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Morton, J. 1996. The Morton Collectanea: An information center in economic botany. p. 147-150. In: J. Janick (ed.), Progress in new crops. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

The Morton Collectanea: An Information Center in Economic Botany

Julia Morton

    1. Utility of the Collectanea
  4. Fig. 1

The Morton Collectanea of the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida, is a specialized reference and research department devoted to the acquisition, classification, physical collation, and maintenance of subject-filed data in the field of economic botany, with special emphasis on the tropical and subtropical. This information is contained in 500 file drawers and includes approximately 15,000 species (Fig. 1).


The Morton Collectanea is an outgrowth of an effort to enhance the American food supply in the hungry days of the "Great Depression." When Kendal Morton, a Canadian, who preferred the climate of Florida, met Julia (who was raised on a big and beautiful farm), they began a search for literature on edible plants. Their collection grew from 1932 onward and was presented to the University of Miami in 1949 on the recommendation of the famed Plant Explorer Dr. David Fairchild.

The December issue of the Chemurgic Digest carried a plea by Wheeler McMillan and Harry J. Prebluda, eager growers, for exploration for new crops to aid agriculture and industry. The dissection of books and periodicals, and bulletins, yielded 90,000 items pertaining to food and food sources from 1933-1942. Work was suspended during the War Years--1944 and 1945--but continues, and Julia has been the Director since the loss of her husband in 1952.


In selecting literature, book, or periodical, for processing, primary attention is given materials having the broadest topical coverage. Publications devoted to highly developed or industrialized single commodities, which have substantial and readily accessible literature in their own right, are maintained for reference but are represented in the files mainly by bibliographic listings. The Collectanea is chiefly concerned with bringing together the more scattered data on a greater number of subjects and from many sources and areas. The mass dismemberment of appropriate literature and subject-sorting of its contents automatically reveals an array of subjects and data from unsuspected regional and other sources to which the researcher would ordinarily have no clue and would not ordinarily be directed--thus recovering much material not found by the usual searching processes.

Works such as Sturtevant's Notes on edible plants, Dalziel's Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa, Cook and Collins' Economic Plants of Puerto Rico, Wester's Food Plants of the Philippines, Maiden's Useful Native Plants of Australia, Safford's Useful Plants of the Island of Guam, Fernald and Kinsey's Edible Wild Plants of Eastern North America, Quisumbing's Medicinal Plants of the Philippines, Webb's Guide to the Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Queensland, Hooper and Field's Useful Plants and Drugs of Iraq and Iran, Rose's Notes on the Useful Plants of Mexico, Dastur's Useful Plants of India and Pakistan (to name only a few) have provided excellent geographical coverage and a great diversity of species. As work has progressed, layer after layer of excerpted material has enriched these files, and folders for new species are constantly added. Publications of lesser topical range, but dealing with fruits, vegetables, nuts, fibers, fungi, palms, spices, and so forth, have swelled the folders of crops already under cultivation, as does the constant influx of periodical excerpts and bulletins and reprints covering individual subjects. Lengthy publications devoted to highly industrialized single commodities, which have substantial literature in their own right, are represented in the files mainly by bibliographic listings.

In addition to enriching the files, the Collectanea has inspired the publication of papers. Oral presentations with exhibits or color slides have been made to various audiences including the staff and health officials assembled at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Curacao (in 1970 and 1971), and at the Pasteur Institute, Utrecht; specialists at the Institute for Tropical Hygiene, Amsterdam; International Cancer Congress, Cancer Demography (1970); Round Table on Cancer of the Esophagus; Pan American Medical Association's International Congress on Medicine and Surgery, Guayaquil, Ecuador; University of Florida and University of Miami groups, and others.

Utility of the Collectanea

Inclusion of the Collectanea in the National Science Foundation's Directory of Specialized Science Information Services and in Gale's Directory of Special Libraries and Information Centers, has brought requests for help from all over the world. For example: a query was received from North Rhodesia as to the edibility of dahlia tubers; an S.O.S. from a clinic in Iran for methods of making soybean milk for infants; and a missionary in the Soloman Islands needed to know how to create smudge with local materials to combat insects in coconut palms. There is a very active demand for information on cashew culture and processing. Considerable material on passion fruit raising has been supplied to pioneer growers in Venezuela, and on tea culture to experimenters in Costa Rica.

The Collectanea is primarily for the use of the University faculty in the course of teaching or research, and for students in the preparation of term papers or theses. However, materials are made available for perusal on the premises by researchers from other institutions, and photocopies of desired excerpts are furnished at cost plus a nominal handling fee. Reports or tabulations of medicinal plants (for instance, those used as diuretics) may be prepared for pharmaceutical companies, or data on the growing and utilization of bean sprouts may be assembled for a food concern. Special studies have been made of toxic plants which present an active problem in Florida, and frequent calls are received concerning external or internal reactions of people, cattle, ducks, and dogs to plant parts ingested, contacted, or inhaled. Some of these cases require plant identification and personal investigation.

During World War II, I as Director of the Collectanea, had conducted field work in tropical survival (at Maxwell Air Force Base in the Philippines, and in Thailand and Vietnam). Later, utilizing the resource facilities of the Collectanea, I prepared survival manuals for the Military. I have also engaged in an ethnobotanical and epidemiological survey for the National Institutes of Health in an effort to discover possible plant causes of esophageal cancer. The plant information resources of the Collectanea were an indispensable part of the study. Having this facility for instant characterization of numerous plant materials found to be ingested by populations under field study (including the people of Curacao, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Yucatan, Northwestern Venezuela, and coastal South Carolina), it has been possible to establish a correlation between the disease and the intake of plant products high in condensed tannin and associated phenols. These findings revealed a strong correlation between certain food habits and susceptibility to esophageal cancer in high-risk areas of Japan.

