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Field Botany Love Stories

Over the past few weeks, we have shared Plant Love Stories written by the students in Chris Martine's Field Botany class, Taught at Bucknell University.

Although Martine has only taught Field Botany since 2012, some type of botany course with a field component has been offered at the institution since 1876! In the present, Bucknell students continue to visit some of the same nearby sites that their 19th-century predecessors once botanized in.

By the end of the semester, the students will visit 18 localities and be required to learn to ID and memorize the Latin names of around 150 native and naturalized plant species. Students are also asked to engage in a number of plant-related reading and writing assignments, including an in-class reflective essay for Plant Love Stories.

Many of the stories discussed how taking the class changed their perspective on plants. Students learned to be better observers, and appreciate the plants around them as living things with stories of their own (Very similar to our goal here at Plant Love Stories!). A few of the stories have already been published (see here here here and here), excepts from the rest of the stories are shared below.

Favorite species

by Bryanna Yost, Biology major

Impatiens capensis is the most fascinating and eye-catching species I have learned about in field botany. The bright orange flowers and the exploding fruits make the touch-me-nots my favorite species that I am always looking for during our trips around central Pennsylvania.

Every time I see the plant, I immediately look for ripe, ready to explode fruits, and I am compelled to gently squeeze the sides until they pop. Impatiens capensis, was the first species we learned about and I was originally drawn to its orange flowers, as orange is my favorite color. Then, the species became even more fascinating when I found out about the seed dispersal method of exploding fruits. Even the flowers looked unique, with the cornucopia shape that holds nectar for bees and other pollinators to crawl into.

The close relative I. pallida is just as beautiful and captivating with its small yellow flowers and the same fun exploding fruits. These two characteristics are not all that they are good for, as I. capensis is known to have a medicinal use: The stems and leaves can help relieve the itching and pain caused by poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans, another interesting plant species. Out of the 113 species we have learned so far, I. capensis is by far the most intriguing.

Each tree is uniquely itself

by Natalie Slupe, Biology, major

Every day, I walk through Bucknell’s scenic campus. Everywhere you turn, you’re surrounded by trees, big and little. At this time of the year the colors are changing to crisp reds, oranges and yellows. Before Field Botany, these trees were the same to me. Differences in the features of the bark, of the leaves and of the branches were obsolete. They were all just trees.

After a few short weeks of one botany class, walking through campus has a different impact. Each tree is uniquely itself and being able to identify the species by looking at the features makes each tree even more special. Even off of Bucknell’s campus I am shocked at how many of the tree species I have encountered and not known what species they were. The trees that I grew up with on my front lawn at home, I can now recognize features and identify the species.

Field Botany has opened my eyes to what is around me. Plants used to just be plants to me. Having the tools to identify each one, and also know the value it holds in the ecosystem gives each plant a new meaning to me. While it may be annoying to my friends, being able to point out plants and know what it is and also know a fun fact about it has been a fun skill to develop and display.

Taking this course in the state that I grew up in, Pennsylvania, has shown me how many interesting plants I have been brushing past for all of my life. Walking trails at home has an additional element of fun now that I know the plants that are there and can use the knowledge I have gained from this class to make guesses about the type of forests that the trails are in or guess about the past context of the area.

A life full of plant love

by Jenny Davis, Biology/Environmental Science major

My love of plants was propagated throughout my childhood, starting around six years old, with cacti. I loved how some could tower over me, while others were the size of my pinky finger. Their spikes would push into my fingers when I erroneously “pet” them, but I didn’t mind. My parents would buy me cacti as presents, and I loved them. I still have one.

Other instances were less explicit: I would do my homework in a tree in the conservation area near my house. I would pick wildflower bouquets for my mom. My friend and I would explore the “tiny pine forest” (our nickname for it) in the woods behind my backyard. Then, in middle school, my grandfather taught me how to garden: he grew up on a farm in rural Mississippi but hadn’t gardened in decades. My nonna would sit out on a chair, watching us.

The next step in cultivating my appreciation and knowledge of plants was field botany. I am currently learning about a multitude of Pennsylvanian plants (112 so far!) It has made me a better plant lover through gaining a greater knowledge of plant identification, ecology, and species distribution. I have noticed myself IDing plants while walking down the sidewalk, or running errands with my family.

This experience has also reconnected me to my past: the tree I used to sit in was a giant red oak. The bush in my backyard that made the best bouquets was mountain laurel. The tiny pine forest was actually a grouping of Lycopodium and Diphasiastrum. The spiky fruit was from an American chestnut tree, which is extremely threatened. It no longer bears fruit. Plants are all around us, and while I was especially passionate about plants as a child, I think it is important for other children to learn about plants too.

Favorite plant panic

by Perry Summers, Biology major

The first day of class we were asked what our favorite plant was. A sheer panic flew over my face as I racked my brain for the total of four plants I maybe knew by name to say. I rushed to the first thing that came to my mind: a sunflower. These were cool, right?

