Flower Power

Nearly 900 botanists are working to chronicle our biological heritage. And boy are they a wacky bunch.

Tom Croat's hands are thick as steaks and streaked with scratches. Mushrooms of bulbous flesh cap the fingers of his deformed left hand, the result of an accident in a Volkswagen Beetle nearly 40 years ago while scouting goldenrods in a Kansas field.

"They found me burned, sitting in the driver's seat. My bones were sticking out!" marvels the 66-year-old botanist.

Doctors punctured four holes in Croat's gut and jerry-rigged a skin graft by stitching his fingers to the flesh. For six weeks he drove to the University of Kansas, where he was teaching biology, by shifting with his right hand and steering with his left knee. "After some time, you know, rotting flesh starts reeking," he says with a chuckle. "I was always wondering if those students could smell it."

Botanists are notoriously bad drivers and love recounting the countless crashes they've survived while distractedly roving the globe, trying to spot new plants. And Tom Croat is Exhibit A.

"One of the reasons I'm a successful collector is I'm not afraid to do things a lot of people wouldn't," he boasts. "If you're afraid to climb a tree, you're obviously not going to collect what's in the tree. If you're afraid to walk out on a cliff, you won't get anything there. If you're a real scaredy-cat, then you're not gonna be a good collector, 'cause you won't put yourself in any situations that allow you to get things. You'll just be kind of a pansy."

Croat discovered botany in college and soon found the botanist's galloping lifestyle to be the perfect antidote to his humdrum upbringing on the family farm in Iowa. Last year he spent four months roaming South America and Asia and bagged 3,600 plants in the process. When Croat took a job at the Missouri Botanical Garden 37 years ago, just three cabinets of the garden's pressed flowers stood sentry outside his office. Thanks in part to his rapacious collecting, today there are dozens.

Croat's colleagues call him "a wild man." With a mix of envy and pride they repeat his oft-told stories of near-calamities driving through raging rivers or into orange groves or, as the Croat tale goes, straight into a gaping canyon.

On that particular misadventure, back in the late '60s, Croat's wife and kids had joined him on a collecting expedition. They were living in Panama at the time and had hauled their mobile home to Costa Rica. Suddenly Croat's hood went head-to-head with a logging truck, and the road caved away beneath them. The camper tumbled several hundred yards down the canyon and got snagged by a boulder dangling above the Rio La Paz. Everyone escaped with minor injuries, but that went down in the books as the Croat family's last "plant vacation."

"Yeah, I have a very bad reputation," he says playfully.

A tall, muscular fellow, Croat is possessed with an urgent need to know South America and Asia -- why, the whole world if he could -- from root to branch. This is the guy who begins his Christmas cards by revealing the number of new species he's named during the year, the seasoned scientist who has collected 94,000 plants, just 6,000 shy of his lifetime goal. Croat stops short of saying he'll do anything to wrap his mitts around a flower. He likes illustrating his obsession, not analyzing it.

Recently, though, a request from Croat's undergraduate alma mater got him thinking. An e-mail from a member of Simpson College's publications department asked, "What drives you?"

"Some would call it insanity, I guess," he replied in a letter. "I don't enjoy any of the things that the normal man enjoys (sex excluded), such as sports, hunting, or normal forms of entertainment. I have never taken a vacation in my 30 years here. I work about 60 hours a week with my research, and I need that much time and more, since I am always behind in my commitments. It makes me very nervous to be in a situation where I am just wasting time. I don't recall ever missing a day of work because I was sick. I even went back to work after I came out of anesthesia for an operation on my ankle. I get these silly little letters from the Director's Office each year congratulating me on 'perfect attendance.' What I would really like is more help!"

Croat's dedication would have thrilled Henry Shaw, founder of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Shaw arrived here from England in 1819, made a fortune trading everything from cutlery to fur and, in 1851, began designing the garden. Shaw wished for St. Louisans to enjoy a botanical paradise like those he grew up around, but he also wanted the institution to become a nexus of botanical investigation. To that end, he purchased a 62,000-specimen herbarium, or dried-plant collection, to lure researchers.

