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WSU preserves century-old plants while botanist examines future of Utah's flora

Saturday , June 09, 2018 - 5:00 AM

A unique catalog has moved into the Weber State University archives.

The yellowing labels and cursive handwriting tell the collection’s story — a list of the order, genus and species along with the common name and date collected. There’s a shrubby bitterbrush, a white-flowered cryptantha, a delicate purple vetch and around 100 more grasses, flowers and forbs. It’s a brittle bouquet, compiled more than 100 years ago.

The plants were preserved and documented by John Lind, who served as the only science faculty — and the first Ph.D. — at Weber College when he started teaching in 1910. Lind collected many of his plants in Utah and they provide an invaluable link to the past, especially since the next century holds an uncertain future for the region’s flora.

“I think there’s going to be some profound changes that take place in the next 100 years,” said Stephen Clark, a professor who currently teaches botany at Weber State. 

When Clark started his teaching position at the university in 1965, the only preserved plant specimens he had to work with were Lind’s collection and about 35 plants from Switzerland preserved by Weber Academy Principal Louis F. Moench — considered Weber State’s first president — in the 1880s.

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Clark has spent the past five decades collecting plant species throughout the West with a focus on the Central Wasatch. Not much has changed in the preservation process over the years — the plants are placed between absorbent papers and squished in a press. Done correctly and with a little care, they look just as vibrant as they did when first plucked from the ground centuries before.

“Keep them away from insects, keep them away from moisture and humidity, keep them out of the light and they’ll remain forever,” Clark said.

Clark has spent his career creating a full university herbarium of about 26,000 specimens in the time he has between teaching classes. 

“It’s like a reference in a library,” Clark said. “It gives you an indication of what’s here, what kind of habitats they grow in, the season they flower or fruit.”

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Clark has used the plants in his growing herbarium to write a field guide for his taxonomy students, “A Flora of the Central Wasatch.”

While Clark is still able to find the same plants Lind collected in Weber County in the 1890s, plenty has changed, too.

“If you look at early photographs taken of the area taken right after the Civil War, we find sagebrush for example, and ... juniper trees, they’ve increased by about 600 percent as a result of overgrazing.”

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The region is also plagued by invasive weeds. There’s dyer’s woad, which was long used in Europe to produce blue dye but was accidentally introduced to the Western U.S. in livestock feed. There’s leafy spurge, which made its way to Utah a few decades ago and is toxic to cattle. There’s cheatgrass, which pushes out native grasses and fuels wildfires. Hundreds of other non-native plants have taken root since the time Lind first explored the region.

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“There are roughly 3,300 plants in Utah and roughly a third of those have been introduced,” Clark said.

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Looking to the future, Clark said he’s particularly worried about climate change, population growth and what that means for plants unique to the Central Wasatch.

“With increased population, that will put increased demand on water supply and with global warming, there will be less water,” he said.

Weber County’s native plants could adapt to a warmer climate by moving north or higher in elevation, chasing cooler climates, he said.

“I suppose what we’ll see is plants that are more adapted to southern, dry environments will move in and other plants will die or move out,” he said.

Some of those plant species could die out completely. 

“It’s entirely possible you could have plants go extinct if it becomes too hot. And sometimes it’s not the plant, sometimes it’s the pollinator,” Clark said. “If the new environment doesn’t favor the pollinator and the pollinator dies, the plant’s going to die, too.”

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Clark said he’s especially concerned about the future of marshy plants that depend on the Great Salt Lake. The lake supports about 75 percent of Utah’s wetlands, but they’re in danger of drying up due to development in western Weber and Davis counties.

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“We’ll lose all those plants that are on the shoreline in addition to all the habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds and marsh critters that live there,” Clark said.

That’s all exacerbated by water projects proposed on the Bear River, the lake’s largest tributary. A warming climate could be those plants’ last lick since the evidence seems to point to dwindling snowpacks and less runoff to rivers in the future.

“I think most of the problem will be with those plants totally dependent on large amounts of water. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the Great Salt Lake dry up,” Clark said. “It’s not a very happy outlook, is it? But I think it represents reality.”

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Clark is set to retire from Weber State next year, which is why Lind’s collection is moving to the archives, along with Moench’s plants from Europe, where the university will be able to protect them as important pieces of the school’s history. 

“As an archivist and historian, it actually gave me that giddy feeling of butterflies in my stomach, which hardly ever happens,” said Jamie Weeks, university archivist, in a statement.

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She called the 100-plus-year-old plants “awe-inspiring” and plans to take high-resolution photographs of the specimens.

“The images will be compared to those in the Library of Congress collection to see if they can fill in any holes,” she said in an email.

The fate of Clark’s own herbarium is less certain, but he said it’s important to keep collecting, pressing and preserving real plants in the region. 

“Photographs are kind of pretty things, but they’re really useless for plant identification,” he said “In order to identify plants, you’ve got to see the inside of the flower ... and put it under the microscope and inspect the silly thing. You can’t do that with an image on a computer.”

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/LeiaInTheField or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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