By Emily Ferrell
I pulled into the SFI parking lot late, the full moon bathing the grounds in a crisp, white glow. No headlamp needed as I quickly set up a barebones cowboy camp, eager to begin the next morning with a fully rested brain. Once nestled into my sleeping bag I noticed my relief and excitement at finally being here. I was finally taking the time to get down to the nitty gritty details of my favorite subject—the vast and mysterious kingdom of plants.
Although plants have always been an integral part of my life, a new job as Noxious Weeds Program Coordinator for a local restoration council challenges me to understand the immensely diverse floral communities of the Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion and how invasive species impact these rare ecosystems. Having never seriously pursued plant taxonomy courses in school, attending a three day crash course that emphasized native species seemed like a no-brainer. Thankfully my council’s directors had agreed, and I was allowed to miss a couple days of work to attend. Under the protection of a majestic incense cedar, I prayed to the moon that the Crash Course in the Flowering Plant Families would give me the support, structure, and confidence needed to tackle the daunting task of learning plants in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains.
Just then a large fox pranced into the clearing, its elegant curves silhouetted sharply by the moonlight.
Class began at 8:30 the next morning. Tables were set up with microscopes and handouts, and students had their mammoth Jepson manuals ready to go. We were a friendly, unassuming bunch, ranging from millenials to retirees, all ready to get serious about this passion for plants we’d been harboring for years. Our backgrounds in botany varied widely, from agency workers who work in the field on a regular basis, to a retirement-age couple from New Hampshire traveling the country seeking out wild orchids, to a college botany instructor searching for ideas for teaching her own classes.
Our teacher, Linda Vorobik, took notes as everyone introduced themselves, and then filled us in on her interesting life as a botanical taxonomist and accomplished artist with encyclopedic knowledge of native plants from most west coast bioregions, including those of the diverse Klamath-Siskiyou and Sierra Nevada ranges. Open, gracious, energetic, clear, attentive and the most importantly, hilarious, Linda lit the path and we joyfully followed. She provided three informational handouts and a schedule outlining the basic structure of each day, which always began with a lecture, followed by keying practice, followed by a field trip.
At first I was intimidated by the sheer number of new names included in the handouts; they would prove invaluable for the practice and retention of this freshly acquired knowledge. Now that I’ve had two months to contemplate the material, I’m awed by how many hours of teaching have gone into the design and editing of these documents. In addition to my class notes, Linda’s material effectively summarizes the most useful parts of a taxonomy textbook and local field guide into just a few pages. During that first hour of class she knew we were feeling overwhelmed, so reassured us that while there was going to be a lot of information hurled at us over the next three days, we did not need to worry about memorizing everything. After spouting off a few complicated Latin plant names like most people would say “rose” or “daisy,” she recommended that we “just absorb what you can and leave the rest. Remember, there’s not going to be an exam!” Good advice.
Linda Vorobik with students in the lab. Right, entomologist Rich Little works on memorizing plant families for use in his field work.
Linda’s first lesson introduced us to the area we would be exploring and her history with it. This included falling head-over-heels with the magical Klamath-Siskiyou flora, many years studying native rock cresses (e.g. Arabis spp.), working with local heroes of botany, and sharing her beloved Siskiyous with hundreds of students before and after the 2002 Biscuit Fire dramatically altered the landscape.
We wrapped up the first morning familiarizing ourselves with major taxonomic divisions and basic terminology critical for using Jepson or any other flora, then solidifying what we’d learned by practicing on real specimens Linda had collected. The hands-on approach, the casual way Linda peppered her speech with interesting facts and subtle repetition, the way she kept everything in context while progressing from simple to complex, as well as her gorgeous and highly-illustrative photographs, kept us rapt and left me feeling engaged and hungry for more.
After lunch-with-a-view on the porch, we caravaned into the mountains. Following 8 Dollar Mountain Road as it snaked through serpentine zones just on the edge of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, we made a handful of stops where Linda knew we would find plants from a wide range of families. Linda shared her knowledge of broad-scale ecological wonders such as the patchwork of soil types made visible by the density, size, and species of plants covering the rugged mountains. We got our fill of difficult-to-spell Latin names, and what Linda referred to as “movie star” plants.
