How It All Began

“As well as a flourishing library, the school by 1909 had a wood collection containing specimens of nearly all of Pennsylvania’s native trees and large shrubs. For each species, cross sections and radial and tangential sections had been prepared to show the gross appearance of the wood. The next step was the preservation of samples in alcohol and glycerin so that sections suitable for microscopic examination could be cut. These latter sections were to be especially useful in the study of timber physics (wood technology)." E.H. Thomas, “A History of the Pennsylvania State Forestry School, 1903 – 1929.” p. 67

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Shoulders of Giants

Today is a significant day of accomplishment in the Penn State Xylarium. I've been working for four years, off and on, organizing, validating, verifying, and re-naming specimens that were originally documented by Drs. Wallace White, Richard Jorgenson, Newell Norton, and their predecessors up until Dr. Norton's passing in 1968.

Here are Dr. Wallace White, and Mr. Richard Jorgenson, Professor and Instructor of Wood Technology at Penn State in 1951.

That's Dr. Newell Norton on the right in the tie, seated along with Forestry Instructor John Halberg, in 1951.
And here is what the sum of their work, sixty years in the effort, amounted to.

There were a total of 4,115 specimens organized and documented. These include 2,110 unique accession numbers assigned, but in their original reorganizing that was winnowed down to 2,005 unique specimens. My work on the collection has reduced that number down to 1,760 unique "accepted" species. In addition, there are an additional 31 species for which the proper identification is still unresolved in the scientific community.

The specimens represent 149 different biological families, and have been collected from 130 different countries (or states and provinces in North America) around the world. They were brought together from the collections of 30 different individuals or organizations, and represent the work of hundreds of different collectors. (That number will never be known, as only about forty percent of the specimens have voucher documentation indicating the name of the original collector.)

Practically none of these specimens are what we consider "standard" collector size today, as they were all collected prior to the formation of the "Wood Collectors Society" in the United States from which the final standard evolved. As a result, they are all different sizes, and Dr. Norton decided on four different shape classifications: Type I, which resemble today's standard specimens but are slightly smaller; Type II, which are very small sections, resembling cut-offs from the larger Type I specimens; Type III, which are round or semi-round specimens cut from either very small stems or branches of larger trees; and Type IV, which are blocks, or other odd shapes. I have not yet tabulated how many of each are, a task that remains for another month's worth of work.

All of these specimens have typed documentation (in triplicate!) on file which I used as the beginning of my examination of each specimen. In addition, the 2000 or so specimens from the collection of collector Joseph L. Stearns are all documented by hand by Mr. Stearns in his original notebook, and the 800 or so specimens from the "Project One" distribution by State University of New York have summary sheets and field sheets on file here in the lab.

All of the work is now summarized and available for inspection in the "Database" link in the right-hand column of this blog.

Dr. Norton apparently was the last scientist to work on the collection, his work continuing through the 1960's until his death in 1968. At that time, only about 2/3 of the collection was documented with access numbers. The remaining 1/3 of the collection still sits here, waiting for the next generation of researcher to take it on.

Which I will do, but I have a larger, more pressing task immediately in front of me.

My next line of focus will be to perform the same work on the 4,000 specimen collection of Dennis Brett, who donated his collection of seventy years of collecting to Penn State in 2016. Mr. Brett's collection will become the largest donation to the Penn State Xylarium, double the size of Mr. Stearn's contribution in 1956.

Obviously, I'm eager to get the new collection properly documented and entered into the database. So that comes next.

How long will it take? Well, that depends on any number of factors. Perhaps I will obtain funding that will allow me to step up the resources committed to the work. If not, it will take a while. But in this type of work, the journey is so much more enlightening than achieving the destination.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Re-assignment of Family Causes Heartbreak

Hamamelidaceae Liquidambar styraciflua.

Source: Sanchezn - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

This was my favorite scientific name in dendrology class back in college. We had to memorize about 150 tree names, and a few of them still rattle around in my brain occasionally. But Hamamelidaceae Liquidambar styraciflua pops instantly into my mind every time I pass a sweetgum tree. And they're almost everywhere east of the Mississippi, which means that wonderful name rings in my head all the time.

A Sweetgum in autumn. Source: Ontologicalpuppy - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
I just came across three specimens of L. styraciflua in my documentation project. Instantly the old satisfaction of allowing those sixteen syllables rolling off the tongue in my brain brought back the pleasant memories of collecting leaf samples in the cool autumn air of Nacogdoches, Texas.