Today the herbarium contains more than 5.5 million specimens, making it the second largest in the nation with a research division of 46 Ph.D.s. Most of them are taxonomists, botanists who identify and name plant species according to their basic characteristics. They are modern-day explorers -- Quixote-like, one might say, willing to march into fields for a heavenly cause.

"Think of cars," explains James Solomon, the herbarium's director. "People say, 'OK, a sedan is fine for getting around, a pick-up's good for carrying things.' You've got terms: 'car,' 'truck.' Those are just like scientific names."

When the current system of nomenclature took root in 1753, scientists thought there might be 10,000 plants on Earth. Not even close. Modern botanists can't agree on the actual number of species: Some say 250,000; others suggest there are as many as 400,000.

Depending on the weather, the whims of local inhabitants where the plant grows and a host of unpredictable circumstances (such as a sudden regime change), it can take days just to bag one plant. Twenty-eight-year-old Zachary Rogers, the Missouri Botanical Garden's Madagascar project coordinator, experienced "collector's serendipity" on a trip last year to that nation.

Rogers was bent on snagging a Lasiosiphon ambondrombensis, an elusive tubular yellow flower with shiny silver leaves that hadn't been collected in about 75 years. When he and two Malagasy scientists arrived at the base of the mountain where the plant grew, they were told by local residents the peak was sacred. "This was supposedly where dead people's spirits lived," Rogers explains. "My counterparts wanted to drink rum and smoke cigars to scare away the spirits."

Rogers' crew was forced to hire a "spiritual guide," a spindly elder dressed in multicolored rags who brought his thirtysomething son, the heir-apparent-in-training. The guide promised safety from the spirits in exchange for performing various rites of passage. As night fell, the elder made the group stop; arriving at the mountain in the dark would anger the spirits, he warned. For dinner, the scientists sacrificed a chicken, sprinkled its blood over a makeshift shrine and overdosed on rum to ward off dreams of being snatched by ghosts.

Rogers played along, even on the following day, when the guide suddenly decided no one could relieve himself on nature's carpet. "You had to put it in this piece of bamboo he chopped open," Rogers recounts.

"I thought it was total malarkey. I don't believe in superstition," he adds. "But it was all kind of fun. And you have to respect their beliefs."

That is, if you want to collect those green trophies. They tower and crouch at eye-level and underfoot, and sometimes tickle an earlobe. They can grow in tandem and in trees. The collector must work meticulously, with the exactness of a surgeon. For each plant extracted, a number is recorded in a notebook along with detailed observations of the plant and its habitat. It must be done neatly, because other botanists might consult the field book years later. "A historical document," Rogers calls it.

The collector presses the plants into sheets of newspaper, bags the samples and douses them with an alcohol-water mixture. Eventually he dries the specimen stacks wherever he can -- atop the oven of a local baker or perhaps a kerosene refrigerator. Treated this way, the flattened "mummies," as one botanist calls them, can last forever; they are sent to the collector's home herbarium, where the identification work begins.

Rogers talks plants the way a quarterback talks passes, yet as he looks around the botanical garden's research division -- unable to find another young scientist like himself devoted to slogging through taxonomy -- he wonders if this is really his dream job. "The question is: Can I make a living at it? Can I have a family?"

Ph.D.-level botanists at the Missouri Botanical Garden aren't taking home celebrity salaries; the annual pay ranges between $40,000 and $60,000.

That's a key reason why grizzled veterans like Tom Croat worry they're a dying breed, as endangered as ashy dogweeds. Croat and his older cohorts are seeing a growing number of young botanists becoming far more enamored with high-tech molecular studies using computers than with microscopes and human hands. Grumbles Croat: "They don't even know what the damn thing is they're looking at!"

All day long, taxonomist Ron Liesner unpacks boxes of specimens and labels them. "I'm 60, and there's no way I can finish the general work that needs to be done," he says. "There's so much sorting to be done, so many families that need to be determined. When I was younger, I'd wonder what family I'd specialize in when I finished the general work. It never happened."

"I don't know what'll happen when I retire. It takes a long time to become a generalist. I can take these and put families on all of them at a glance. And I don't see a young person who's doing that."

