Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Baxter Flora Project

Note: This program first aired on August 24, 2013.

I recently spent a week in Baxter State Park, volunteering for the Baxter State Park Flora project, a multi year study to document and catalog all of the plants found in the park. We were based at Russell Pond, and made daily forays into various habitats, most of them wet, listing every plant we saw, and photographing the best specimens. Working from a hodge podge of older plant surveys, we had a functional list of plants that had been found somewhere in the park at some time.  The high point of any day was finding a plant not on the list, meaning we had found a plant new to the park.

To naturalists, nature geeks, botanists and all those who own dog eared copies of Newcomb’s Wild Flower Guide, this sounds like a terrific way to spend a week, botanizing in bogs, along streams, off trails and even from canoes. To many others though this may sound not so fun. The questions arise: “Who cares what plants grow in Baxter State Park? And why does it matter?”

Why do we name all the plants? Why do we identify everything we see? There are so many levels on which to answer these questions. Naming and identifying has a practical use, recognition and utility have been part of the human condition since before we were human; I can eat this plant, this one is a medicine, this one makes me sick. In the modern scientific tradition of Carl Linneaus and others the names of a plant are significant because they identify not only the plant itself but all its relations as well. Linneaus developed the conventions of naming and the system of taxonomy we still use today. Taxonomy starts with each individual type of plant, a species. Being able to correctly discern one species from another is the primary skill of botanizing, this is not the same as that. Species that are related to each other will share physical characteristics, and that relatedness will be reflected in a shared name at some taxonomic level. Botanists in Linneaus’s day did the hard work of classifying all the plants they found, essentially starting from ground zero. In modern times botanists who are also explorers may get lucky and find a novel species to identify, but everything most of us see around us on a daily basis has already been entered into the annals of science. No, modern botanists spend most of their time second guessing Linneaus, or perhaps more politely put, improving upon him. I said relatedness is based on physical characteristics, and modern technology allows us to assess these characteristics in greater and greater detail, all the way down to the genetic level. DNA analysis is the reason that, as any amateur botanist can tell you, the names of plants keep changing. There are over four type written, single spaced, pages of changes to names in Newcomb’s Wild Flower guide alone. As new genetic similarities and relationships are discovered, names have to change to reflect this. So to the outsider, the scientific names of plants look like an incomprehensible list of latin, to be drily memorized. To the naturalist, nature geek, and botanist plant taxonomy is no less than a vibrant and dynamic expression of our quest to understand evolution and the very nature of life on the planet.

And to the other question: Why does it matter what plants are found in Baxter State Park or anywhere else for that matter? It may come as a surprise to some listeners, but the truth is that not every plant lives everywhere. There is a community of plants that is distinct to Baxter State Park, and if we go in and figure out what comprises that community, we have set a base line from which we can measure change. Botanists today draw on the historical work of botanists from 100 or 200 years ago to document how plant communities respond to variability in environmental conditions and shift over time. So the Baxter plant survey is interesting for us now, but really it lays the ground work for some one else’s research in 100 or 200 years from now. We know that climate is changing in ways that are both predictable and uncertain. We also know that plants will respond to those changes, and we expect plant communities to shift. We can’t know how they shifted unless we know what was there to start. And that’s why we ask the question, and spend hours shin deep in bogs to answer it.


From the Maine Natural History Observatory, the originators of the Baxter Flora Project:

From the University of California Berkley Museum of Paleontology’s terrific educational website, a brief history of Carl Linneaus: