Collecting Protocols

Photo: Paul Wilson

Collecting bryophytes CORRECTLY is very important. When properly curated, your collections will last forever, and will be a permanent record documenting the presence of that plant in that place at that time. It is worth doing right. Fortunately, bryophytes are easy to collect and preserve. There is no pressing or mounting involved, all you have to do is dry them, and put them in a permanent packet with good collection data.

How much should you take? The answer to this question depends on how much of the plant is present. NEVER take more than 20% of the population that you can find with 10 m of where you stand, but if there is a decent amount, take enough to fill your palm. If ripe capsules are present, include them. Remember that permits are required to collect on public lands.

Guidelines for collecting are also addressed in an article by Jason Brooks in Bryolog 31.

Collecting Packets

What do I collect into? Many bryologists just plop the plants in a small flat brown paper bag such as those in which postcards are sold. Others believe the best way is to put them in a homemade paper packet that is much like the packet in which the specimen will ultimately be kept. The figure on the right shows how to fold the packets.

  1. Take an 8.5″ x 11″ piece of paper, and fold it in thirds as though it were going to be put it into a business envelope (top of figure).
  2. Then open the top fold and fold the sides in about 1.25″ (middle of figure).
  3. You can write your collection data on the front flap, put your plant in the packet, and close the flap (bottom of figure).

If you use regular copy paper, it works fine collecting dry plants, but if you pluck a moss out of a stream, the whole packet turns to a soggy mess with blurred writing! To prevent this problem, use rite in the rain paper.

You might also choose to photocopy a form onto your packet paper before folding. Then in the field, circle the appropriate substrate, habitat, etc. before stuffing the packet. To download the template, CLICK HERE or on the template figure. When you are ready to put the collection into a herbarium packet, you may cut out the form and stick it with the plant into the herbarium packet. Other people make separate forms rather than photocopying onto the rite in the rain paper.

As is appropriate, every experienced collector has their own methods and preferences. These are just a couple ideas that work well. What is crucial is to attach the important information to the collection so that future workers can make use of your specimen. Now don’t think that just because you are a beginner that your collections are not worth saving! It is very common for beginners in California to find species new to the state. A fresh pair of eyes sees new things. Here is a list of the collection data that should be included:

  • Collector’s name
  • Collection number—This is a unique number assigned by the collector. We recommend a consecutive numbering system, without dates or initials included. Just start with 1 for your first collection, and go on from there.
  • Collection date—We recommend spelling out the month so no one mistakes it for the day.
  • Location—State, County, Township, the name of any state park or national forest, and how someone might be able to return to the location, e.g., “2 miles east of the intersection of the Basin trail and the Pony trail.” or “Along Hwy 42 near mile marker 25.1.”
  • Range, Township, Section—This is going out of fashion, but certain government agencies require this information.
  • Mesohabitat—Collected in an oak forest, grassland, in a ravine, on a lake shore?
  • Latitude and Longitude—Some people use UTM, but we prefer decimal degrees.
  • Elevation—An estimate is okay. If you have very good latitude and longitude, you can usually check the elevation online.
  • Microhabitat:
    • Substrate—Was the plant growing on rock, bark, soil, or what? A great deal of information can go here.
    • Incline—What is the slope of the surface upon which the clone was found?
    • Drainage—How quickly do you think that little spot would dry out? Dries quickly; dries in days; dries in weeks; seasonally moist; submerged.
    • Shadiness—full shade, 3/4 shade, 1/2 shade, 1/4 shade, full sun.


As soon as possible, and certainly within 48 hours, start drying your collections. If you don’t, they will become moldy. If you’re driving, spread them out on the back seat. If you’re sleeping, stand them up like a campground full of tents. You should not need heat, but a weak fan can help. Of course, if you do have a herbarium drying oven, then use it.

While they are drying, prepare a draft label, and staple it to the packet. This way, if they sit around for a while, all of the collection information is attached to the collection. Do not rely on your memory!

When you get serious about collecting anything, you will need some sort of database. With it, you can catalog your collections, and retrieve the information that they generate. If you are clever with computers, you can design one of your own. Many bryologists type their data into Excel, and then use Mail Merge in Word to make the labels. You would need fields for all of the collection data mentioned above, and one for species, name authority (the name of the botanist who originally described the species), and others that you might find useful. The other plan, for those who do not get along with Microsoft, is to buy or download a program. The UC Davis Herbarium Management System can be downloaded for free. Jim Shevock uses Labelquest, a commercial database designed for herbarium labels. It is available only by contacting Lanier Software.

Identifying your Specimens

Here is the difficult part. It might also be the part that attracts you to bryology in California. The science and literature are such that you will find some specimens that are beyond your ability to identify. You should do what you can yourself, but you might be able to recruit some more experienced person to help out a little. The protocol is to first ask permission to send someone a specimen or a few, and if permission is granted, you send the expert a labeled packet with your plant that he/she keeps in exchange for the determination. This is another reason to collect an amount sufficient to split up, so you can keep enough to study once the identification has been made. Make sure that you send a well labeled specimen, as a packet without collection data is useless to everyone. Also clues to an identification can be gleaned from label data. After the identification has been made, it is your responsibility to send a completed label to the expert on 100% cotton paper, so that the collection can be stored in the herbarium of the expert’s choice. In addition to this friendly “gift for dep” deal, California is home to a number of skilled bryologists who will identify specimens for a fee. Regardless, don’t be surprised if people find it difficult to put a name on every specimen or if they say they are not available. Reliable identification is highly time consuming. Enjoy the specimens you can get identified, and save the others for future study, perhaps sorted to genus.

Permanent Storage

When your plants are dry, and you have identified them, you are ready to put them in archival packets. If you are planning on donating them to an herbarium, contact that herbarium for their specific requirements. But even if you are going to keep them at home, they deserve proper storage. First, we recommend making a packet (like the collecting packet) out of 100% cotton paper. Then glue a label with typewritten collection data on to the front flap. Alternatively, you could print out a page with the collection label on the bottom and then fold it into the form of a packet. One piece of data that we did not mention above, that should be on the permanent label, is the name of the person who identified the plant, and when they identified it, e.g., “Det: Ken Kellman, 25 February 2016”.

Once the permanent packet is ready, simply put your dried plants in it, close the flap and put it in a dry place, ideally an insect-proof cabinet or plastic box. They can be stored flat in folders or upright like cards in a card file.

diagram in three parts showing how to fold packets.

Template for making packets to be used in the field, much of the data to be gathered by circling options