October 26, 2021

Victorian Pressed Flowers May Shed Light on Climate Change

Victorian collectors who picked a variety of flowers 150 years ago may turn out to be an important new resource for scientists studying climate change.

A shortage of sound long-term records on phenology – the study of climate-based events like the dating of trees when they come into leaf or flowers blooming every spring – have impeded scientists’ comprehension of how plant species react to changes in climate.

Pressed Flowers Tell Story of Climate Change

Pressed Flowers Tell Story of Climate Change

However a team of ecologists, including scientists from England’s University of East Anglia, have discovered that flowers pressed by amateur botanists 150 years ago all seem to confirm warmer springs, contributing to earlier flowering, quite similar to recent field-based findings of flowering.

More than 75 examples of the early spider orchid (Ophrys sphegodes) gathered during the period of 1848 to 1958 were analyzed by the team. Since each specimen contained details of date and location where it was picked, researchers have been able to match this with meteorological data to investigate the impact of average spring temperatures on the orchids’ flowering.

By then comparing the results with field observations of flowering of the identical orchid species in East Sussex, from 1975 to 2006, it was discovered that the response to flowering date to temperature was the same in both specimens.

According to ecologists, the findings are the first direct proof that collections of pressed plants can be used to examine associations between phenology and change in climate when field-based data is unavailable, a common occurrence.

The research may unlock essential new uses for the two and a half billion animal and plant specimens kept in natural history museums and herbaria. Scientists hope that similar principles from the study might even be extended to include numerous museum collections of animals and insects..