Quite a collector

Local rancher Lowell Ahart has turned a love of plants into more than a hobby

IM-PRESS-IVE<br>Lowell Ahart shows off a plant specimen in his living room. He’s collected about 15,000 so far.

Lowell Ahart shows off a plant specimen in his living room. He’s collected about 15,000 so far.

Photo By Virginia Moran

At a conference in Chico a few years ago held by the Northern California Botanists, someone posed the question: “Where are all the botanists?”

I’ll tell you where they are—majoring in marketing!

Indeed, when you tell people you collect and identify plants that grow in the wild, you are immediately considered a bit odd. This says more about our society than it does about people who would rather hang out with chloroplasts than hemoglobin. Still, the days of the plant collector may be dwindling.

Northern California has its own rancher-turned-plant collector who boasts collecting about 15,000 specimens. His name is Lowell Ahart. He’s 69 years old and hails from Oroville, has been collecting since he got bit by the botany bug from a plant taxonomy class he took in 1960, and it’s been uphill ever since. Up hills, down hills, across mountains, valleys, rivers …

Ahart became close friends with Dr.Vernon Oswald, a professor of biology at CSU, Chico, and the two of them collected together for many years and co-authored the book Manual of Vascular Plants of Butte County, California.

Ahart’s botanical explorations have benefited not only the region, but all of botanical science, as well. He has chalked new records throughout his collecting career, and his reputation as an excellent collector has led to researchers often asking him to collect or check on populations of plants. In 1997, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Award from the Chico State herbarium.

Ahart also wonders where the botanists are.

“This is important, what I’m doing, and the world is concerned about this. Where are the botanists? If you’re going to find out what’s here, you have to collect. Collections allow us to answer difficult questions.”

Ahart admits things have changed from the past, when a person could head out the door and just roam. Californians have little roaming room these days, as piled as we are on top of one another.

“Now there are locked gates, no-trespassing signs, fencing … all the roads are closed, gated. It’s not as easy as it used to be.” Ahart also emphasized the importance of seed collections, especially in light of possibly more severe human impacts to the planet, like climate change.

HOW-TO<br>Plants are dug up, roots and all, placed in a press and saved on herbarium paper.

Photo By Virginia Moran

A specimen is prepared by first making sure you will not in any way threaten the existence of the plant. Generally, it is best to take a photo if you note fewer than 50 plants in an entire population. Once you are sure your collection will not lead to the decline of the species, you dig it up. Yes, kill it. After all, it’s science.

You try to get the plant in all its life stages—roots, leaves, buds, flowers, and fruit, if possible. Then the plant is placed in a press. Professional plant presses are made of wood generally, though there are now nifty field presses that can be worn as backpacks. The plant is placed on newspaper and blotter paper and then pressed between these two pieces of wood. Straps are wound around the press to hold it. The press is then either placed in a dryer or left in the sun so the specimen can dry.

Once dry, the specimen is removed from the press and mounted on herbarium paper. The specimen is also referred to as a “voucher” because it vouches that the plant came from that particular location.

One of the most successful plant-collecting programs in the state is the Plant Atlas Para-botanist program run by the San Diego Natural History Museum. This program has trained more than 150 people, many of them nonscientists, how to do plant surveys and collect plants.

If you think you would be interested in making contributions to botanical science through collecting, Chico State has a herbarium and plant program. Contact Friends of the Chico State Herbarium (www.csuchico.edu/biol/Herb/Friends.html) for more information.