We are fortunate to have the University of Tennessee Herbarium, a nationally recognized facility, that houses over 600,000 specimens of plant species, including flowering plants, ferns, mosses, liverworts, and fungi. One of the Herbarium’s many resources is the Tennessee Vascular Plant Occurrence Database. It is the resource we use in the Tennessee Smart Yards Native Plant Database to indicate where plants listed in our database occur within the state. Although we provide only a general description of where plants occur in Tennessee, you can easily use the Herbarium’s database to identify specific county locations for a plant and whether that plant occurs naturally in your county.
We live in one of the most botanically diverse and interesting states in the nation, and the Vascular Plant Occurrence Database contains nearly 9,000 photos and 2,900 distribution maps of plants. One cannot help but wonder how such a large database was created. The key has been dried and pressed plant specimens. Collecting plant specimens is an old art, practiced since the late 15th century, when they were collected for medical, herbal or ceremonial uses. Today they are collected as part of scientific research, housed in herbaria, and used to provide a record of when and where a plant was growing.
The Tennessee Herbarium’s collection of dried specimens dates back to 1934, when a fire burned the previous collections. In addition, Austin Peay State University, Vanderbilt University and the University of Memphis provided county records, and ultimately all the records associated with dried specimens were loaded into the Tennessee Vascular Plant Occurrence Database in 1996 and made available on-line in 1997.
Although the state is pretty well collected with thousands of records, new information comes in on a regular basis and is added to the database. Generally, new additions are based on specimens that are pressed and dried. However, sometimes it is done from high quality photographs. Most new submissions come from herbaria staff but also from members of native plant societies and graduate students. However, anyone can submit a sample for possible inclusion in the database, either to demonstrate a new plant species or a new location for plant species already in the database. If you don’t have a plant press, you can press the specimen between sheets of newspaper in a book until dry or you can submit a high-quality photograph. Either way, be sure to note the date and exact place where the plant was found.
The Vascular Plant Database receives over 33,000 visits per year. Staff work to make it easy to use, and it is a great resource for questions on our Tennessee native plants and where they are found. You can find it at http://tenn.bio.utk.edu/vascular/vascular.shtml