A few of the highlights included a trip to a serpentine fen, where the outrageous California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica) gaped beside the understated green bog orchid (Platanthera sparsifola). The glandular Howell’s Mariposa (Calochortus howellii) and sumptuous Bolander’s lily (Lilium bolanderi) got the paparazzi treatment they deserved. As we headed back to the field station the plant nerd inside me was pumped up and ever so happy to have new friends who felt the same way. A late swim Deer Creek left me full and glowing, eager to apply what I had learned tomorrow when we would dive deeper into the nitty gritty world of plant identification.
Day two began with a stunning slideshow of Linda’s photographs that illustrated similarities and differences between plant family members, and those tiny structures that help narrow them down in the field. After the slides we buckled down with our Jepsons and keyed out a few tiny flowers, tediously inching our way through botanical lingo and indeterminable questions with Linda’s guidance. At this point I think everyone realized just how difficult the task of keying is without help from a veteran, and appreciated our teacher’s ability to turn a cryptic text into a powerful tool for observing plant anatomy in all its splendidly diverse forms.
With a couple of flowers and the essential vocabulary under our belts, as well as loads of scribblings in our notebooks (e.g. “If you must look at placentas, choose a mature fruit!”), Linda lead us through the essential defining characteristics of families one by one. We followed along with handouts, scribbling traits and tips to look for. By the morning’s end, my brain was loaded with new information that I was excited to use in the field.
Representative 8 Dollar Mountain plant families include: Asteraceae, Apiaceae and Fabaceae.
The second fieldtrip, to Babyfoot Lake, afforded me this opportunity. Like eager ducklings my classmates and I hiked single-file behind Linda as she led us along the narrow hillside trail. She had shared this place with many students before the Biscuit Fire, and so provided interesting ecological insights into fire’s impacts on the landscape and the flora’s recolonization efforts. We played telephone down the line with Linda’s interpretations and identifications — in effect creating a linear classroom. At some point along the trail I caught myself noticing characteristic structures and growth habit of Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellate), which is common where I live, and I realized that the class had already taught me new ways to see plants.
Above, Penstemon newberryi in the Babyfoot Lake rock gardens. Below, bronze bells (Stenanthium occidentale), a fern and botany students keying plants.
We veered off the trail down onto a magical rock outcropping sweetly carpeted with Indian dream (Aspidotis densa), little clubmoss (Selaginella spp.), and flowering stonecrops (Sedum spp.). Next to little stream lined with Brewer’s spruce (Picea breweriana) we admired another starlet, Brown’s Bells (Stenanthium occidentale), before sitting as a group and enjoying the amazing view of the Kalmiopsis wilderness. While I was sad that my time with this little team of nature lovers was nearing its end, the rugged vista reminded me of the lifetime of exploring that lay ahead.
The last day of class began with another feast for the plant lover’s eyes, a slideshow of Linda’s photos, followed by a literal feast of plants. In order to understand which variation of reproductive structures we were consuming, we dissected the aggregate of achenes commonly referred to as a strawberry, then proceeded to eat our specimens. It was a delicious and enlightening experience, and I wondered why this type of fun, practical botany lesson is not a staple for school children.
That afternoon we caravaned up to Bolan Lake, an easily-accessible alpine lake with a campground at its shore. Knowing that our time together was scarce, we conversed and shared joyfully, and I felt a true sense of community. Although people needed to leave early, Linda made sure we got our fill of movie stars along the trail before setting us free. Among many wonderful species we found the strange but beautiful Merten’s coralroot (Corallorhiza mertensiana) and phantom orchid (Cephalanthera austiniae), and wondered why crushed valerian (Valeriana sitchensis) has an earthy smell reminiscent of dog poo.
Left, a Phantom Orchid near the road to Bolan Lake; right, Coralroot.
By the end of the hike there were hugs, promises of a place to crash on our travels, and enormous gratitude for our teacher, Linda, and field course coordinator, Kathleen, who had accompanied us on every field trip.
I drove away not only a more confident and knowledgeable botanist, but perhaps more importantly with the feeling that I had a community out there. These folks shared my passion for plants, and they would be there when I wanted to share, celebrate, and ask questions. It only took a little effort to find them, and just three days of their company recharged my determination to pursue a career among plants. As I wound through the Klamath Mountains towards home I vowed to return to the Siskiyou Field Institute next season to feed my curiosities, re-charge my passions, and immerse myself in the kingdom of green—a place that feels like home.