The herbarium at NMSU began with the hiring of Elmer Ottis Wooton as Professor of Chemistry and Botany in January, 1890, one of the first four professors hired by the newly founded New Mexico College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts (the origin of the acronym for the herbarium, NMC). That spring Wooton began collecting widely in the territory and continued doing so until he left for Washington, D.C., in 1911. At the time of his departure the herbarium collection is reported to have been about 35,000 specimens, including those of Wooton, his student and colleague Paul Carpenter Standley, other local botanists such as Orrick Baylor Metcalfe, and specimens received in exchanges with other institutions throughout the United States. Using these collections, Wooton and Standley named many new species from the area and published the Flora of New Mexico in 1915, the first comprehensive account of the plants of the state. From 1911 to the early 1950’s little is known of the history of the herbarium. Arther Leroy Hershey was the curator from 1934 to 1949, but there is little record of his work in the herbarium beyond his own specimens and collections supporting U.S.D.A. studies that were added to the herbarium during this time. There are no loan records known to be in existence and specimens apparently were used in large part for teaching. Unfortunately, some specimens were seriously degraded by extensive use and insect damage during this period.
In the early 1950’s David B. Dunn was hired as curator. He left after a few years, replaced by William A. Dick-Peddie, a plant ecologist, in 1954. In 1956 the Department of Biology was administratively split, the research faculty moving to the College of Agriculture while the teaching faculty became part of the College of Arts and Sciences. The herbarium was situated in the latter college. Dick-Peddie cared for the collection until 1966. In response to pressures for accrediting its fledgling Ph.D. program, the Biology Department hired a plant taxonomist, Don Gordon in 1966, who began to care for and develop the herbarium through extensive curatorial efforts. Gordon left in 1968, and in that year NMSU hired Richard W. Spellenberg as a plant taxonomist and curator of the herbarium.
During Spellenberg’s oversight of the herbarium, the collection grew from approximately 37,500 specimens to nearly 70,000 specimens. Additions to the collection came from the work of NMSU faculty and graduate students, exchange with other institutions, and donation of specimens by local botanists, some of whom were affiliated with land management agencies.
Growth was directed toward developing a strong regional and research collection. A backlog of about 20,000 specimens stored in the attic of Foster Hall was processed, those supporting the goals of the herbarium were accessioned (such as Pringle’s later collections from Mexico), and the remainder were sent to other herbaria where they may be more useful. Similarly, duplicated specimens (some as many as 8 times) and some specimens from distant areas that had little potential for supporting botanical work at NMSU or in the local community were withdrawn from NMC and sent to other researchers and herbaria. Development of an electronic database was initiated in the early 1990’s. The database now contains 72,500 records, and the collection is completely databased. Data entry has been supported by NMSU, the NMSU Foundation, the NM State Land Office, the Long Term Ecological Research program, and the NSF. The collection holds 742 known type specimens (and more are still being found in the herbarium or sent by researchers), which have been photographed as well as databased; most can be seen here. Spellenberg retired in 2000 and tended the herbarium as an emeritus curator until the arrival of the new curator, C. Donovan Bailey, in 2003.
In 1971 the herbarium moved from a small room on the third floor of the north wing of Foster Hall to larger, remodeled quarters on the second floor as part of an overall renovation of the building. In 1993 it moved again to its present location in the Biology Annex, originally an air mechanics work area, when it vacated its space in Foster Hall for a new research laboratory devoted to molecular ecology and evolution. This last move again increased usable space. Moreover, the quality of the physical facility was upgraded through a grant from the National Science Foundation. It now is a spacious, well-lighted, pleasant place for faculty and visitors to work. Associated with the herbarium is a technical literature collection of about 3000 items.