Story and photos by Nick Houtman
KRISTEN HILL cares for the plants on her 25-acre Cascades foothills farm with the knowledge and sensitivity that most of us reserve for our closest friends. She nurtures skullcap, borage, calendula and other herbs and yanks out Timothy grass by the handful. In her Douglas-fir woodlot, she fells trees to carve out openings for ocean spray, huckleberry and blackberry. She watches over marshmallow, California poppies, hyssop, stinging nettle and sorrel that survive nestled in a field under towering stalks of Queen Anne’s lace (aka wild carrot), grasses and thistle.
Every species has a role to play and a story to tell, and like a teacher with her students, Hill wants each one to fill its niche. “Take thistle, for example. It’s nasty for a reason,” she says. “It’s a massive toxin-removal plant. Its main job is to restore damaged systems. With its thorns, it’s telling you to leave this place alone. It goes in there with its tap root, breaks the soil up and brings up minerals from deep below.”
In 2013, when Hill bought the farm (“My family has always enjoyed that saying,” she laughs), she wanted to learn more about the plants that had become what she views as her co-conspirators in restoring the land. So she reached out to the state’s top-seeded source of botanical knowledge, the Oregon Flora Project at Oregon State University. This two-decades-long effort to monitor and catalog botanical biodiversity has produced — in print and online — an unparalleled resource for people who manage farms, ranches, forests, roadways, public green spaces and other lands. Key to this accomplishment is a network of more than 1,000 volunteers like Hill, people with a passion and curiosity about the natural world.
Twice a month, Hill makes the one-hour drive from Holley down the valley of the Calapooia and across the Willamette to Corvallis. She hunkers in the OSU herbarium, the state’s largest collection of dried specimens of plants found within its borders, and pulls out volumes of plants meticulously arranged and annotated like books in a library. Under the supervision of Stephen Myers, Oregon Flora Project taxonomic director, she uses plant samples submitted by other volunteers, whether they be weekend hikers or professional scientists, to confirm or edit the plant identification keys created for the project. Rarely, after she has exhaustively evaluated the color, shape and structure of petals, stems, seeds and other plant parts, she may suggest reassigning the identification of a specimen.
“I literally go character by character,” she says. “Plants are like people. You can bunch them together, but you may not want to say they’re all the same.” Along the way, she is gaining insight into her land in Holley. “I read about these plants and go, ‘Wait, I’ve got that one. Where did I see it?’ I start looking around at home,” she says, “and when I see it, I say ‘That’s you; I know you now.’ It’s helping me get on a higher level and learn about my property.”
Keys to the Planet
In fact, says Linda Hardison, director of the flora project and an assistant professor in the Oregon State Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, knowing what plants are in our midst is key to understanding the environment. “Everything on this planet hinges around plants,” she says. “They make the air we breathe. They are the primary sources of food, from phytoplankton to grasses for cattle. Plants are the lynchpin for the whole planet.”
For people charged with managing a landscape, she adds, not knowing what plants are present would be like making dinner in the dark. “You can fumble around and try things, but without knowing what’s there, you can’t appreciate what options you have.”
The flora project’s roots go back to 1994 when Scott Sundberg acutely felt the need for an accurate, accounting of Oregon’s floral landscape. The Eugene native and graduate of the University of Oregon had just been hired at Oregon State to oversee the integration of herbarium collections from both institutions. By then, the last published assessment of Oregon’s plant diversity was more than 30 years old. He founded the Oregon Flora Project to create an up-to-date resource. He sought advice and contributions from fellow scientists and the public.
“Scott developed a lot of personal relationships to get this program going because he had deep respect for the knowledge that amateur plant enthusiasts possessed,” says Hardison, who was married to Sundberg. “Good examples are the partnership he formed with the Native Plant Society of Oregon and the decade-long exchange of information with Douglas County amateur botanists. Four ladies who met at the Glide Wildflower Show got together and botanized most of Douglas County.” They exchanged plant lists with Sundberg and painstakingly confirmed identifications. Their annotated samples were housed in the county museum. Others became part of the herbarium at Oregon State.
Plant by plant, county by county, Sundberg worked with citizens and professional botanists, such as OSU’s Ken Chambers. Sundberg created a database to organize the hundreds of thousands of plant samples that are glued to sheets of stiff, acid-free paper and stored in cabinets in the OSU herbarium.