But as I checked into The Plant List to confirm the Accepted Name (yes, it is still Liquidambar styraciflua L.) I received a shock. The Plant List had the Family listed as Altingiaceae! What the heck is Altingiaceae? I quickly clicked over to the Catalogue of Life and confirmed that, indeed, genus Liquidambar has been torn from the bosom of the witch-hazel family Hamamelidaceae, and transplanted into the unknown-to-me family of Altingiaceae.

Altingiaceae Liquidambar styraciflua?! Just doesn't have the same ring, the same rhythm. What were they thinking?

Well, according to Wikipedia...
"The name "Altingiaceae" has a long and complex taxonomic history. Some attribute the name to John Lindley, who published it in 1846. Others say that the authority for the name is Paul F. Horaninov, who described the group in 1841. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the family Altingiaceae was not generally accepted. Most authors placed these genera in Hamamelidaceae and this treatment has been followed in some recent works as well. In the twenty-first century, however, molecular phylogenetic studies have shown that including Altingiaceae in Hamamelidaceae makes Hamamelidaceae paraphyletic. The Angiosperm Phylogeny Group recognizes four families in the lineage including Altingiaceae. Cercidiphyllaceae and Daphniphyllaceae are sister. This clade is sister to Hamamelidaceae and these three families are sister to Altingiaceae. The clade is sister to Paeoniaceae."
So, the result of the best thinking on this subject is that the inclusion of Liquidambar in the Hamamelidaceae family is invalid, and the fifteen Liquidambar species have been sent to plant purgatory in the single-species family Altingiaceae.

So much the worse for modern-day dendrology students, who will never experience the pleasure of committing Hamamelidaceae Liquidambar styraciflua to memory.

A nice non-typical (spalted) specimen of L. styraciflua. Source: Penn State Xylarium.

Monday, April 10, 2017

An Update on Validation of Accepted Names

I've finished going through and finding all the Accepted Names of the species I've entered into the database. The results are in the tally description on the right.

An interesting note was that on my first pass using, I had 110 "unresolved" species names. The Plant List Version 1.1 is current as of September 2013. I then thought to check these 110 against a few other sites that I had not been using, and found that the site "" was current as of March, 2017. Searching these unresolved names on Catalogue of Life changed about 80 of them to "Accepted" names, about half of which were the same as the unresolved names, and the other half were different.

We live in a wonderful time when we can reconcile our areas of research across several online resources, and get a good sense of just how valid our determinations are.

Another note of interest to those of you who may be interested. I've posted a link called "Database" there in the right-hand column that will give you access to the most current version of the Penn State Xylarium worksheet. So you can see what I've entered into the database and keep up with my progress. Hopefully, I'll finish the data entry sometime this year...only about 8,000 to go.

Friday, March 17, 2017

My New Favorite Wood Species

As I confirmed the specimens in the collection with their Accepted Names, I ran across one I had not noticed before, and instantly liked it. The species?

Chukrasia tabularis A.Juss.

Why, you ask? Well, look at that genus name again, and then consider my name. I've got to like a genus named after me, don't I?

Well, maybe it wasn't named after me, but that is a distinguished genus, at any rate. And better yet, C. tabularis is the only accepted species in the genus. The Plant List cites thirteen species of Chukrasia, but the other twelve are all synonyms of C. tabularis.

Now, I halfway expected that any species coincidentally named after me would be some lowly, undistinguished little bush. But not so! Chukrasia tabularis in fact a fine wood. One of its more common names in English is Indian mahogany, and it has many characteristics of the true mahoganies, the Swietenia. In fact, it is a member of the same Meliaceae family.

Chukrasia tabularis (Penn State Xylarium)
Unfortunately, the similarity to Swietenia has caused it to have another more vulgar common name: bastard cedar. We'll ignore that one. It is also called White cedar, East-Indian mahogany, Indian redwood, Burma almond wood, Chickrassy, and Chittagong wood, depending on who is calling it.

From Wikipedia:
The Indian mahogany (Chukrasia tabularis) is a deciduous tree in the family Meliaceae. It is native to Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. Also introduced to many western countries such as Cameroon, Costa Rica, Nigeria, Puerto Rico, South Africa, and United States. The plant is widely used in Ayurveda as an important medicinal plant.
The trees are tall with a cylindrical bole and spreading crown. C. [tabularis] leaves are abruptly pinnate or bipinnate with leaflets that alternate or are subopposite, entire and unequal at the base. The erect, oblong flowers, which are rather large and born in terminal panicles, possess four to five petals. Mature fruits are a septifragally three to five valved capsule.
Chukrasia [tabularis] is the provincial flower and tree of Phrae Province, Thailand.
The wood has a texture and weight very similar to cedar and mahogany, with a sweet but slightly distinct odor. Instead of a cedary smell, I get cinnamon and chocolate. So not only is it beautiful, and workable, but it smells like a bakery confection! Can't get better than that.

