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PROFILE: Volunteer Cultivates McMicken's Not-So-Secret Herbarium

Volunteer Vic Soukup is planting the seeds for future growth in UC's herbarium.

Date: 8/2/2004 8:00:00 AM
By: Billie Dziech Photos By: Jay Yocis and McMicken College of Arts & Sciences
UC ingot Every college has its secret places, forgotten or unknown treasures that hold keys to the future as well as the past and present. One of these on UCís campus is McMicken Collegeís herbarium, a quiet room that sits in 1600 Crosley Tower above the noise of construction and chattering students rushing to class. Its unassuming appearance, that of a large room filled with cabinets containing pressed and dried plants, belies it significance.

ďThe herbariumís purpose is plant identification, which underlies our knowledge in so many different areas ranging from human allergies to implications for bioterrorism,Ē says Theresa Culley, an assistant professor of biological sciences. She notes that the herbarium receives continuous calls from physicians at the Drug and Poison Information Center and the Medical Center asking for identifications of plants people have eaten or reacted to.

What most of the public doesnít know is that McMickenís herbarium ranks among the top ten percent in the United States because of the size of its collection, its range, and its scientific value. When Margaret Fulford, professor of botany, began the facility, there were only thirteen sheets of pressed plants. Today there are more than 70,000 specimens, many of them unique.

Extraordinary places require exceptional people to maintain them, and Victor Soukup, volunteer associate curator of the herbarium and adjunct professor of biological sciences, is one of those individuals.  Soukup's 29-year commitment to the facility, along with that of generations of biology faculty, is the key to its success.  Chances are, if you visit the herbarium, you'll encounter Soukup, who spends forty hours a week there, painstakingly working over plant specimens, many of which are more than a century old.

These will be part of the Curtis Gates Lloyd (1859-1926) collection that is on permanent loan to UC from the Lloyd Library. Lloyd was an amateur botanist who searched the globe in the late 1800s for medicinally important plants to be used in the family's Homeopathic Medicine Company. In addition to the thousands of specimens he personally collected, thousands of others were sent to him from around the world, primarily by Jesuit missionaries. Lloyd pressed each specimen, glued it to an individual page on which he made notations, and inserted it into one of several large books to be used for future reference.

But he did not anticipate the ravages of time on the increasingly fragile specimens, and this is where Soukupís contribution becomes invaluable. To restore the collection, Soukup meticulously removes each of the dried plants that is affixed to paper brittle with age and then remounts it onto archival paper. Thus far he has remounted over 4,000 specimens that serve as an irreplaceable source of historical and botanical information about the location of plants a century ago.

Soukupís contributions donít stop with the Lloyd collection, however. A specialist in the plant genus Trillium, he has discovered, several new species, and his collecting trips to China and Japan have boosted the reputation of the Trillium collection to one of the best in the world. In addition, Soukup enhances UCís stature by facilitating loans from the herbarium to museums and universities around the globe. He has also assisted the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in a project to document changes in the number of native plants in the Cincinnati area since the early 1800s.

As if these accomplishments arenít enough, Soukup currently works with members of McMickenís chemistry department to study two problems: (1) the nature of chemical compounds in Trillium seeds to which ants are attracted to learn more about the process by which they disperse seeds even to great distances and (2) the acids of the seed fats of the worldwide Jack-in-the-pulpit family in order to learn more about the origins and evolution of this very important group of plants. Already seven acids, previously unknown to science, have been found.

Professor Soukupís reputation reaches far beyond UC and its herbarium. He has received worldwide attention for his extensive and ongoing study of wildflowers of the globally dispersed Jack-in-the-Pulpit family, and his research has been reported at national and international meetings and in several journals. He recently authored a chapter in The New Flora of China, and his work is cited throughout The Orchids of Venezuela.

In a very real sense, Victor Soukup is a man for all seasons in a place that is not so secret after all.  

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