By Zoe Ruffatto, Stephen J. Barnhart Herbarium Intern from 2022-2023
When you grow up at Bamboo Sourcery, where plants are the foundation of your family business, they can begin to lose their magic. Despite this, when I saw an application for the Stephen J. Barnhart Herbarium internship through the Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC), I decided I would throw my hat into the ring. Since my freshman year of high school, I had been yearning for a chance to be involved in biological research. It seemed likely that a yearlong internship at Pepperwood would give me the experience I was craving.
The internship application featured an essay prompt asking me to suggest a research project that I might like to undertake at Pepperwood’s Barnhart Herbarium. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no idea where to start. I knew I would have to ask for help, so I reached out to Jennifer Palladini (Adjunct Faculty at SRJC), who had been my Introduction to Principles of Biology professor during my first semester at SRJC in 2019 as a dual enrollment high school senior. As fortune would have it, she was one of the supporters of the internship. My email asking for guidance was met with enthusiasm and her reassurance that I did not need to have a fleshed out project to get the spot. When I submitted my application, I did not think much would come from it, assuming that there would be other students with more complete ideas, students who would be more likely to be chosen.
To my surprise, my application was accepted and I was offered the internship. As I dove into my first semester of organic chemistry class at SRJC, I was now tasked with deciding how to spend my time at Pepperwood. At my first meeting with Michelle Halbur (Pepperwood’s Preserve Ecologist), Jennifer Palladini, Shawn Brumbaugh (Faculty at SRJC), and Peggy Rockwood, I was again reassured that I could start small and simple; before worrying about creating a research project, they suggested I take some time to really learn about plants. I excitedly watched lecture videos from Palladini’s botany class and took notes on plant physiology and taxonomy. And then it was time for me to start in the herbarium.
Despite having volunteered at Pepperwood in the past, it wasn’t until I was a Barnhart Intern that I discovered the treasure trove of pressed plants, organized in large steel-gray cabinets housed within the Dwight Center’s walls. Only then, did I begin to grasp the true majesty of the Barnhart Herbarium. I grew excited to learn about what specimens the herbarium held and what such a collection represented. I quickly learned that this room was the foundation of a great deal of research, and that the Herbarium was able to trade specimens with other herbariums for further studies in numerous areas of botany and ecology. Not only did the pressed specimens provide time capsule-like glimpses into what Pepperwood had looked like in years past, but they served as genetic storehouses and milestones of life after fires.
Together, Peggy and I began filing the pressed specimens collected by other volunteers and employees at Pepperwood that had yet to find their homes in the large manila folders filling the herbarium. Each large piece of paper had beautifully pressed plants, flowers, and sometimes even envelopes of seeds. On the corner of each paper was an information tag that told us exactly where it had been collected and often offered insight into interesting aspects of the collection environment. I quickly began to relish the simplicity of the task of organizing and looking at the samples: increasing order gave me a sense of calm that was a welcome break from the confusion and stress of school.
By the second semester of the school year, with my heavy school load, I realized that my lofty goal of creating and implementing my own research project was unsustainable. I also came to recognize the value of investing myself in learning as much as I could about plants and the herbarium. By the end of my year at Pepperwood, all the piles of unfiled specimens had found their home. I not only gained practice using Jepson e-flora, keying plants that Peggy brought from her garden, but was also proficient in entering specimens into the Consortium of California Herbaria database (CCH2). Together, Peggy and I were able to ensure that almost all of the specimens in the entire Stephen J. Barnhart Herbarium were entered in this database, meaning that this information could be accessed by the public. By preserving the history of Pepperwood in those manila folders, safe from insects and light, I realized that although I had not created a research project myself at Pepperwood, my work in the herbarium would be of benefit for years and years of research to come.