plants and various Paleocene and Cretaceous flowering and non-flowering plants.


Collections Details


Collections located at the Sternberg Museum (Table 1) include, 1) The Scotty’s Palms flora (Johnson et al., 2003), including 475 specimens recently used in a study of Denver Basin sediments by the Denver Museum of Science.   Specimens in this collection consist of slabs with multiple impressions or compressions of leaves with cuticle preserved, seeds, inflorescences, spore structures, and charcoalized wood fragments.  Slabs in the collection are generally 3-4 cm thick, and slabs with specimens vary from hand-sized to as large as 25 X 20 cm.  Leaf cuticles, spore structures, and charcoalized stem fragments show excellent cellular detail that is readily observed with the SEM.  A significant portion of this collection is stored in cardboard boxes and unavailable for study. , 2)   Plant specimens collected during the 1980s from Cretaceous claystone sediments in a clay pit near Hoisington, Kansas by Dr. Frank Potter, the previous curator of paleobotany at FHSU.  The collection consists primarily of slabs from hand-sized to as large as 30 X15 cm.  A number of studies of fossils from the site have demonstrated the importance and quality of the fossils from the Hoisington locality (Dilcher and Kovach, 1986, Skog and Dilcher, 1992).  Specimens collected by Potter, who assisted on at least one of the studies (Dilcher and Kovach, 1986), exhibit the same remarkable preservation and potential for study.  The majority of this collection is not presently accessible for study., 3)  Oligocene – Miocene plant and animal fossils collected by J. R. Thomasson and crews from 1976 – present (Diffendal, et al. 1982; Thomasson, 1979b, 1990, 2003, 2005; Thomasson, et al., 1990, among others.).   These fossils are currently housed in several different rooms at two different buildings.  Specimens include silicified reproductive structures (“seeds” for convenience) and leaf and stem fragments from a number of plant families, as well as a large assemblage of vertebrate fossils collected in direct association with many of the plant fossils .  Many specimens are accessible for study, but are not housed nor located in a manner that makes using them efficiently., 4) Large paleobotanical specimens.  These include, for example, a palm specimen (600 X 30 X 20 cm) from the Scotty’s Palms flora still enclosed in a plaster cast that weighs several hundred pounds, large slabs of Dakota Sandstone with Sassafras leaves weighing a hundred or more pounds each, and large fossilized Cretaceous logs.   While currently accessible for study, the specimens are stored on wooden tables or the floor (some paleobotany specimens) or on a variety of shelves and tables (fossil plants and vertebrates).  5) The Elam Bartholomew herbarium with at least 51,000 mounted and unmounted vascular plant and 6500 fungi specimens.  The herbarium was founded at FHSU in 1929 by Elam Bartholomew who also served as its first curator (Bartholomew, 1998).  Bartholomew originally established a homestead in 1876 less than 60 miles from FHSU, and developed an intense and lifelong interest in fungi and plants.  Working from his farm he eventually established himself as a leading agricultural botanist and mycologist, helping to discover and describe more than 400 new fungal taxa and maintained at one time for the USDA on his farm the largest alfalfa experiment station in the world.  He traveled widely throughout North America on fungi and plant collecting trips, eventually amassing more than 292,000 specimens (Muir, 1960).  Some of these were sold as exaccati to research and educational institutions worldwide to supplement his farm income and pay for his childrens’ education .   In 1912 he constructed a fireproof herbarium building on his farm to conduct his research and store specimens, and the original building remains at the location ( He also established correspondence and a specimen exchange program with many of his botanical and mycological colleagues worldwide, writing more than 4,500 such letters that are now preserved in the Bartholomew herbarium or in state historical archives in Topeka, KS.  Important historical groups of exchange specimens remaining in the herbarium include those from Blankenship, Lewis Rose, J. B. Ellis, W. A. Kellerman, and more than 30 others of the period.  Vascular plant specimens stored in standard herbarium cabinets and are properly mounted and available for study, but fungi specimens, while accessible, are severely overcrowded and remain in their original, deteriorating, high acid envelopes.  Although a recent SEM study of some of the fungi specimens has demonstrated their research potential (Pilger and Thomasson, 2005), their use is limited by their current storage conditions.





Table 1.  The status of fossil and extant plant collections in the Sternberg Museum – September 2011.  Numbers of specimens listed are conservative because collections are not fully curated.



number of specimens

 and type

Paleocene Scotty’s Palms 1500+ slabs (475 on loan to DMNH)
Cretaceous Dakota &

Hoisington Clay Pit

3200+ slabs

Tertiary “seed” A,

JRT sites 1-102

25,000+ in 2,600+ vials & matrix, 693 vertebrates
Tertiary “seed” B,

JRT sites 1-57, 80

32,000+ in 3,100+ vials and matrix


Tertiary “seed” C,

JRT sites 103-110

1,200+  in 150+ vials and matrix


710 brass disks with specimens, SEM types
SEM 2 250 brass disks with specimens, SEM types
SEM 3 500 brass disks with specimens, SEM types
H. C. Reynolds paleobotany materials Collection curation in progress; in excess of 1000 Cretaceous-Neogene fossils, mostly compression slabs
J. R. Thomasson & F. Potter Phd and other research materials 2850+ pollen and cuticle slides, grass spikelet vouchers, coal balls, field notebooks& records, other
Vascular Plant


