Science & Technology

Hidden Gem: USU's Intermountain Herbarium Serves Scholars, Professionals and Citizen Scientists

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

Video by Taylor Emerson, Digital Journalist, University Marketing & Communications

Tucked away in a basement facility on Utah State University’s Logan campus, the Intermountain Herbarium is a treasure trove of plant, fungi and seed specimens.

“It’s a hidden gem,” said Intermountain Herbarium Director Carl Rothfels. “We support research, teaching and outreach for academic professionals as well as the general public.”

Situated in the basement of The Junction dining hall, just north of Richards Hall at about 750 North 1050 East, the Intermountain Herbarium is the largest public herbarium in the Intermountain West. The facility houses more than 300,000 specimens and supports an online specimen database with multiple portals.

“These specimens, the oldest of which is more than 200 years old, provide a priceless snapshot of a particular plant in a particular place in a particular time,” said Rothfels, associate professor in the Department of Biology and the USU Ecology Center. “Herbaria collections like ours are foundational to botanical science, and are a valuable resource for a range of other disciplines, including the arts and humanities.”

Peter Adler, director of the USU Ecology Center and professor in the Department of Wildland Resources, says the herbarium’s staff and collections are key resources for scientists studying plant population and community ecology.

“We can’t perform this research unless we can identify species,” Adler said. “More and more research efforts rely directly on the specimens in herbarium collections. These specimens are being used to study long-term changes in flowering times, functional traits and even genetics.”

He adds the herbarium plays a critical role in training plant taxonomists of the future.

Faculty members from varied USU departments routinely bring their students to the herbarium, to make them aware of the resource, how to use it and to introduce them to its utility for research.

“The herbarium has been essential for a field-intensive botany course we teach each summer,” said wetlands ecologist Karin Kettenring, professor in the Department of Watershed Sciences and the USU Ecology Center. “We take students to the field in the morning and bring back plant samples in the afternoon to work on identification in the herbarium. The herbarium provides the equipment, various keys and guides, along with expertise and the incredible number of plant resources that we can use for verification purposes.”

Kettenring adds her undergraduate and graduate student researchers often seek guidance from the herbarium staff and its collections to identify wetland plants and aquatic species in their experiments.

“The herbarium staff has been super-helpful to us,” she said. “Having skilled botanists to help us navigate wetland plant identification has allowed us to formalize our collective knowledge from years of research about wetland plants into two key guides that are heavily used by people studying our region’s wetlands.”

Kettenring says this knowledge is critical to current efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and the spread of invasive species that threaten the area’s native watershed and wildlife resources.

Molly Cannon, professional practice assistant professor in USU’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and executive director of the USU Museum of Anthropology, brings students from her Introduction to Museum Studies class to the herbarium each year.

“I feel it is important for students to see examples of different types of museum collections, research that utilizes museum collections and the varied challenges museums face in collections management,” Cannon said. “The herbarium director and staff have always provided my students with a unique perspective for working with and preserving botanical collections.”

During each academic year, Cannon also collaborates with herbarium staff to host an ethnobotany program and plant identification workshop at the USU Museum of Anthropology.

Beyond USU faculty, local professionals, including USDA Poisonous Plants Laboratory scientist Daniel Cook, regularly seek the herbarium’s assistance with research and community needs.

“Herbarium staff have helped in identifying various plants for different research projects and the herbarium’s voucher specimens have been used for scientific studies investigating the chemical composition of different plants,” Cook said.

The ability to identify plants is vital, he says, when grazing livestock are inadvertently poisoned by toxic forages.

“Using herbarium specimens, we have been able to understand the absence or presence of certain toxins in plants that have helped provide valuable information to livestock producers,” Cook said. “Herbaria are a valuable resource to our lab and to science in general.”

In addition to professionals, the Intermountain Herbarium opens its doors to the public, offering opportunities for plant enthusiasts of all ages to get help identifying “mystery” plants and to learn about botany.

“We host weekly gatherings and occasional open houses where we encourage citizen scientists to visit the herbarium and talk with us,” Rothfels said. “We want to foster widespread interest in plants.”

He also plans a botany trip later this summer, open to plant enthusiasts of all skill levels, called the Intermountain Botanical Foray.

“We held our inaugural foray in June 2023 and it was a great success,” said Rothfels, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award recipient. “We’re looking to a trip this summer, dates to be announced, to a site in the Manti-La Sal National Forest in central Utah.”

USU's Intermountain Herbarium, located on the Logan campus in the basement of The Junction dining hall, welcomes plant enthusiasts of all ages and skill levels. The facility, which supports research, teaching and outreach, is the largest public herbarium in the Intermountain West. (Photo: USU/M. Muffoletto)


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


Carl Rothfels
Director, Associate Professor
Intermountain Herbarium, Department of Biology and USU Ecology Center


Plants 190stories

Comments and questions regarding this article may be directed to the contact person listed on this page.

Next Story in Science & Technology

See Also