Meanwhile, with all the material Croat's already amassed, he says he could work another 100 years. "There's really no end to it. And, of course, the whole thing comes crashing down when I die."

Almost 900 scientists are working on one of the most massive botanical undertakings in history. It is called the Flora of North America project -- an ambitious mission, say its organizers, that will serve as a physical environmental check-up for the continent.

For 22 years this dogged brigade of botanists from all over the world has been racing to find, name and record in 30 volumes an entire continent's -- plus Greenland's -- vegetative history. It is a staggering job, and the Missouri Botanical Garden is the command center for the encyclopedia's editorial battalion.

So many questions to be answered. What flowered here once? What weeds invaded? What's left? What may it tell us about global warming? What may it say about the origins of life? The scientists comb through old pressed flowers and the crinkled field books of their predecessors in addition to drawing from their own observations and research. Then they pen texts on each plant. More than 20,000 plants, growing across almost 8.3 million square miles -- from the Florida Keys in the south to northernmost regions of Canada, from Greenland in the east to Attu Island in the west -- are included. The botanists are exploring arctic tundra, boreal forest, mixed-grass prairie, grassland, conifer forests and beyond.

Though their funding has come in fits and starts over the years, the botanists remain obsessed by their quest to preserve knowledge. All but a handful work for free.

In a sense, it all began 175 years ago when John Torrey and Asa Gray, two of the nation's earliest professional botanists, first attempted a continental compendium of plant life but never finished. A second incarnation of the North American flora project sprouted in the late 1960s, when a group of scientists, including Missouri Botanical Garden director Peter Raven, launched a similar endeavor but lost funding before getting anything printed.

This latest effort sprang up in 1983, when St. Louis became headquarters for the encyclopedia. It took the botanists five years just to secure minimal funding, enough to cover salaries for a handful of layout staff and illustrators. Participating institutions, including the St. Louis garden, the Botanical Research Institute of Texas and the Université de Montréal, agreed to donate office space and technical support.

Over the past decade, the federal government has shown little commitment to the project, chipping in less than $1 million.

"We're all stoked by the idea that there might have been one kind of bacteria on Mars, and we're willing to spend a billion dollars on that," Peter Raven complains. This series, he adds, will serve as an essential, authoritative reference for scientists and the conservation community to use in protecting rare and endangered species.

The first volume of "Flora" finally appeared in 1993 and contained sobering commentary: "Compared to some parts of the world, such as Europe, our mastery of vegetation is very superficial," wrote botanists Michael G. Barbour and Norman L. Christensen. "The passage of time will not guarantee better understanding, because the extent of natural vegetation annually grows smaller. Historical accounts that document what we had 100-200 years ago are, in turns, exhilarating and depressing as a sense of discovery turns into a sense of loss."

The North America project has evolved into an elephant of a task. In 2000, when the series should have been completed, only four of thirty volumes were ready, and all the money was gone. That year Chanticleer, a private garden and foundation in Pennsylvania, stepped forward -- the only charitable group to do so -- to revive the beast with some funding. The one proviso: Publish two volumes a year and finish it by 2011.

Following several reorganizations, editorial director Jim Zarucchi, a Harvard-educated son of a California fireman, took charge in 2002. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done, like planning, getting more funding and support, convincing authors and editors that these timelines are for real," Zarucchi says, a closed-lipped smile creeping across his face. "You have a lot of independent sorts."

"Obsession and independence -- it goes with the territory," chimes in Zarucchi's colleague Kay Yatskievych, the project's production coordinator. "One of my favorite sayings is, 'People who say a thing can't be done should stay out of the way of people who are doing it.'"

The 65-year-old Yatskievych started her professional life as an artist but was seduced by botany 30 years ago during a project photographing and painting plants. She spent twenty years cataloguing every wildflower in Indiana for a field guide she produced herself, doing everything from the writing and photography to the page layout.