Multiple ray and disk flowers deceitfully arranged to resemble one large flower. Every week this list of four flowers continued to grow, 15 more, 20 more, 40 more. With every

plant I learned I began to focus on minute details that differentiated them, and with that

differentiation grew an appreciation for each plant.

Before this class, I believed that botany was unrelated to what I wanted to pursue in life, which is medicine. I realize how naïve I was when writing that now. Spicebush was historically used by American Indians as a tea to purify the blood from sickness, worms, or even typhoid fever. Slippery elm can be used to soothe the throat. Witch-hazel is used in many skincare products, to reduce inflammation, and protect against infection. The list could continue. In summary, botany is essential (and I’m not just saying that to make my professor happy) and valuable to all of us, whether we realize it or not.

Finding the value of plants

by Melissa Ocampo, Biology major

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to pursue a degree and career in biology. I loved learning about different organisms and how they work and interact with one another. However, in high school I was really only ever exposed to animals and not many plants. I viewed plants as having no intrinsic value, as their sole purpose in my eyes was to sustain animals, including us. However, taking a botany class has exposed me to the amazing world of plants.

Plants are often looked at as being “boring” and “primitive”. However, the features and capabilities of some plants in their adaptations to their habitats can be surprisingly complex. For instance, many species such as the pitch pine (Pinus rigida) are adapted to survive in habitats that experience regular fires. Although the majority of living things would die in this environment, these trees thrive with their cones actually designed to germinate when exposed to fire! The fact that this species has twisted the challenge of forest fires into an advantage is amazing, and other examples can be found throughout the plant kingdom. Plants are often taken for granted, with people assuming that they’re boring, yet necessary for life. In actuality, the world of plants is amazingly complex and should be appreciated as such.

Plants are not only useful in their role in sustaining other organisms, they are also important for our psyches. In Japan, the term “shinrin-yoku” means “forest bathing”, and refers to the idea that spending time outdoors surrounded by nature is a form of medicine for the mind. I have definitely found this to be true: being in a field botany class I spend 4-6 hours a week in nature surrounded by, and learning about, plants. I have found this time helps me slow down and appreciate the world around me.

Music and plants

by Jenna Hosker, Biology major

When you think about the flashbulb memories and milestones in your life, are there one or two central people who you remember being there for all of those moments? Your tenth birthday party (double digits woohoo!), your first day of high school, your high school graduation, that time you broke your ankle, the time your first love broke your heart, the day you ran a marathon (or in my case, a 5K), that time you felt so homesick, or when death took a loved one when you weren’t ready to say goodbye; All of these memories call for support or celebration with those you love. While I imagine my parents, siblings, family, and friends as my central people in so many of these memories, I also think of music, and how it has helped me both cope with hardship and delight in good times.

Music is like the friendly ghost or angel wandering in the background of my life. For my tenth birthday, it was Backstreet Boys, Blue Man Crew, and Kidz Bop. When my high school sweetheart found a new sweetheart in college, it was Daniel Powter’s Bad Day, on repeat, followed by Carrie Underwood’s Before He Cheats, of course. The list goes on, but so many of my memories are attached to music and songs. You probably thought that the central person in all of my milestones would have to do with plants. Or are possibly wondering why I’m writing about music for a story about plant love. How do plants relate to music? At all?

Think about one thing you love. For me, its music. Whatever it is, it’s probably either made by or made with a plant. Guitars, which gave John Mayer the ability to bring hundreds of fans in a crowd to tears with the deep beauty of his music, are often made from Mahogany, a reddish/brown timber of the genus Swietenia in the chinaberry family, Meliaceae. Ash, maple, poplar, spruce, holly, walnut, basswood, alder, and more are other common plants used to make instruments. Even pianos are made from plants. Just as music induces dopamine in us, some studies have even shown music has even increased growth rate in plants. Who knew?

I am currently taking a Botany class in which we have learned over 120 species of plants. Every single plant we have learned has its own story or quality, just like human beings do. It’s almost as if each plant has a personality, making forests and all of Nature so unique and diverse. As my Botany professor puts it, “Plants are cool too.” Although this may sound a little cheesy at first, it’s actually the biggest understatement of the world. Not only are they cool, but they provide life’s beauty, and life itself. Earth would be so dull without plants.

Jenna Hosker, Biology, 2020

Poetry and plants

by Robert Han, Biology major

Poetry and plants aren’t exactly a novel concept, but I think I have developed a new respect for the combination as I’ve grown more familiar with plants. Knowing for example that nightshades (Solanaceae) encompasses a range of plants both poisonous and edible allows for more flexibility which is what I appreciate the most about writing poetry. For example, if I were to write, “I ate the nightshade and it blossomed within me,” the knowledge “blossoming” could be poison or satisfaction can take the poem to entirely different realms. It could take a darker tone, “its black flesh corroded me,” or a lighter one, “its sweetness burst through my lips.”

Plants are not just visual objects; in poetry, they can be actors as they can have as many unique characteristics as any person. Oftentimes I’d write the characteristics of people into non-people. Again, not exactly a novel concept but one that can really shine when presented in unique ways.

