Dr. J. R. Thomasson, Curator Emeritus of the Elam Bartholomew Herbarium at the Sternberg Museum, recently completed another very successful class on plant identification using the facilities at the Sternberg Museum and visits to four local wetlands. The class, “Identifying and Keying Grasses, Sedges and Rushes” (collectively called graminoids), was held from June 3-6, and participants included a hydrologist from the USDA Forest Service in Rapid City, South Dakota, two environmental specialists from the Kickapoo Tribe Environmental Office in Horton, KS, an environmental engineer from Kleinfelder Inc. in Littleton, CO, and an entomologist and environmental specialist from Felsburg Holt & Ullevig in Lincoln, NE. These professionals attended the class in order to acquire or strengthen their abilities in the field and laboratory to be able to accurately understand and identify graminoids, the primary and undoubtedly most important group of plants inhabiting the grasslands and wetlands of central North America and elsewhere. Many of the environmental projects these class participants conduct for their companies and agencies in the “real world”, as one class participant put it, “seek to find ways of preserving our natural heritage that are compatible with continued human development.” Increasingly many academic programs in university biology departments lack faculty whose core academic training is in plant identification, and especially in graminoids. As a result, undergraduate and graduate students often receive inadequate background on identification of these critical plants during their academic training. To help correct this deficiency courses like that taught by Dr. Thomasson are offered and sponsored by private companies, in this case Wetlands Training Institute of Glenwood, NM, who also advertise the courses and recruit for participants and qualified faculty to teach them nationwide.
During the graminoid course field visits were made to four wetlands in the central Kansas area including a unique and rare, Ogallala spring-fed, fen in Ellis County that was the subject of two of Dr. Thomasson’s master’s students, The Haberer salt water marsh on the Saline River, fringe wetlands around Wilson Lake, and the emergent freshwater marsh at Cheyenne Bottoms. At each locality participants were provided with a basic understanding of the nature of the wetlands and then Dr. Thomasson led them through the site identifying primarily the grasses, sedges and rushes found growing there. At one locality at WilsonLake a sedge, Carex amphibola, was observed by the class that Dr. Thomasson indicated he had never observed during any of his many previous visits to the site. In addition to plants, students also encountered other unique “critters” at the field sites including an occasional tick, a massasauga rattlesnake at Cheyenne Bottoms, and hordes of deer flies at the Haberer marsh.
In the laboratory at the Sternberg participants were provided with lectures and handouts describing the basics and specifics of the morphological features and literature used in the identification of graminoids. Species of graminoids used included many of those encountered at field sites, and Dr. Thomasson provided a CD of PDFs of color images of many of the species seen and dissected during the class. Books such as Flora of the Great Plains and Field Guide to Sedge Species of the Rocky Mountain Region were also used by the participants to key and identify both known and unknown graminoids.
This is the third year and fourth class involving some aspect of plant identification that Dr. Thomasson has offered through Wetlands Training Institute at Cheyenne Bottoms Education Center and the Sternberg Museum. All of the participants have indicated that they have learned a lot during the courses and that such courses are a valuable resource for those needing to identify plants especially in the grassland and wetland ecosystems. An additional course on non-graminoid plant identification will be taught by Dr. Thomasson at the Sternberg August 19-22, 2014 and courses for 2015 are in the planning.