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Originally published Friday, October 26, 2012 at 11:01 AM

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Got a mystery plant? Sounds like a job for the UW herbarium

The Otis Douglas Hyde Herbarium is uniquely equipped to help, and will do it for the public free.

Special to The Seattle Times

Local news partner - Plant Talk

Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them.

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ON AN AUTUMN afternoon, the Otis Douglas Hyde Herbarium at the University of Washington Botanic Gardens is quiet and orderly. Dried plant specimens are neatly mounted and stacked in cabinets, reference books line a shelf and a microscope is at the ready. There's little to indicate the kind of detective work going on just off the lobby at the Center for Urban Horticulture.

Mystery flora is a common dilemma, whether you're puzzling over a plant in your own garden or lusting after one in someone else's. No matter if it's a plant you hope to track down or a weed you want to get rid of, you need to know a plant's name in order to deal with it.

The Hyde Herbarium, staffed by a UW graduate student aided by dedicated volunteers, is uniquely equipped to help and will do it for the public free. The facility's broader mission is to collect and safely house specimens of all the plants grown in the UW Botanic Gardens, as well as horticulturally significant plants of the region.

This means that when collections manager Katie Murphy is asked to identify a plant, she has 21,200 specimens at hand to help her answer. Most of the specimens (the oldest is from 1892) have been collected in the Washington Park Arboretum and private Northwest gardens, while some have been traded with other botanical institutions around the country.

Recently Murphy helped a couple on a sentimental quest. They'd met next to a plant in a Ballard park 30 years ago and as part of their anniversary celebration wanted to figure out the plant's name. They'd called the city to ask if they could cut a sample, then brought leaf, twig and bloom into Murphy in a special little box. Murphy was able to tell the couple their anniversary plant was Rhododendron luteum, a yellow-blooming, deciduous shrub known as the honeysuckle azalea.

More challenging was the query from an Olympia nurseryman who grows trees from wild-collected seed. A customer bought baby spruces from two lots that the nurseryman believed to be the same species. But as the trees grew, the client thought they must be different species. The trees were too young to produce cones, so Murphy was reduced to examining needles from both lots of trees under the microscope. She was able to assure the nurseryman that as far as she could determine scientifically, both lots of trees were identical.

The herbarium was developed and thrives under the auspices of botanic-gardens director Sarah Reichard, who has her own stories to tell. Once a student brought in a dried-up bit of vine from the Botany Greenhouse. The tag had been lost, and no one knew what the vine was.

"It looked really familiar to me and it was driving me crazy," says Reichard, who sets a high bar for good service. "We jumped in my car and zoomed up to the greenhouse. I found the vine, broke off a bit and it oozed white sap." Bingo. She instantly knew it was Periploca, a vine in the milkweed family.

How to take advantage of such expertise? Bring a sample of your mystery plant, including flower or fruit whenever possible, into the Hyde Herbarium. It helps if you can also bring a photo showing the entire plant. See http://seati.ms/V934GA for hours and directions. Contact the herbarium at 206-685-2589 or email hydeherb@u.washington.edu.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "petal & twig." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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