One of his goals was to put the complete collection online, where it would be widely available to anyone with an internet connection. With financial support from the National Science Foundation and the federal Bureau of Land Management, Sundberg and a small team of experts developed interactive maps and other digital resources that enable citizens to visualize where and what kinds of plants occupy every nook and cranny of the state (see oregonflora.org).
“Scott was 6 feet, 5 inches, over 200 pounds; he was a big guy, and he loved little duckweeds,” says Hardison. “There he is, this behemoth of a man, crawling around in the pond scum, and he’d be so excited. He had a sharp eye for recognizing all the plants in an area, but he really enjoyed discovering the little things.”
Sundberg’s efforts were cut short when, in 1999, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Having earned her Ph.D. in botany at the University of Washington, Hardison gradually assumed responsibility for the project and became its director after Sundberg’s death in 2004.
Flora of Oregon, Volume 1
In 2015, Hardison and her team reached a milestone. They published Flora of Oregon, Volume 1, part of the first comprehensive treatment of the state’s floral communities in more than a half century. Dedicated to Sundberg, this celebration of Oregon’s remarkable landscape reflects more than 340,000 observations of plants contributed by members of the Native Plant Society of Oregon, Oregon State scientists, government researchers and individuals. It describes plants from the rain forest of the north coast to the arid Columbia basin, from the Siskiyous in the southwest to the Owyhee Uplands in the east.
In addition to laying out grasses, sedges, lilies, ferns, conifers and other plants in exhaustive technical detail, the volume includes a history of botanists in Oregon, including pioneering Oregon State professor Helen M. Gilkey. Color photos highlight plant communities in the state’s 11 major ecoregions. Hikers can use an annotated list of 50 mapped locations to explore Oregon’s botanical heritage.
While Flora of Oregon comprises a snapshot in time, it also marks an ongoing transition. Its roughly 4,700 species, subspecies and varieties include about 15 percent more than were recorded in the 1961 assessment. Some have moved into the state from Nevada and California, possibly reflecting the influence of a warming climate. And, notes Harrison, another 159 found in the previous century have not been collected in the last 50 years. The samples in the OSU herbarium may be the last remnants of their presence in the state.
The project notes a change of another sort, whether a species is native or exotic. While that difference holds meaning for people concerned about invasives and their impact on the environ- ment, “what’s native and what’s not becomes a really squishy question,” Hardison says.
“‘Native’ is an intersection of time and place. You have to consider native over what time period and in what place. You can talk about what’s native to North America, which will be different from what’s native to the Willamette Valley. Some exotic plants can become troublesome, weedy things,” she adds, “because they don’t have the checks and balances of indigenous pests or pathogens to keep populations in equilibrium.”
The Oregon Flora Project uses habitats and ecosystems as a frame of reference. “So when you look at where we are, whether it’s the Willamette Valley, the Columbia Basin or the high lava plains, what plants would you find in undisturbed habitats and plant communities? That can serve as an expression of what’s native,” says Hardison. “Making people aware of the frames of reference is an aha! moment. It’s technical information, but it’s really graspable.”
Plants in Our Future
By providing an outlet for sharing personal interests, the project has inspired people. One woman wrote to Hardison to tell of her father’s enjoyment in finding new flowers on hikes at Crater Lake and along the Umpqua River. They were “the soul-feeding endeavor that gave meaning to his life in retirement,” she said.
For others, Flora has become a useful reference. “The background work that the project has done, and now the book that has been published, has been used by natural resource managers, master gardeners and especially the various native plant societies around the region,” says Russ Karow, the former chair of the Crop and Soil Science department at Oregon State and now director of the Agricultural Research Foundation.
For Kirsten Hill, the notion of what’s native on her farm intersects with the past and her own vision of a diverse, functioning ecosystem. “I can see what’s there now, but I can also see what was there before. I want to restore this place. I want to find a happy medium between what was there before Europeans came over and what we’ve done. We can’t restore to what it was because the climate is warming and plants are moving. I have a 50-year plan, and I’m a little bit bullheaded,” she says with a grin.
The herbs she is planting have another purpose: They can help humans adapt to the stresses of a changing planet. One example is borage (aka star flower), a Mediterranean native that provides dietary micronutrients and fatty acids. Some people have found it to be useful for handling stress. In Hill’s vegetable garden, borage has spread with abandon.
Knowledge of plants is critical to her hopes for the future. “If you don’t understand the environment around you, you’re vulnerable,” she says. “That’s our reason for being here, understanding who we are and how we fit.”