Dr. Joe Thomasson Provides Professionals with Skills to Identify More Plants

BySternberg Museum

Dr. Joe Thomasson Provides Professionals with Skills to Identify More Plants


What do two Environmental Specialists with the Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas near Topeka, KS, a Regulatory Specialist with the U.S Corp of Engineers at El Dorado Lake, KS, an Environmental Planner III from HNTB Corporation in Kansas City, an Environmental Technician from the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation at Mayetta, KS, a Water Quality Specialist with the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma from Shawnee, OK, and an independent ecological consultant from Santa Fe, NM with a PhD in ecology all have in common in meeting recently for four days with Dr. Joseph R. Thomasson at the Sternberg Museum?  It turns out that all seven of these folks, whose professional job activities at some point require knowing how to identify plants in various types of habitats, attended a Plant Identification course taught from August 19-22 by Dr. Thomasson Curator of the Elam Bartholomew Herbarium at the Sternberg.  The course is one of a large number of courses offered nationwide annually by Wetland Training Institute (WTI), Glenwood, NM, and are taught by well know experts recruited and hired by WTI to teach the courses.  Courses cover a variety of subjects, primarily related to wetlands, such as wetlands delineation, wetlands restoration, wetlands law, hydric soil identification, plant identification, etc.  They are regularly attended by a wide cross section of professionals working for local to international, private companies, federal and state agencies, and private consultants.  Information learned in the WTI courses is applied by professionals in their work associated with wetlands, water quality, environmental studies, endangered plant surveys, road development and many other areas.

Using the facilities of the Elam Bartholomew Museum and Sternberg Museum of Natural History and a number of field trips to local wetlands, Dr. Thomasson began providing the participants with the academic background and skills necessary to help enhance their abilities to identify a wide variety of native plants both in the field and laboratory.  Although all of the participants had graduated with biological/environmental degrees from high quality academic institutions (including one with a PhD in plant ecology from a Colorado institution), all had in common significant deficiencies in their plant identification abilities.  The reasons for these deficiencies were various, but from discussions with participants it was clear that a common theme among them was that the institutions and programs from which they received their degrees simply did not sufficiently value or appreciate the critical need for a variety of courses and faculty whose technical academic training was in specific areas of plant identification.  Thus, for example, while institutions in the grasslands may have faculty, say, specifically trained about birds (an ornithologist) or fish (ichthyologist), and regularly offer the associated courses (ornithology, ichthyology), they rarely have faculty specifically trained in, say, grasses (i.e., an agrostologist) nor regularly offer a specific course on grass taxonomy (agrostology). Because participants’ original degree granting institutions did not provide and/or require various, specific plant identification courses (e.g., plant taxonomy, agrostology, dendrology, etc.) during their academic training, they are now returning at considerable expense to their employers to attend Dr. Thomasson’s course to learn the details and essentials of plant identification. Two of the attendees had also taken Dr. Thomasson’s June 2014 course on grass identification that had been at the Sternberg.  While an emphasis during the current Plant Identification course was directed towards plants associated with wetlands, information given the participants will allow them to begin identifying plants from any environmental setting.

Day one of the course began with a trip to a 100-300 yard wide fringe wetland that has developed in the upper reaches of Hell Creek Cove at the east end of Lake Wilson.  Although the drought in Kansas has been detrimental to plants in many local habitats, it has actually resulted in the development of a spectacularly diverse community of wetland plants on sandy bars and mudflats along the margins of the cove.  Much of the lush, banded, green appearance of the wetland is due to graminoid plants (e.g., grasses, sedges, bulrushes, etc.), but during the cooler morning hours of the fieldtrip one particular plant, creeping water primrose, painted a bright yellow band along at the waters edge where lake waters lapped onto the mudflats.  Other flowering plants like arrowhead provided splashes of white, and distinctive, symmetrical, yellowish-green circles of dwarf spikesedge, Eleocharis parvula, 1-4 ft in diameter and barely 1-2 inches tall,  dotted the open mudflats.  Back at the Sternberg in the afternoon participants used herbarium microscopes to dissect plants found at the fieldtrip site and to learn plant and flower terminology before using technical books like the Great Plains Flora to identify them to species (e.g., creeping water primrose is Ludwigia peploides).  Identifying plants to the species level is essential and critical for the technical reports and surveys associated with participants’ work, where a common (i.e., creeping water primrose) or general (e.g., a creeping aquatic herb) name is not acceptable.

