A Sabatia Induced Rant

In Richard Manning’s book “Grassland”, he wrote the following:

I once heard a story of a man who had perfect recall, so he could never carry on a conversation. He had to live in isolation because the merest stimulus, the merest sentence from outside his own head would recall everything. All the information in his head would come tumbling forth in a great rush, and he would be crushed by the pain of seeing.
I imagine that must be what it is like sometimes to be a botanist. I have been afield with many of them, and they are different, almost invariably quiet, distant. Undeniably, they see something different from what I see, as if the knowledge of the plants lifts a veil. The whole of it is there in the plants to be read, the full soul of a place, its life and the abuses of its life, the creation’s intentions and the manifest violation of those intentions. Botanists are our shamans.

While this is clearly a romantic notion, there is some truth to it. Most botanists I know often reminisce about the days before they understood the harsh realities expressed in the flora of a place. When our non-botanists parents or friends remark at how beautiful the honeysuckles smell in the summer, we grit our teeth and try to explain to their rapidly glazing eyes why honeysuckle is bad (of course they usually miss the point and come away with the thought that they should be ashamed of enjoying the fragrance). In quiet hours I often mourn the loss of such innocence. But knowledge is a heavy burden, and I derive far greater pleasure in knowing. To me, it is knowledge that is bliss. I mention this because I believe this is one of the fundamental social functions of the botanist; to shoulder the burden of the knowledge of place and attempt to interpret the landscape for those off chasing money or fame or any other thing that an honest botanist will never know.

On this note, this year more than any other, I’ve noticed rather interesting changes in the flora. Aberrations like Platanthera lacera have come up by the thousands across the Midwest. Platanthera leucophea has had a boom year in existing populations and new populations have been found. Listera australis, a more eastern and southern species, has been discovered in Missouri and Platanus occidentalis and Morus rubra seedlings are sprouting on the bone dry ridge tops of the Chilton Creek Preserve. Just to name a few examples. On my own 16 acres I regularly take walks and I have noticed a dramatic decrease in the populations of xeric species like Krigia dandelion, Helianthus mollis, Helianthus occidentalis, Spiranthes vernalis, Gymnopogon ambiguus and Polygala incarnata while witnessing an increase in mesic species like Dichanthelium laxiflorum, Salix humilis, Pedicularis canadensis and Senecio aureus. However the most dramatic change, in terms of population and sheer flora display, has been Sabatia angularis (photos distributed throughout this entry).

In a typical Ozark summer, S. angularis blooms in scattered populations across prairies and old fields; a plant here, a plant there. This year, however, the populations are large and dense and the plants are huge! The field in front of my house, in which Sabatia typically goes relatively undetected is literally pink with plants. While driving across the Ozarks one cannot help but notice their abundance. A naturalist friend of ours just sent us a letter documenting the phenomenon throughout Texas County as well. I speculatively attribute this phenomenon to the past two wet years that have followed several very dry years (at least in the Ozarks). I’m sure there is more to the story than this simple answer. And I’m sure this is all within the ebb and flow of the natural order of things where variations in seasonal severity lend boom and bust years to a resilient biota. But I fear there is very little documentation of such phenomena and any trends that may arise. Sure, a handful of rare species are occasionally tracked given funding and time, but who is watching the big floristic picture? There are various projects monitoring the phenology of plants in an attempt to document the effects of climate change, but what about the changes in structure and composition of natural communities in general that may be outside the narrow scope of climate change. Regardless of cause, what if the Ozarks are getting wetter, for example? This would have tremendous effects on glade and woodland restoration/conservation efforts to say the least.

This brings me back to the main point. In the heyday of ecology, botanist/ecologist like Lucy Braun, Henry Cowles and Julian Steyermark spent countless hours documenting the flora through descriptive floristics projects. This included such elements as a list of species, their abundance and frequency and the overall structure of the vegetation of the site. All this from quadrat and transect data. Now such techniques are largely considered to be only of historical significance by academics and are rarely undertaken and almost never funded outside of an occasional study conducted by a graduate student. When I mention this void in the sciences to professionals their reactions are rather dismissive, as though I am evoking some sort of nostalgia-based concept of scientific responsibility rather than anything of ecological or social importance. Perhaps if the topic were polar bears, they would lend a sympathetic ear. It is increasingly obvious that respectable botanists that can identify plants without flowers and the aid of keys, dying breed that we may be, are being underutilized and certainly underappreciated. Sure, our skills are often called upon to put together an occasional species lists or partake in a bioblitz, but these activities lack any ecological significance outside the stark documentation of occurrences. They provide no information about abundance, structure or conservation. Somehow a species list has become an acceptable replacement for actual data.

