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La Brea Plant Love

by Mikayla Mason

My name is Mikayla Mason and I have absolutely no memory of a time in my life when I did not love working with plants. My grandmother tells the story of how, when we were walking through a mall when I was three, I stopped at a planter where a small plant had been pulled out and spent ten minutes replanting it. My grandmother always ends this story with the comment that she was surprised at how gentle and careful I was with the plant.

For whatever reason, this simple event set me on a path that I have followed ever since. Recently, I became a member of the La Brea Project team working at the University of Maine. My job has been to identify seeds that were viable, in the Los Angeles area of California, during the Pleistocene Epoch (2. 6 million to 11,700 years ago). What is amazing, and a bit serendipitous, is that I was born and raised in Southern California. As a child, I often visited the La Brea Tar Pits, a treasure trove of Los Angeles area fossils that offers a comprehensive "prehistoric" experience including a fascinating wall of dire wolf skulls, a number of reconstructed extinct animal skeletons, an observation deck, and the tar pits themselves.

In spite of the many wildlife wonders offered by the La Brea Tar Pits, my favorite memories are of the amazing plants that surround the museum; the grounds are truly a joy to explore, especially the purple sage, with its fragrant smell, the bright yellow Oregon grape, and the wild buckwheat, with its colorful flowers. My favorite plant was an ordinary looking, yet wonderful old and gnarled walnut tree that always seemed to be waiting just for me.

After high school, I enrolled in the Associates of Science horticulture degree program at Long Beach City College (LBCC). Four of the required classes focused on identifying plant material, which provided an excellent training for my job with the La Brea Project. While finishing LBCC, I began to explore which four year college would be the best fit for me. After visiting several universities, I chose the horticulture program at the University of Maine, never imagining that I would soon be identifying plant material from one of my favorite childhood "hangouts”; it amazes me that the prehistoric wild buckwheat seeds that I just identified here at UMaine are related to the beautiful buckwheat flowers I remember from my childhood visits to the tar pits. It is an incredible experience to feel the past re-connect with the present and, while I am a certified plant lover, I never considered the attraction of plants that lived millions of years ago.

After solving the mysteries of “Box 1,” I have discovered a personal fascination with plants from the past and one that I plan to pursue. The process of identifying the plant macrofossils from the past begins with a shipment of material from California. Macrofossils are fossils large enough to see without the aid of a microscope. Our lab in Maine received a package from La Brea marked ‘Box 1’ in early June, and the identifying process began. The first step was separating the plant samples from the surrounding material, including bone, rock, and scat. The samples are very small, and while slow and careful is the best way to proceed, some identifications comes easier. For example, although seeds and scat look superficially similar, just a single sniff of the sample can quickly identify the scat.

After the seeds have been separated and numbered, the research begins. Using the unique characteristics of the material, such as shape, texture, and markings, and research sources, such as books, journals, and internet sites, all the seeds and other material are identified by family and, when applicable, plant community. In addition, many were identified to species and genus.

The plant material in Box 1 provided a variety of information. Of the 83 samples, 56 were seeds that represented 22 plant families. The majority of the seeds (18) were from the cypress family. The buckwheat, oak, and sunflower families were also well represented. Twenty-seven samples were not seeds including, twigs, cones, leaf, oak caps, pine seed wing, pine nut shell, cone scale, wood, and bone, shells, and scat. One of the most interesting plant macrofossils to identify were the Juniperus californica seeds from the Cupressaceae family. Although most juniper seeds have a vaguely teardrop shape and are varying shades of brown, Juniperus californica, however, while sharing the same teardrop shape as the rest of the junipers can be identified by the indentations covering its surface and its bluish-black color.

The plant material from Box 1 has been organized, identified, and shipped back to California. The next shipment of plant material just arrived with new material to be identified. I can't wait to see what awaits.

Mikayla Mason is a student at the University of Maine, majoring in Environmental Horticulture. Last July, Mikayla and her family moved to Orono, Maine from Southern California and they all agree that moving to Maine was the right choice. Mikayla's interests include reading, gardening, re-purposing vintage items, training Gemma, the 8 month old border collie puppy, and discovering everything she can about Maine.


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