This Week in History: An Innovative Plant Specimen Drier

Drying specimens in remote locations, without a source of electricity, used to be a huge challenge. But no more, thanks to an invention from one of the Royal BC Museum exhibit designers.

Royal BC Museum Curator of Botany Ken Marr, is showing me where the Royal BC Museum stores their botany collection.

“These are the cabinets where we store our plant specimens” explains Marr.

“The oldest specimen we have is 1895, and all these cabinets are organized alphabetically, according to genus and species.”

That enables botanists to quickly find what they need, from the 215-thousand specimen collection.

“Even these collections from 1896 still retain the colour, because they were dried properly” Marr points out, as he shows me one of the older RBCM specimens.

Drying specimens quickly is crucial.

Marr opens the door of a cabinet, which is designed specifically to dry specimens collected locally.

“Here’s a plant press. It needs warm air to move air up through the corrogated cardboard and wisks the moisture off the specimens that are inside this newsprint.
The bottom of this cabinet has a fan, and a heater, and we put the press in like this.”

Marr then closes the cabinet door, turns on the fan, and within two or three days, specimens are preserved.

In the field, drying is a little more basic. To illustrate that, Marr shows me a woodenbox, with a hole in the side to fit a hair-dryer nozzle into.

“The heat from the blow dryer goes up through the press, removing the moisture from the specimens” explains Marr.

Now, that system is fine when you have access to a plug, but these scientists can spend up to six days in remote locations with no electricity.

And, they arrive by helicopter, which has space, and weight, restrictions.

So, the botanists needed to find a light, portable box, and create a heat source that did not require electricity.

They came up with a heat source, a propane heater.

“This heater has really been key for us” says Marr, but of course, he points out, “it would only work, if we had a portable box.”

And so, the botanists turned to Colin Longpre, one of the Royal BC Museum exhibit technicians.

Longpre came up with an innovative design: four pieces of aluminum, welded together but able to fold up, with hinges, a floor, and a lid. sides,

“And the plant driers can be stacked on top, just like that” explains Longpre, “and the heat comes up, rises up through the plant heater, and the plants dry in a considerably shorter time than [Marr and his team] were experiencing before.”

Marr concurrs. “Using this system, we can get our specimens dry in twelve to eighteen hours.”

An innovative design, to ensure specimens collected in remote locations are perfectly preserved.