By Emily Ferrell
I pulled into the SFI parking lot late, the full moon bathing the grounds in a crisp, white glow. No headlamp needed as I quickly set up a barebones cowboy camp, eager to begin the next morning with a fully rested brain. Once nestled into my sleeping bag I noticed my relief and excitement at finally being here. I was finally taking the time to get down to the nitty gritty details of my favorite subject—the vast and mysterious kingdom of plants.
Although plants have always been an integral part of my life, a new job as Noxious Weeds Program Coordinator for a local restoration council challenges me to understand the immensely diverse floral communities of the Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion and how invasive species impact these rare ecosystems. Having never seriously pursued plant taxonomy courses in school, attending a three day crash course that emphasized native species seemed like a no-brainer. Thankfully my council’s directors had agreed, and I was allowed to miss a couple days of work to attend. Under the protection of a majestic incense cedar, I prayed to the moon that the Crash Course in the Flowering Plant Families would give me the support, structure, and confidence needed to tackle the daunting task of learning plants in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains.
Just then a large fox pranced into the clearing, its elegant curves silhouetted sharply by the moonlight.
Class began at 8:30 the next morning. Tables were set up with microscopes and handouts, and students had their mammoth Jepson manuals ready to go. We were a friendly, unassuming bunch, ranging from millenials to retirees, all ready to get serious about this passion for plants we’d been harboring for years. Our backgrounds in botany varied widely, from agency workers who work in the field on a regular basis, to a retirement-age couple from New Hampshire traveling the country seeking out wild orchids, to a college botany instructor searching for ideas for teaching her own classes.
Our teacher, Linda Vorobik, took notes as everyone introduced themselves, and then filled us in on her interesting life as a botanical taxonomist and accomplished artist with encyclopedic knowledge of native plants from most west coast bioregions, including those of the diverse Klamath-Siskiyou and Sierra Nevada ranges. Open, gracious, energetic, clear, attentive and the most importantly, hilarious, Linda lit the path and we joyfully followed. She provided three informational handouts and a schedule outlining the basic structure of each day, which always began with a lecture, followed by keying practice, followed by a field trip.
At first I was intimidated by the sheer number of new names included in the handouts; they would prove invaluable for the practice and retention of this freshly acquired knowledge. Now that I’ve had two months to contemplate the material, I’m awed by how many hours of teaching have gone into the design and editing of these documents. In addition to my class notes, Linda’s material effectively summarizes the most useful parts of a taxonomy textbook and local field guide into just a few pages. During that first hour of class she knew we were feeling overwhelmed, so reassured us that while there was going to be a lot of information hurled at us over the next three days, we did not need to worry about memorizing everything. After spouting off a few complicated Latin plant names like most people would say “rose” or “daisy,” she recommended that we “just absorb what you can and leave the rest. Remember, there’s not going to be an exam!” Good advice.
Linda Vorobik with students in the lab. Right, entomologist Rich Little works on memorizing plant families for use in his field work.
Linda’s first lesson introduced us to the area we would be exploring and her history with it. This included falling head-over-heels with the magical Klamath-Siskiyou flora, many years studying native rock cresses (e.g. Arabis spp.), working with local heroes of botany, and sharing her beloved Siskiyous with hundreds of students before and after the 2002 Biscuit Fire dramatically altered the landscape.
We wrapped up the first morning familiarizing ourselves with major taxonomic divisions and basic terminology critical for using Jepson or any other flora, then solidifying what we’d learned by practicing on real specimens Linda had collected. The hands-on approach, the casual way Linda peppered her speech with interesting facts and subtle repetition, the way she kept everything in context while progressing from simple to complex, as well as her gorgeous and highly-illustrative photographs, kept us rapt and left me feeling engaged and hungry for more.
After lunch-with-a-view on the porch, we caravaned into the mountains. Following 8 Dollar Mountain Road as it snaked through serpentine zones just on the edge of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, we made a handful of stops where Linda knew we would find plants from a wide range of families. Linda shared her knowledge of broad-scale ecological wonders such as the patchwork of soil types made visible by the density, size, and species of plants covering the rugged mountains. We got our fill of difficult-to-spell Latin names, and what Linda referred to as “movie star” plants.