Chukrasia tabularis, a wood worthy of its name.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Penn State Xylarium Makes Public Television

I think it was Andy Warhol who was once quoted as saying that everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame sometime in his or her lifetime. Well, my fifteen minutes was boiled down to less than five, but I'll take it. Our local PBS station, WPSU, did a feature on the Xylarium recently, and after an hour or so of interviewing and shooting video, they produced this four minutes and fourteen seconds of a program. And while I think they missed a lot of the essential facts I shared with them, they showed what interested them, and that's what is important, after all.


Monday, February 20, 2017

Observations on Updating Scientific Names of Older Specimens

Much of the Penn State Xylarium collection is comprised of very old specimens, those collected in the first half of the twentieth century. I am finding, as I go back and confirm the scientific names of the specimens that a surprisingly high percentage of them are not properly identified with current accepted names.

As I correct these names, I get the sense that somewhere between thirty and forty percent of the specimens are mislabeled. The obvious implication of this is that further collection efforts will be mistargeted unless these names are properly corrected to the modern name. It also means that unless the trading partner, or collection from which I make further acquisitions has been similarly updated, then I must be careful to confirm the specimen name prior to acquisition.

I don't think I have a qay to quickly tabulate the numbers on the whole collection, but here are a couple examples of how many species names are different than their original designation in the Penn State collection.

Quercus matches my original expectations. Only four of forty-two species, about 10%, in the collection had their names altered in the confirmation process (very slight spelling variations are not included). Those were:

  • Quercus breviloba, confirmed as Quercus sinuate var. breviloba
  • Quercus prinus, confirmed as Quercus michauxii
  • Quercus stellata var. margaretta, confirmed as Quercus margarettae
  • Quercus virginiana var. maritima, confirmed as Quercus hemisphaerica
Similarly, Eucalyptus has about a 10% correction rate; six of the 56 species in the collection had to have their name updated. Four of those were the result of the reclassification of several of the Eucalypts to Corymbia.

However, eight of the fourteen Eugenia in the collection had to be corrected to modern names, and most of those had completely different genus names.

Syzygium cumini (L.) Skeels, one of two specimens in the collection originally labeled as Eugenia jambolana.
I also find that if a specimen is a one-only, that is, the only specimen of a species in the collection, there is about a 50-50 chance that the correct modern name is something different, and most likely a different genus.

Overall, I sense that somewhere between thirty and forty percent of the collection is being renamed as I go through the name verification process. Most of those renames are not to other species in the collection, so the overall number of species in the collection is not shrinking by that much...they are mostly being named to other species that are unique to the collection.

At this point, I've confirmed about 2000 of the 3400 names I've entered into the database.
Another week or so, and then I'll be back to data entry of the identified specimens. This time, I'll verify the names as I enter them into the database. It'll go a little slower, but at least I'll have a running tally of the number of unique species in the collection.

I encourage collection curators to perform the same process on their collections, now that the internet makes it so easy. I wonder if this has been done to the really big collections in the Netherlands, Germany, Britain, and Wisconsin?

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Quantifying Anatomical Wood Features in Digital Images

As I work on the collection, I continually ponder the future research direction of the Xylarium. As I think of different issues, such as "How should I outfit the Xylarium lab for specific lines of research?" it is necessary to research the state of each area of research and the technology being used for each.

Which brought me to an excellent video posted by the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research Wood Science Laboratory. They demonstrate the latest in microscopic imaging that they use to perform quantitative analysis of anatomical features of wood samples; that is, they want to be able to perform statistical tests of hypotheses, specifically on climate change, and they need to have precise data on the size of tree cells and growth rings from year to year for the periods they are studying.

This is an introduction to how they do it.

G von Arx, A Stritih, K ÄŒufar, A Crivellaro, M Carrer. 2015. Quantitative Wood Anatomy: From Sample to Data for Environmental Research. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.3323.0169

Most of my thoughts around the use of the Xylarium collection have centered around qualitiative techniques, using macrophotography instead of the microphotography and imaging demonstrated in this video. However, depending on what research partners the Xylarium attracts, we may eventually go in this direction.

Time will tell.