32,120 mounted

16,500 unmounted

Bartholomew Fungi 10,000+ in envelopes, including 100+ types
Tertiary “seed” D,

type specimens

1000+ holotypes, isotypes & paratypes




Research and Resource Management Value


Significant collections of specimens relevant to research studies directed towards enhancing our knowledge about such questions as modern plant distributions, grass evolution and systematics, or the Tertiary, Paleocene, Cretaceous paleoclimates and paleoecology of central North America, natural resource management, among others, are in the Sternberg Museum and include:  1) Nearly all of the plant specimens (99%) used in Thomasson’s research on Oligocene-Miocene fossil grasses and associated angiosperms from 1976 – present (Thomasson, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1983, 1987, 2003, 2005; Thomasson et al., 1990), including all of the primary types and many of the secondary types for new.   In addition several thousand vertebrate and invertebrate specimens collected as biotas during those studies are in the collection (Thomasson et al. 1990), 2) Scotty’s Palms flora specimens on more than 1,500 slabs collected in 1992-1993 with support from the National Geographic Society by Thomasson and crews during studies at a site on the grounds of the U. S. Air Force Academy (Thomasson, 1994; Johnson, et al., 2003).  More than a third of these specimens are temporarily on loan to the Denver Museum of Science for a multi-faceted study of the Denver Basin strata, but will be returned and permanently housed at the Sternberg Museum when those studies are completed,  c) Over 3,000 slabs with specimens collected by Dr. Frank Potter and crews in the 1980s from Cretaceous strata  near Hoisington, KS.  Other investigators have described important new Cretaceous plant taxa from this site (Dilcher and Kovach, 1986; Skog and Dilcher, 1992), and the slabs collected by Potter exhibit equally well preserved vegetative and reproductive plant structures, d) The 32,000+ extant vascular plant specimens in the herbarium have been used extensively in historical and continuing studies of regional vegetation.  For example, each year since 2001 Thomasson and crews of students have used the herbarium’s collections in assisting private companies and federal agencies in developing regional plans for managing, conserving, and  utilizing natural resources on public and private lands.   During the summer of 2005 SES, Inc., a private company conducting multi-year rangeland resource surveys for the NRCS, employed  personnel (Thomasson and four undergraduate students) and used specimens associated with the Bartholomew herbarium extensively (> 100 hrs.) for the identification of more than 250 unknown specimens collected during their studies.  SES, Inc. has asked to continue the relationship with the herbarium during their studies in the summer of 2006 and beyond.  Similarly, each summer since 2001 Mergen Ecological Delineations of Colorado Springs, CO, has also employed herbarium personnel (Thomasson and graduate and undergraduate students) and used herbarium specimens during rare plants surveys for the U. S. Forest Service in Minnesota and South Dakota.  Results of the surveys have been used by the Forest Service primarily to develop timber management plans, and documenting the distribution of rare plants discovered during the surveys has required the use of herbaria (Thomasson, et al., 2006).


Education and Outreach


Staff of the Sternberg Museum, including curators, often participate in giving tours of collections areas to groups of visitors, both academic and the general public, in order to educate them on the role and importance of specimens and museums in education and elsewhere and also to make them aware of the needs museums have in maintaining and preserving collections.  For example, the herbarium is regularly visited by classes from the university (e.g., general biology, botany, plant taxonomy, etc.) and local high schools (e.g., biology and latin studies) and has been the site for family reunion visits for the family descendants of  Elam Bartholomew, the herbarium’s first curator.  Such visits are vital to museum and can provide especially positive developments for museums and their specimen collections.  For example, it was during one such visit to the herbarium by 65 members of a Bartholomew family reunion in 1999 that the idea for a herbarium endowment was suggested by Thomasson to the group.  Shortly thereafter the extended Bartholomew family, with special help from David Bartholomew, Elam’s grandson, established a herbarium endowment fund.  Since 2000 the fund has received in excess of $69,000 in donations from numerous individuals in at nine states from New Jersey to California and one corporation (Merrill Lynch & Co.).  Theses monies have allowed the herbarium to acquire such items as herbarium cabinets, computer systems, and supplies for daily activities as well as regularly hiring undergraduate students to work in the herbarium as research assistants.     Private companies and state and federal agencies will be better able to utilize information on extant specimens during such activities as rare plant surveys and rangeland resource inventories they conduct, and this will facilitate them in the development of more effective and sound conservation and management plans for living plants in the region.   Finally science endeavors such as studies of the evolution of grasslands will benefit because of the availability of specimens and specimen information to student and other professionals at academic institutions.


Summary – Plant Collections

            The paleobotanical collection contains over 100,000 specimens,  including more than 1,000 types, collected primarily in central North America from Texas to North Dakota, but also from as far west as Utah .  It houses the largest known collection of Oligocene-Miocene grass fossils, a large assemblage of Cretaceous macrofossils, an important Paleocene flora (Scotty’s Palms), and smaller but significant collections from notable localities such as Florrisant Fossil Beds, Ruby Basin, and Mazon Creek.  The herbarium houses over 48,000 vascular plant specimens, mostly angiosperms, and more than 10,000 fungi specimens, including a large rust element and over100 types.   More than 70% of the vascular plant specimens and 100% of the fungi specimens were collected between 1833 – 1940 and represent an invaluable scientific as well as historical resource.   From 1887 – 1926 Elam Bartholomew exchanged specimens with botanical and mycological colleagues worldwide (more than 4,000 letters documenting the exchanges are in state archives in Topeka, KS), and after his death F. W. Albertson continued to exchange specimens until 1942 (more than 500 of his exchange letters are archived in the Bartholomew herbarium).  Examples of botanists and mycologists represented in the collections by significant numbers of specimens include J. W. Blankinship, J. B. Ellis, R. C. Friesner, H. A. Gleason, A. S. Hitchcock, W. A. Kellerman, A. Nelson, H. W. Rickett, and many others.