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Faculty Focus: Behind the Scenes in the Vascular Plant Herbarium

Dr. Alexander Krings holds a folder containing one of the Vascular Plant Herbarium's plant specimens.
Dr. Alexander Krings directs NC State's herbarium.

You could hardly imagine a more nondescript setting: cinderblock walls and tile floors surround row upon row of wooden filing cabinets in three adjoining rooms of Gardner Hall. Behind the doors of those cabinets? Thousands and thousands of multi-colored folders, each containing – drumroll, please – a fragile, brown, dried-up plant sample.

But ask Dr. Alexander Krings to explain the significance of those dried plants, and you cannot walk away unimpressed. Amassed here are between 110,000 and 120,000 specimens reflecting more than 400 million years of evolutionary connections among plants from around the world.

As vascular plant herbarium director and assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, Krings is charged with maintaining and growing this collection. He’s also responsible for developing tools – including books, websites and even mobile apps — that make it possible for scientists, students, farmers, Extension agents, environmental educators, landowners and others to correctly identify plants.

Krings, an authority on climbing milkweeds who holds three degrees from NC State, sat down recently to talk about his background and his current research, teaching and Extension work.

How did you end up at NC State?

I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and came to NC State for my undergraduate degree. I started out in secondary education – I was going to be a teacher – but early on in the program I realized there were a lot of other things that interested me, as well. I took a class in forestry with Dr. [Richard] Braham, which was very exciting. So I ended up majoring in natural resources. From there, I just absolutely fell in love with taxonomy and plants.

I was always interested in the outdoors. Growing up on the coast, I really appreciated beautiful landscapes and being outdoors. But once I started getting older and learning individual names for organisms and plants and trees – it changed my perspective and opened my eyes in terms of the world and understanding how things are put together – or at least wanting to understand how things are put together.

What led you to want to become a herbarium director?

If you want to learn plants, there’s nothing like the herbarium, because it is, essentially, the flora of a place at your fingertips, in our case North Carolina and the Southeast. You wander those cabinets, and all those species are there. You can learn so much, so fast. So from the personal curiosity level, the herbarium is an amazing place.

From the scientific perspective, there are so many things that the herbarium is important for. It’s exciting professionally because you never have a monotonous day.

What’s your typical day like?

I don’t think I have the same day twice in terms of what I do. It can be anything from spending time with the specimens in the herbarium, either studying them or curating them, working on the biodiversity and informatics aspect of them or digitizing the specimens we have. … Or I can be in the field or the classroom or giving a workshop on rare plants or plant identification.

Why are herbaria important?

Let me take a step back from there. Let me start with plant taxonomy — as that’s what herbaria support, at their very core: Taxonomy deals primarily with understanding the units of nature – species, genera and so forth – their relationships, and putting correct names on them. Taxonomy is fundamental to any discipline that needs to communicate information about organisms. So plant taxonomy fundamentally facilitates the communication of information about plants. … However, without biological research collections like herbaria, taxonomy could not function as a field, which in turn would result in nomenclatural ambiguity, and researchers in other fields that involve plants couldn’t very precisely communicate their discoveries, hampering the advancement of science and knowledge.

The mission of our herbarium is to document and understand plant diversity and to transfer that knowledge to users who depend upon it. And that is a broad range of users. At the core, we support the taxonomic community in its work helping circumscribe the units that we find in nature.

But the basic knowledge that taxonomists generate is also aggregated in larger, more applied works – publications like The Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas or even websites such as The Trees of North Carolina – that reach broader audiences that could be curious or could actually need to have access to that information in order to do their jobs. If you are managing the land, for example, you need to know what’s out there.

Many of our works are developed for a very specific audience. For example, our work on Rare Plants of North Carolina is built for environmental consultants conducting surveys for federally listed species. We’ve also developed a significant work on citrus in collaboration with researchers at the University of California-Riverside and the U.S. Department of Agriculture [Citrus ID: Hosts and Potential Hosts of Citrus Pests and Diseases in the United States] that is intended for the citrus industry, which is suffering because of citrus greening and other threats. With over 12,000 images, it’s perhaps the most heavily illustrated citrus resource to date.

We also have a longstanding plant identification program. Most of the plants we get are from the Cooperative Extension system – agents and Master Gardeners working on behalf of their clients – and that can be anyone from homeowners who want to know if they need to kill a particular weed before it takes over their plant beds to farmers concerned about whether a plant is poisonous to their livestock.

We’ve also gotten requests related to human and pet poisonings from time to time, as well. One time I even had to go to the emergency room because a child ate a berry – fortunately, it turned out fine. It was not a poisonous berry.

The point is that we reach a lot of people with very different needs and interests.

What’s your favorite part of your work?

I know this may sound contrived, but I really like all aspects of my job. It’s fun, it’s diverse, and it’s impactful. And I get to work with a really great team all around – from the students to the department to everyone I work with in the Extension system. It’s a neat place to be.