February 21, 2007
By David Driver
Used with permission
Snow covers the ground like an icy white veil while the wind howls on a grey February afternoon.
But at the Ted R. Bradley Herbarium on the Fairfax Campus, Andrea Weeks has been processing plants she collected from a recent trip to Namibia – where the temperature was more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
When Weeks gets a specimen, she stores it for about 10 days at minus 80 degrees Celsius before she files it in large metal cabinets in Room 16 of Krug Hall. Weeks uses acid-free paper she says should last for centuries.
Weeks has been the director of the Bradley Herbarium since September 2005. The herbarium – a collection of dried plant specimens, mounted and systematically arranged for scientific reference – is the fifth-largest out of 23 herbaria in Virginia, and is the archival reference of more than 60,000 specimens. Most herbaria are associated with universities, museums or botanical gardens.
In Mason's collection, manila folders hold Virginia specimens, yellow folders contain specimens from outside the state but in the United States, and orange folders are for specimens brought to the herbarium from other countries. The herbarium has specimens from Puerto Rico, Canada, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Peru and now Namibia, among other countries, thanks mainly to Mason faculty members and students who have done field work in those locales. However, less than 10 percent of the specimens are from tropical climates.
“We probably have the best collection of flora from Northern Virginia, in Virginia, if not the country,” says Weeks, who estimates that nearly 70 percent of the collection comes from Virginia. “We have a Northern Virginia focus.”
Weeks notes that many plants were taken from areas of Northern Virginia now paved with asphalt. “We really have (at the herbarium) an important part of our heritage that is lost,” she says.
Some of the specimens at Mason are wrapped in newspapers from the 1980s and earlier. Ted Bradley, for whom the herbarium is named, began collecting specimens in 1967. Weeks came to Mason about one year after his retirement. She has corresponded with Bradley, but has never met him; Bradley now lives in Costa Rica.
“Dr. Bradley built it from scratch. It is a life’s work. It is a wonderful resource that George Mason has,” says Weeks, who is an assistant professor in Environmental Science and Policy.
Representatives from the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arlington County Natural Resources Inventory and the city of Alexandria flora project have recently visited the herbarium at Mason to verify plant identifications. But Weeks wants to get the word out to more students and scholars that the Bradley herbarium is available for research and for service-learning experiences.
In an effort to raise external visibility, Weeks has established ties with Meadowlark Botanical Garden in Vienna, Va. She is on the board of the MBG Deidra Turnage Trust Internship, which funds one student annually to work in conservation biology or garden management. Currently, one Mason undergraduate is being supported by this internship.
Weeks has also reached out to her peers in the commonwealth in the short time she has been at Mason. She was the point person behind a meeting held in late January in Charlottesville among representatives from the herbaria in Virginia. Weeks says it was the first meeting of its kind. “There is strength in numbers,” she says.
Weeks is currently working on a database for the herbarium. She has exchanged specimens with the Smithsonian Institution and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, as well as other herbaria. Weeks is also teaching two classes this semester, Biology 345, Plant Communities, and Biology 344, Taxonomy of Flowering Plants, in the spring.
“I am never bored,” says Weeks, who has a doctorate in plant biology from the University of Texas at Austin.
For information about visiting the herbarium, contact Weeks at 703-993-3488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.