Collected with care
Local botanist highlights the importance of Chico State’s herbarium
Rod Lacey likes nature walks. As soon as he could walk, in fact, he liked “spending time in big wilderness and meditating on the calmer pace of wild lands,” as he put it recently, during a field trip to flower-filled, green meadows south of Chico, where he monitors plant habitats.
Lacey likes catching snakes, finding and photographing native wildflowers, and treading lightly with held-breath anticipation around the edges of vernal pools looking for fairy shrimp—as he was doing that day. A professional botanist for Eco-Analysts, an environmental-analysis company based in Chico, a father of young children and a member of the board of directors for the Friends of the Chico State Herbarium, Lacey regularly has the pleasure of a good nature walk.
“See how her ears are perked up and following our movement out here?” he asked while watching a mother great horned owl sitting on her nest in the top of a cottonwood tree on the edges of the wildflower-filled meadow. “She is sitting on eggs—and she is bigger than a small dog, so watch out for your little ones out here if she’s hungry!”
Lacey’s everyday work and personal life are filled with a love of nature and a profound interest in and concern about its current state—and its future. A North State native, the 39-year-old volunteered in 2008 to serve on the herbarium’s board because of his desire to help generate interest from a new generation in the herbarium, its educational programs and public outreach. This new generation—Lacey’s generation—and their young families are already “nature-aware” and engaged, and they are hungry for ways to be even more engaged and informed.
An herbarium, for the uninitiated, is a collection of dried plant specimens collected, prepared and used primarily for scientific reference. It’s the equivalent for plants of what a library is for books. Myriad wildflowers bloom in our North State meadows, foothills and alpine areas. Many different kinds of oaks spread their shade and acorns across our landscapes. Herbarium records and collections help identify plant types and illustrate over time and space where different kinds of plants live, when they bloom, when they set seed and their approximate populations, which in turn illustrates how our environment is changing.
The Chico State Herbarium, established in the 1950s with specimens donated by late Chico State biology professor Vesta Holt, after whom Holt Hall is named, is the most complete repository of plant specimens from northeastern California and includes a great number of rare, threatened and endangered plant species. The specimens were collected as living samples in the field by professionals and enthusiastic amateurs alike—including many botanists like Lacey.
The herbarium itself comprises two large rooms on the ground floor of Holt Hall. One resembles a science-classroom laboratory, with long, stainless-steel tables, microscopes and a wall lined with glass-fronted bookshelves. The second room is the equivalent of the “stacks” in a library, with temperature- and humidity-controlled metal cabinets chock-full of dried, pressed, mounted and annotated plant specimens.
“The herbarium is used extensively for identification of sensitive and other plant species by various agencies and individuals. … I use the herbarium a lot as a reference source professionally,” Lacey said. “This relatively low-key organization plays a crucial role in not just the North State, but also the global scientific community. The facility stores over 102,000 [plant] specimens used for research around the world.”
Besides crouching down in roadside fields and backcountry forests doing such things as identifying flowers and catching sight of snakes and birds, Lacey and the other naturalist board members and lab volunteers log many indoors hours as well. They prepare specimens, do data entry, and put together educational workshops for regional students and professionals seeking credit hours, as well as more general-interest workshops for the public.
On May 14 the herbarium is hosting an open house sponsored jointly with Gateway Science Museum. During the event, the winners of a local sixth- through 12th-grade plant-photography competition will be chosen.
Lacey hopes that events such as these—that encourage the public to participate in learning about their natural environment—will underscore that “the herbarium is a resource available to students and professionals throughout the world,” as well as for the general public. Members of the public are invited to visit, learn about the collections, get help identifying specific plants, use the reference library, even learn to make plant collections themselves.
“If people knew of the critical contribution to human knowledge that institutions like ours represent, then we may not continually be in danger of losing desperately needed university and community support every time budgets or resources get tight,” said Lacey. “Like the old saying goes, use it or lose it.”
Jennifer Jewell is host of the weekly regional garden program In a North State Garden, which airs every Saturday and Sunday on North State Public Radio.