Retirement hobby benefits UH Mānoa Botany Department

The gift of Daniel Palmer’s Hawai‘i fern specimens

Dr. Daniel Palmer advises, “Everyone should have a hobby when they retire.”

That’s just what the retired Honolulu dermatologist and part-time Michigan tree farmer did.  As Dr. Palmer recalls, “I needed a retirement hobby.  I didn’t know anything about ferns but I had some friends who were preeminent fern researchers so I just took it on and developed some skills in it.”

“Developed some skills in it” is an understatement.  Over the course of the past two to three decades Dr. Palmer has become one the foremost experts in Hawai‘i’s ferns.  His hobby culminated in a highly respected book Hawai‘i’s Ferns and Fern Allies, published by the UH Press in 2003. The book describes 222 species and was the first comprehensive survey of Hawai‘i’s ferns to be published in more than one hundred years.

“I just started collecting as an amateur.  I had a lot of freedom then so I was able to go almost everywhere to all these mountain tops on Oahu as well as Maui, Kauai and Molokai picking up fern specimens along the way that I used for illustrations in the book.”

Hawai‘i residents are fortunate that Dr. Daniel Palmer picked up a hobby in his retirement.  His investment of time and intellect have expanded the knowledge of Hawai‘i’s ferns and his generosity is now sharing his research with future generations.

Over the years Dr. Palmer’s specimen collection of pressed dried ferns grew as did his book collection and expertise.  His book collection is extensive and includes rare 1830 portfolios from British expeditions to the islands.  Because there were no recorded type specimens from these expeditions, the illustrations in those portfolios have been accepted as type specimens for particular species. In defining new species, type specimens are the original specimens from which a description of a new species is made.  Identifying and naming type specimens was not common practice until later in the 20th century.

In addition to collecting ferns and books to augment his knowledge, Dr. Palmer turned his travels into sleuthing expeditions.  In the backrooms of botanical archives and museums around the world including then-Leningrad’s Komarov Institute, London’s Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, Tokyo University, and Paris’s Jardin de Platz, he tracked down the botanical collections from past international expeditions to Hawai‘i and examined the type specimens to correct or clarify the nomenclature of different Hawai‘i fern species. “I found that we were calling several ferns by the wrong name because you just went from the description but when you looked at the type specimen you realized it was something else.”  His detective work elevated the quality of his fern specimen collection and resulting book.

When asked how he benefitted from his hobby, he said, “If you don’t exercise your body it goes to pot and the same is true of your mind.  It was fun hiking around here and worthwhile. I enjoyed it. Since nobody had ever gone back to look at the type specimens, it was fun for me to get back into the back rooms of these special places. Ordinarily I couldn’t have done it. I didn’t have any reputation then.  The herbaria staffs were just nice to let this guy in.”

In recent years, Dr. Palmer has turned his attention to the ferns of Michigan, his other home.  That focus has produced a book as well.  University of Michigan Press will be publishing his book, Michigan’s Ferns and Lycophytes, hopefully this summer.

Unable to hike as he used to, Dr. Palmer says, “Now it’s time to rest.” 

In the fall of 2013, he decided to donate his more than 2700 fern specimens to the Joseph F. Rock Herbarium, the UH botanical specimen repository.  Since he lives near the UH Mānoa campus, he’ll still be able to visit his specimens in the laboratory to conduct additional research when he wants to.  In addition, herbarium staff plan to digitally photograph the specimens and create a data base that will make them available to everyone on the Internet.

Dr. Palmer could not have done this work without his wife’s help and tolerance. She tolerated his use of her stove and kitchen for drying the specimens, and helped with the mounting of them---all of which was disruptive of household cleanliness and order. In addition she had to see Paris, London, Berlin and Leningrad alone while he abandoned her for the herbarium work.  Among the new species of Hawaiian ferns he described he named a common, but previously unrecognized native hāpu’u for her---Helen’s hāpu’u (Cibotium xheleniae).

“For the next year, the Botany Department’s dozen herbarium staff members will be carefully counting, cataloging, curating, and geo-referencing the specimens so that their data will be incorporated into the Consortium of Pacific Herbaria project” said Dr. Michael Thomas, manager of the university’s Joseph F. Rock Herbarium. The regional network of 22 botanical repositories is currently funded through a $1.4 million dollar collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation.

“We expect there to be lots of unique, historical vouchers that will help us to better understand the classification and distribution of the fern flora. This generous donation will broaden our knowledge of Hawai‘i's ferns,” said fern specialist Dr. Tom Ranker.

“In addition to the historic specimens, Dr. Palmer has also released the copyright of his out of print fern book to us to be made freely available online for noncommercial purposes. Digitization of this resource will provide greater access for students, researchers, and the general public to the definitive publication on Hawai‘i’s ferns and fern allies complimented by digital access to a unique natural science collection” said Dr. Thomas.

Hawai‘i residents are fortunate that Dr. Daniel Palmer picked up a hobby in his retirement.  His investment of time and intellect have expanded the knowledge of Hawai‘i’s ferns and his generosity is now sharing his research with future generations.