Northland Uncovered: Olga Lakela Herbarium

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DULUTH, Minn.  —

Dr. Amanda Grusz knows more about plants than just about anyone you’ll meet.

She has to.

As the director of the Herbarium at University of Minnesota Duluth, Dr. Grusz must be intimately familiar with the nearly 50,000 specimens the collection holds.

“One could start with the simple question of ‘How do you know something is a new species?’” Dr. Grusz says, explaining what the herbarium is all about.  “Well, you have to compare it to what is there to be able to look for characteristics that make it unique.”

The herbarium is named after Olga Lakela, a Finnish immigrant who moved to Duluth when she was a girl at the turn of the 20th century.

Lakela was an ambitious and intelligent teenager, leaving home for university studies at the age of 17.

“She was working as a clerk in candy store,” explains Dr. Grusz, paraphrasing from an unofficial biography.  “She overheard these young men talking about a university where they could go and learn English.”

After getting her degree in English at Valparaiso University, Lakela went into science, specifically biology and botany.

She founded the Herbarium in 1935.

Olga went on to become the first head of the Biology Department back in the 1940s when Duluth State Teachers College became the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Now, the herbarium that is her namesake continues a legacy that she started at a time when being a strong woman leader, especially in the sciences, was not very common.

“She was the head of the department,” Dr. Grusz emphasized.  “She wasn’t just an acknowledged professor.  She was leading all of the other professors.”

Deb Pomroy is an assistant scientist at the herbarium.

She’s been a vital contributor to the collection since around 1990.

“I have a picture of [Olga] on the wall,” Pomroy said.  “I feel like she’s looking over my work all the time.”

One of Deb’s primary jobs is arranging the once-living plant specimens that the herbarium catalogs.

When plants are gathered in the field, the scientists here must get them ready to be pressed and arranged almost immediately.

Pomroy demonstrates how they press the plants, by showing us the many layers of wood and cardboard they use in the process.

“We’ve got these ventilator holes right here,” she says, pointing out the cardboard layers.  “The plant dryer has heaters underneath and it will allow the heat to come through these ventilators and dry the plants faster; that helps preserve the color also.”

And then comes the delicate process of making sure the plant displays both look good and are viable for scientific study.

“When I’m done with these, if I frame them and hang them on the wall it should look like a picture,” Pomroy said.  “So there’s a little bit of art in it also.  It’s science and it’s an art both.”

From dozens of different ferns, to carnivorous plants, to invasive species that live out in ditches along the highway, the Olga Lakela Herbarium is a huge resource.

“For us to even begin to understand what kind of diversity is out there, we need these as a reference tool,” Dr. Grusz said.

And it’s a growing legacy of the ambitious woman who founded this facility, all those decades ago.

“When you’re able to look back on a legacy like hers, it gives you an idea of what your own legacy could be,” Professor Grusz said.  “It’s motivating and kind of inspiring actually.”

And thanks to an endowment given to the university by Olga Lakela herself, Amanda Grusz and her colleagues can continue their work here for many years to come.

The Olga Lakela fund helps the herbarium and its staff continue their work and their research.

They are always accepting donations, and you can find a link for how to give on the herbarium’s web page.

Categories: Northland Uncovered