In a society that continues to destroy natural communities and impact natural processes at an ever accelerating pace, now is not the time to stop describing the remnants. From the ever shrinking crumbs of our natural system, we may yet be able reconstruct or at least envision the cake. To most, crumbs aren’t exciting. After all, far reaches of the tropics still have big pieces of cake upon which to feast the intellect. Sadly, most academic botanists lack the ability to even identify the most common species in the remnant woodlots behind their expensive suburban homes. Meanwhile the only plants most botanists under the employ of state and federal governments get their hands on are the various trees used in the manufacture of their pencils. In effect, environmental consultants are conducting the lion’s share of descriptive ecology, though often by poorly trained staff and for reasons not conducive to ecology or science. So while the botanical “shamans” mentioned by Manning may be a bit of a misnomer, where are they? And who is going to tell us how the natural system is responding to changes, natural and human induced? How will we detect localized extinctions inherent to a fragemented landscape? Gerould Wilhelm once said, “You cannot take care of what you cannot see”. So where are the seers and why aren’t they seeing?


  1. Good, sprawling read, Justin :-). I have been in the office too much this summer to notice many trends, unfortunately, and what field work I have done to date was concentrated in the western Upper Pensinsula, an area for which I have no reference point.

    People with intense interests in botany and ecology have always been quite rare. I suspect the ecologists and botanists you mention were driven by many of the same things that drive modern academics, the difference being the perceived understanding of eastern North America's ecology and the democratization of travel that allows more than a few special people to spend time in relatively undescribed, unresearched locales. Many people driven by the quest for knowledge want to make their own discoveries, and I think the perception is that there are relatively few new discoveries, or new discoveries of import, to be made in our neck of the prairie/savanna/forest. And, that's a shame, as you mention.

    In the end, the most common behaviors tend to shape society, and there is little hope in changing minds about the environment to the level that you or I would be even minimally comfortable with. The perceived knowledge of our landscape that our ascendants grasped was primarily driven by their close ties to extracting resources from the land, ties we have largely lost and continue to lose. Our new "environment" is urban and digital, and, with population numbers in urban areas continuing to rise, there is little reason to believe people are going to "rediscover" nature. We are witnessing the transformation of the plant from a process-driven landscape to a human-dominated landscape, a transformation that is likely to render most of what we cherish today gone tomorrow. How can we escape this eventuality with a teeming population of 7 billion mouths that need to eat, drink, live, and sleep every day, 365 days a year, for who knows how many years? Checking human population growth seems to be taboo, but we are kidding ourselves by ignoring the 500-lb. sumo in conservation's room.

    One question I have been asking myself lately is how I can better engage my interests and passion for conservation, and how others can too. Sometimes it seems the weight of the sick planet is centered on our psyches. Is a more hedonistic outlook appropriate? When all of these thoughts run through my head, I often comfort myself with recalling the fulfillment I find in exploring landscapes and observing life of all forms, either in isolation or with others who share my passion.

    Time for a (craft) beer.

  2. Great comments, Brad. For some reason "science" has gotten in the bad habit of limiting its focus on new discoveries with little regard for the details that make ecological understanding possible. Academic ecologist are focused on new and exciting ways to disprove Tilman, while applied ecologist working in the field are focused on the restoration of processes they haven't taken the time to fully understand. In the end, given human population growth and all negative effects there associated, there is really little that can be done. Sadly, I rarely see the right people in the right positions that might otherwise improve the current fixation on novelty within the sciences.

  3. Sadly, some of the people focused on novelty are likely sympathetic of the concerns you raise here, but the "publish or perish" single-minded mentality forces people who want to maintain a career in biology to play along or be expunged from the field into the cruel job-starved world.


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