Botany with Eric Jones

Eric Jones from photo by Matt Meyers

Eric Jones from photo by Matt Meyers

We were truly fortunate to have Dr. Eric Jones address our class on April 16.  If enthusiasm is the hallmark of a great teacher, he is the best.

Here are some things he taught us about exploring for wildflowers:

There are clues about natural settings that will help us determine what we can expect to find in an area.  If we are looking for diverse and plentiful wildflowers for example, we are advised to turn away from shopping centers, plowed fields and building developments.  It is “disturbed land” that generally limits the diversity of our local flora.  We would want to cast our gaze elsewhere to quiet openings or very steep slopes that are “un-plowable.”  Certain kinds of trees being seen from a distance (cottonwood and sycamores) will tell us we will find water at their location, most likely.

Being a naturalist consists largely of being a very curious and careful observer of what is before us; asking how it got there and why does it want to thrive there.  That characteristic of intense inquiry will lead to asking important questions such as what is the natural history and biology of the plant in question.  Does it have ingenious, “built in” defenses that have eliminated the competition?  Is the soil where it thrives crummy?, acidic?, loamy?, and finally, what is the geology of the area that has provided that kind of soil over the ages?  How does their location help them deal with challenges of life on land?

Although taxonomy is a large part of the naturalist’s language, Dr. Jones tells us it’s the story behind the name that helps us care about the extent and specialness of plant diversity in Virginia.  Speaking the same language about our plants helps us to communicate clearly with one another.  If you ask your nurseryman for Lonicera sempervirens, you won’t get a lovely variety of Lonicera that poops out over the winter failing to shield your sight from that awful garbage heap next door.  Taxonomy also helps us organize what we see so that similar characteristics borne by other plants will help us locate their place on the “family tree.”  Family lineage makes identification easier and more likely to be accurate.  But if you really want to grasp and teach caring and concern for the special diversity of our Virginia plants, learn a story about them and pass it on.

Time evaporated and class was over all too soon.  But the last thoughts that Dr. Jones left us with are that botany, like many of the sciences, has left long-practiced Linnaean methods of plant identification and related scientific detective work in the dust bin of history – as they say.  DNA discovery is “where it’s at.”  But for the people in this class, the visible beauty of nature will always be the appeal and challenge of knowing not only the name but the history of that plant we are just getting to know.

– Sandi Rose, Cohort IV, April 2015

Note from RoxAnna:  A regular class exercise for our 2015 trainees is to summarize the previous class experience for the next class date.  Sandi Rose wrote a light-hearted yet heartfelt summary for our April 16, 2015, class with Eric Jones.  She gave me permission to publish it in the May eNewsletter and I have taken the liberty to make some small editorial changes.  It is apropos to have this summary of Botany in our eNewsletter as it was Eric’s suggestion to use this learning technique in our classes.

Editor’s note: Eric Jones is also a Cohort I Headwaters Master Naturalist. As a faculty member at Mary Baldwin College, he has developed and maintains a comprehensive website on Wildflowers of Augusta County.