Several species of vines are notorious for pulling down large trees because of the huge biomass they can accumulate. But how would these plants be written? They could be revolutionaries, toppling oppressors in support of those in their shadows. Perhaps they are snakes, climbing along the unassuming, slowly tightening their hold until there’s no escape.

Like any writing discipline, writing poetry requires some degree of research but with plants writers can get away with using their surface features. The world of plants is a lot more comprehensive, and rich than many of us know and developing my familiarity with plants has definitely helped me identify new creative avenues to pursue in my writing.

Meant to be

by Olanne Healy, Biology major

It was Spring 2018 and I was studying abroad in Ireland for the semester. While I was living it up overseas, I had to start planning my return to campus.

I signed up for Field Botany for scheduling reasons. At the time, I didn’t have much interest or experience with plants. But, I enjoy the outdoors and any hands-on activity so I figured that an ecology lab course wouldn’t be so bad for the fall semester.

In addition to the material itself, being outside has made the course feel less like a classroom and more like an immersive experience. Our professor, Professor Martine, cracks some awesome jokes to help us learn the material. As a result, there is an overall lighthearted, fun atmosphere during class.

While memorizing a list of species every week felt daunting at first, it now feels like a super power. As I walk around campus I sometimes catch people giving me strange looks. Then, I realize that it is because I am usually staring at a particular plant for an extended period of time, trying to see if I can identify the plant. Sometimes I feel like an official botany nerd but it doesn’t bother me in the least.

This course has helped me realize the importance of plants and their role in the survival of other species on the planet. In conclusion, my experience in Field Botany was meant to be.

Field trips

by Artemisia Ashton, Biology/Theater

My sophomore year of college we went to Tall Timbers on a trip for my Ecology class. It was a fun outing, and the professors made sure to actively point out the number of dead trees still standing within the forest. These, of course, were ash trees; though at the time it did not seem to have a great impact on me. That, or I simply didn’t comprehend the amount of destruction that had swept through the area.

A semester later, I found myself enrolled in Field Botany. I never expected to end up with such an interest in the world around me.

I now find as I walk around campus, I am looking for plants I can recognize and wonder if the ones I do not are related to families I am familiar with. Sometimes when I’m on my drive home I see some plants on the side of the road and absentmindedly think “oh, there’s an Asteraceae.”

Our trip to Dale’s Ridge had the biggest impact on me. While it was fun tromping around in a stream, it was also eye opening to the amount of destruction an invasive species can cause. The amount of dead ash trees that lined the sides of the stream really caused me to pause and think about our natural world and what is happening around us. It was also somewhat frustrating, because there isn’t much we could do to stop the ash borer, or the fungus, or whatever it is attacking these natives no matter how hard we tried.

But there are bright sides to our field trips. Seeing young ash trees thriving is always something that makes me feel better. Seeing chestnuts that are young and healthy and growing and even seeing one that was fruiting was very exciting. Getting to see endangered or rare species has shown me how diverse and special Pennsylvania is and has brightened my outlook on the future. Overall, Field Botany has opened my eyes and showed me to appreciate the state I live in because it is truly filled with diverse and beautiful life.

Hope for the ash tree

by Marisa Alemany, Biology, 2020

For the day is warm with sounds of water washing over rocks and plants paints a faint melody in the background. We enter the stream with no expectations of what we will bear witness along the edges. The transition into the stream is quick and easy, seeing some old friends while being introduced to new.

As we wade around in the stream, the canopy shifts and is painted grey. It feels as though I am running into someone I once was so fond of and knew so well to now being less than acquaintances, a stranger.

The hollow broken trunks of ash trees (Fraxinus nigra) become exposed to our view as we see the remnants of a toxic relationship. For how could something so small have such a profound effect on the giant?

Hope peeks through just as the sun peaks through the canopy. The saplings and sprouts persist even in the face of failure or eminent death. But death is eminent for all, it is the only thing in life everyone and everything has to do.

We emerge from the creek and begin the next phase of the journey. Climbing higher and deeper into the woods like a vine twisting and twining its way to the top of a tree. Emerging at the top of the ridge the sounds of the forest seem to vanish as we overlooked the valley.

As the noises of life and all doubts begin to fade, I begin to think “For one day they [the ash] will succeed, I just know it. If they have not given up and accepted defeat why is there any reason for me or any of us to?”

Not so different after all

by Anthony Meehan

My newfound appreciation of plants has been a formative and somewhat humbling experience. It’s been a slow process. Botany was never an interest of mine. How could the world of plants ever compare to the mystery of humanity? But before long I found myself asking how they are so different from us? Plants were immobile, inconsequential organisms that played little role in my life up to this point.

However, moving forward I see that they will have a tremendous impact

on my life and the lives of countless others. My eyes have been opened to an aspect of life that I took for granted. The interactions we have with plant life and habitats that are outside of the observable,technologically driven world we get caught up in have always been there. How could I not have seen them before!

Botany makes me want to teach. It inspires me to want to show others that plants aren’t as simple as they appear. They are cyclical like us. They are beautiful like us. And they serve as a kind of metaphor of our ever changing, a lot of times complicated, lives.

Who knew… plants are cool too!


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