Field work in the Netherlands Antilles for several weeks each year (off and on from July 1965 to September 6, 1971) revealed esophageal cancer to be the leading tumor in females in Curacao; and it is second in importance in men. Aruba has scarcely more than 2 new cases per year. It is reasonable to expect that the results of these studies will provide clues to the causes of esophageal cancer in other parts of the world and of other tumors at other sites in the human body.

A number of national and international organizations have relied on the resources of the Morton Collectanea. This includes the National Institutes of Health for extensive plant information; the United States Department of Agriculture for urgently-needed information on agricultural crops; the Department of the Army and the Department of the Navy to produce plant information which could not be obtained as readily from any other source; and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has appealed to the Morton Collectanea for help in filling "formidable gaps in knowledge." As a result, it has been possible to improve the quality and quantity of information disseminated by such agencies and also to forestall the issuance of misinformation.

A few examples illustrate the utility of the Collectanea files. A representative of a cargo airline sought the help of the Collectanea in ascertaining the consumer acceptability and import possibilities of a native South American fruit which he knew only by the local name "curuba." He had been greatly impressed with the flavor of the ice cream and sherbets made from it in Colombia and felt it might find a market among American ice cream manufacturers. The Collectanea's index led to the file on Passiflora mollissima that revealed an introduction of seeds of the species into the United States from Ecuador by the Bureau of Plant Industry in 1920 and another record of similar introduction from Colombia in 1922. Then appeared an excerpt with illustration, from Popenoe's Economic Fruit-bearing Plants of Ecuador (1924), a brief mention from Pope's Propagation of Plants by Cuttings in Hawaii (1934), and an excerpt from Arbelaez's Plantes Utiles de Colombia (2nd ed, 1947), and 2 full pages from the New Zealand Journal of Agriculture, March 1953, featuring the "banana passion fruit," the name under which the species is cultivated in Auckland, with nearly a dozen recipes for dessert use, and photographs of the vine, the fruit, and several of the cooked products. There existed no clue that would lead the seeker from Colombia to New Zealand.

A more dramatic instance of the utility of our files occurred when a child was hospitalized with serious symptoms of poisoning as the result of eating the seeds of a wild vine. Specimens of the seeds were brought to the Collectanea, botanically identified as Abrus precatorius, and a file of excerpts on that species from 51 sources (representing 33 different countries or territories) was placed before the pediatrician in charge of the case. Totally unfamiliar with the species at the outset, he became quickly conversant with its toxic properties, symptoms, recommended treatment, and a wealth of background material--all of which aided in saving the life of the patient. The Collectanea is often called upon to render similar service to physicians and hospitals. However, one might shudder at the literary fiascos that might ensue if taxonomic study was not given the excerpts prior to subject-filing.

Articles on the eggfruit of Queensland (the eggplant, Solanum melongena), might easily be placed with the "eggfruit" of the West Indies (the canistel, Pouteria campechiana). There are many such pitfalls in nomenclature, both common and scientific. A number of years ago, the Federal Standard Stock Catalog appeared with a series of newly drafted specifications on food commodities. One was an impressive 5-page document headed "CURRANTS." It was found to have been compiled by blending material on the so-called "currant" of the bakery trade (actually the dried Corinthian grape, a variety of Vitis vinifera) with material from agricultural bulletins on the red and black currants (Ribes vulgare and R. nigrum) respectively. The result was ludicrous; the document was found to be extant and uncorrected 7 years later!


While the facilities of the Morton Collectanea are unique and provide a great advantage in the finding and assembling of requested plant data, the services rendered--that is, the outputs of information--are still dependent on human effort and ability. The Morton Collectanea, though efficiently organized, is operated totally on a manual basis. While there is instant access to literature by botanical species, there is no internal index to subject content. Manual search of the large and increasing number of excerpts for broad categories of data (such as toxic elements in plants) would be a lengthy task, even though much more efficient than from the unprocessed literature.

The information contained within each excerpt may be varied to a great degree. It may include common and scientific names of plants, geographical locations, chemical constituents, food, medicinal, or other utility for man or animal, and beneficial and/or toxic effects. Because of the necessity of filing under a single subject heading (or multiple, synonymous file headings) in the manual method, much of the knowledge contained on any one plant, or any geographical region, or any plant property or product, remains irretrievable except by laborious manual search, or foreknowledge of the species.

To optimize the use of the Morton Collectanea and to extract a broad range of data from its subject files, it is considered essential that a computerized information storage and retrieval system be installed. There are doubtless many approaches to such a task. The Morton Collectanea is an outgrowth of one approach that started in New York in 1933 with the original goal being the assembling of data on all known edible substances. This objective has since been liberalized to include all economic plants, edible and otherwise.

One basic factor in the Collectanea concept was the ideal of keeping to a minimum the skilled research that would be involved in such a large task by so "mechanizing" the effort that the maximum could be accomplished by unskilled clerical labor. After some years of experimentation, the project took form and has been carried on under the auspices of the University of Miami, Florida since early 1949.

In conclusion, the efforts of the Collectanea are directed toward the goal of rendering the subject content of economic-plant literature readily accessible and accurate. The Collectanea contains a tremendous wealth of difficult-to-find information. The development of an index is necessary to increase the usefulnes of this unique collection.

Fig. 1. The Morton Collectanea.

Last update August 15, 1997 aw