Day two found participants at an area encompassing a fen and freshwater emergent wetland several miles northwest of Hays.  A fen is characterized by an area of water that at the top is covered by a thick layer of vegetation, in this case 6-8 inches or so of reed grass (Phalaris arundinacea).  This results in the development of a wetland that would be very much like a swimming pool with a mattress on top of it.  Fed by an Ogallala spring as well as runoff, the fen portion of this wetland near Hays is rare in Kansas, and undoubtedly the only one known in western Kansas.  When participants walked on it they experienced  a “quaking” feeling much like walking on a waterbed, and for obvious reasons they were advised by Dr. Thomasson not to jump up and down lest they fall through the top layer of reed grass into the water below!  Participants learned a wide variety of plant species at the site, many different from the Wilson Lake site, and were also treated to a snack of ripe, sweet, American plums (Prunus americana) growing at the edge of the wetland.  Later in the lab participants, using microscopes and technical keys, identified a ground cherry, Physalis longifolia, and learned the technical differences of and between several sedges, a critical graminoid group found abundantly in almost all wetlands.  Finally during the day Dr. Thomasson gave participants a tour of all of the collections at the Sternberg, and they were uniformly impressed with the variety, quality, and size of the collections (the drawers of butterflies were a special hit).

Day three started with a trip to Cheyenne Bottoms, a large emergent wetlands characterized by plants that are generally tolerant of periods when the wetlands are alternately either dry or saturated.   During the first trip Dr. Thomasson took to Cheyenne Bottoms with a WTI plant identification class in August 2012 all of the area was completely dry, whereas this August’s class participants saw a wetlands with abundant water throughout.  Unlike in 2012 when much visible wildlife was absent, during the current visit participants were treated to seeing many noisy and/or colorful birds (e.g, cattle egrets, great blue herons, etc.) in both the skies and wetlands.  No rattlesnakes were encountered by participants as had not been the case in June when at one stop we nearly stepped on one next to the van!    While Cheyenne Bottoms is best known by the public for the wide variety of waterfowl that use it, especially during their annual migration, Dr. Thomasson pointed out that such wetlands, and in fact all wetlands, are actually defined legally and technically by the plants (such as burhead, an obligate aquatic or OBL), hydrology, and types of soils at the site, not by any of the wildlife species in spite of their beauty and importance in wetlands.  Participants spent most of the day at several stops around the Bottoms learning the specific characteristics of many plants necessary for identification and their importance to wildlife at the area.  Participants learned that Cheyenne Bottoms, or any other wetland or other non-wetland habitat, simply cannot be understood and managed without knowing the specific plants growing there.  Later in the afternoon participants returned to the lab at Sternberg where they examined the technical, morphological features of a number of grasses and sedges seen at the Bottoms.

The last day class began with the dissection and identification of grasses with the Great Plains Flora, and then the group headed to a salt marsh northeast of Gorham, KS that has developed from upwelling, artesian salt water springs with their origins in Cretaceous strata.  Unfortunately the group had barely arrived out on the center of the marsh when thunder, lightening, and approaching dark clouds required a quick retreat to the safety of the vehicles.  The group barely arrived back at the main road when it began to rain so heavily that a return to the Sternberg resulted.  In spite of the weather, participants did get to experience the ”mucky” somewhat desolate nature of this salt marsh dominated by saltgrass, Distichlis spicata, as well as lots of mosquitoes during the short visit at the site.  The final day ended with looking at and learning the morphological features and  complexities of saltmarsh aster, Symphotrichum subulatum, and the family of plants (Asteraceae) to which it belongs.

In summary, the 2014 Plant Identification class was a great success, especially as judged by the concluding, very positive comments of the participants about how much they had learned, but also as indicated by the fact that at least two participants indicated an intention to return for a graminoid class already scheduled by Dr. Thomasson and WTI for next June, again at the Sternberg. Without doubt the success of the class was made possible by the excellent facilities available at the Elam Bartholomew Herbarium and Sternberg Museum and their associated staff, especially Reese Barrick, Curtis Schmidt and Amy Klien.  Also contributing significantly was herbarium equipment made possible in part by a wonderful estate bequest from “Happy” Dr. Howard C. Reynolds, a remarkable plant taxonomist, teacher and former faculty member at FHSU and curator at the Elam Bartholomew and also by donations from the descendants of Elam Bartholomew, original founder of the herbarium at the museum.          

Click here to read another article by Dr. Joe Thomasson, “Identifying and Keying Grasses, Sedges and Rushes.”

About the Author

Sternberg Museum administrator

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