How one man's basement collection became 'a Canadian treasure'

Bruce Bennett's herbarium — essentially, a collection of preserved plant specimens — has become internationally renowned for having one of the most extensive known collections of Northern plants. It's all in his cozy Whitehorse basement.

Bruce Bennett's unique herbarium in Yukon is used by researchers from around the world

'I collected stamps, I collected coins, then I collected books. And now I collect plants,' says Bruce Bennett. (Sandi Coleman/CBC)

It might be Yukon's most famous basement.

Famous, that is, among botanists and other researchers of Arctic flora.

Bruce Bennett's herbarium — essentially, a collection of preserved plant specimens — has become internationally renowned for having one of the most extensive known collections of Arctic plants. It's all stored in his cozy Whitehorse basement.

It's been a decades-long labour of love for Bennett, who's amassed the collection as a hobbyist — "not working for government or anything, just out collecting plants," he says.

"I was a collector. I used to collect beer cans, right? I had this whole wall of beer cans. I collected stamps, I collected coins, then I collected books. And now I collect plants."

He routinely sends his specimens to scholars and researchers around the world, and occasionally plays host when they prefer to come to Whitehorse to study the collection.

Bennett even has a plant named after him: Draba bruce-bennettii.

Be my BABY

Bennett's herbarium just reached a milestone this week — it now has 10,000 official specimens pressed, mounted, named and numbered. The 10,000th plant is an alpine fescue Bennett collected last summer near Milne Inlet on northern Baffin Island.

The 10,000th specimen in Bennett's collection: Festuca brachyphylla, or alpine fescue, collected on northern Baffin Island last summer. (Sandi Coleman/CBC)

"Now I've come into another league, cause that's sort of the…. many collections don't even become popular 'til they have more than 10,000 specimens," he said.

Bennett has been collecting since the 1990s, when he first moved to the North from B.C.

"There was no place to go look at plants" in Yukon, he said.

Some of the things he's acquired for his collection are decades older, though. The oldest specimens were collected by Frederick Funston in 1896, before the Klondike gold rush. Bennett also has plants that were dried and displayed by legendary Yukon politician Martha Black.

He's also amassed a comprehensive library of books about plants and botany, but says he's run out of room for more and besides, "now, I pretty much have everything." 

The herbarium even has an officially-recognized acronym (used by botanists to identify herbaria around the world) — BABY, for Bruce A. Bennett, Yukon.

"They wanted me to call it 'YUKH' and I thought, 'I don't want my herbarium called yuck!' I said, 'It's just a little herbarium. Why can't we call it BABY?'"

'I used to spend $200 a month buying more books, whatever I could afford. But now I pretty much have everything,' Bennett says. (Sandi Coleman/CBC)

'Documenting Canadian heritage'

Linda Jennings, the assistant curator and manager of the University of British Columbia's herbarium, says Bennett's collection is nothing less than "a Canadian treasure — that nobody knows about."

She's made use of his collection for years, but only met Bennett a couple of years ago. She remembers being surprised to discover that he had a day job, and a young family.

"We all kind of assumed he was this older guy who had not much to do than go and collect plants," she said.

Bennett goes to remote areas to collect plants that other botanists can study. 'If you don't have somebody walking, how are you going to know that something's shown up?' says one researcher. (Submitted by Bruce Bennett)

Jennings has come to rely on Bennett to help track ecological changes in the North. She's interested in how the range of different plant species is changing as the climate warms.

She says Bennett is doing the legwork for countless other researchers when he finds and collects species in new, unexpected places. 

"He is the one who's going to detect that first. If you don't have somebody walking, how are you going to know that something's shown up?" she asks.

"These people are important... they are literally documenting Canadian heritage."

Nuri Benet Pierce, a botanist at San Diego State University, also sings Bennett and BABY's praises. She's made use of the collection to investigate the range and variety of plants in the chenopodium genus.

"It's really not possible to do this kind of research without these very notable people who are out there, in very difficult conditions," she said.

"Without these collections, you just don't make sense of anything. You see a plant and it doesn't mean anything. It only means something when I'm able to compare it and distinguish it from others.

"People forget how crucial the collections are."

A personal favourite of Bennett's - the Draba bruce-bennettii. (Sandi Coleman/CBC)

A relative infant among herbaria

Bennett says these days he's travelling further afield from Yukon to find new specimens. He says he likes to gather about 10 of the same plant species, from throughout its range. 

"There's always questions, and if all you have is the plants in your backyard, you don't catch that variety," he said. 

A bunch of Bennett's Arctic dandelions — collected in Yukon, Nunavut, the N.W.T. and Alaska — were recently shipped to a researcher who's studying North American dandelions ("Nobody's done a really good treatment," Bennett says). 

Bennett with his custom-made plant cabinets. 'As long as they're kept dry and not too moist, and warm, they can remain in this state forever,' he said. (Sandi Coleman/CBC)

He's not sure yet what will happen to his collection when he's no longer willing or able to keep it. BABY is aptly-named — it's a relative infant among the world's herbaria. The oldest known herbarium, in Italy, dates to the 16th century.

Bennett hopes his specimens, now stacked in custom-built metal cabinets, will be around as long, and hopefully stay in Yukon.

"As long as they're kept dry and not too moist, and warm, they can remain in this state forever," he said.

"When the forest fire comes through, this cabinet is going to survive — it's double-walled, it's sealed, and so they're protected."

With files from Sandi Coleman


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