Luckily, Yatskievych married a fellow botanist who can appreciate what he calls her "single-mindedness" when project deadlines loom. "She cuts me a lot of slack when I'm in maniacal mode," explains George Yatskievych, who is also a researcher at the Missouri Botanical Garden. The perfect pair, they are, neither objecting to ten-mile hikes in search of, say, a carnivorous sundew.

Last year was a thorny one, full of setbacks for Zarucchi and Yatskievych. The production schedule got far behind as one contributor didn't meet deadlines, another had health problems, one quit, and another died. There seemed to be no way Zarucchi and Yatskievych could wrap up the volume.

By December Yatskievych was holed up in her office with three assistants, all poring over 678 unfinished pages describing the pink, smartweed and leadwort plant groups. Zarucchi zoomed into the room several times a day carrying page proofs, his fluffy knoll of gray hair more tousled with each visit. At the other end of the hallway, project illustrator John Myers fussed over finishing touches for his drawings. "Plants are the coolest thing there is," he says. "Compared to things a human being can construct, plants are so much less 2-D, so much more beautiful, so much more interesting. They kind of make everything we do seem silly."

The crew finished a few days late, and when at last it ended -- for this year, anyway -- Zarucchi was spent. Yatskievych could still manage a feeble smile. Even two days before deadline, she wouldn't entertain the thought of quitting. "Never! Not until they [the Botanical Garden] drag me kicking and screaming out the door!"

"They don't drag you out," mutters a young colleague, Kristin Pierce, without looking up from her notes. "They dry you and press you and put you in the collection."

The taxonomists' Friday ritual begins like this: Roy Gereau slinks into the lobby of the botanical garden's research building and, when the clock strikes five, he announces over the PA system, "Hello, friends. It's five o'clock, and that means it's time for beer." Gereau proceeds to recite the happy news in thirty-three languages, which takes him a full three minutes. "Es la hora de la cerveza"...."Tijd voor bier"...."Iki ture nywa mawa"..."Hora cerevisiae est"....And finally, "It's time for beer."

"Beer curator" Fred Keusenkothen and diehard attendee Ron Liesner unlock the full-size refrigerator brimming with Budweisers. Atop the fridge lies a guestbook describing the history of "Friday Beer at the Garden" (the tradition began in 1970) and its various venues, including boiler rooms and basements.

"You'll have to sign in," Liesner says, setting a beer down in front of a newcomer.

"But only the first time," adds Tom Croat.

"We figure if we signed in every time, y'know, the administration might use it against us!" Liesner laughs.

"Now, you can't write down anything we talk about!" Croat warns.

Occasionally the botanists bad-mouth their own ilk during their happy hour, and no one wants that recorded. But on this evening it's the usual banter: how to wash dirtier-than-dirt clothing in a toilet, the 101 virtues of hippopotamus meat and the delicious pleasure in watching a snobby colleague unknowingly try to eat a monkey's asshole.

As a group, taxonomists are the first to classify themselves as "eccentrics," "kooks" and "crazies." But as in any family, the individual species vary. Croat's a cowboy compared to many of his bearded, scholarly colleagues, and the madcap Ron Liesner is a genius.

"I have 100 ways to spell 'fern,'" he claims one day, marking up a newspaper with his fractured penmanship: "phergn," "phern," "foryn" and so on.

One measure of a taxonomist is the number of plants named for him. At least 60 species begin with Liesner- or Liron- (for his last and first names), the majority of which other collectors identified but honored Liesner for his help in the process. No other living botanist at the Missouri garden -- and probably worldwide, Liesner and his colleagues say -- can claim such an honor.

"Ron is amazing," enthuses Kay Yatskievych. "There's nobody that can do what he does. And there's nobody he can train to do it!"

Liesner was born with plants on the brain. Growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, he watered the calves, arranged hay bales and did much of the gardening. "I was six years old, I got some seed and started planting radishes," he recalls.

Liesner didn't know it then, but he was seeing things few people could -- and most never pay attention to. "I recognized there were two kinds of grasses -- grass and sedges. I knew peas, beans, clover as a child -- before anyone said 'plant family,' I knew what they were." Names, that's all Liesner was missing.

He learned them studying botany at the University of Wisconsin, and then he started collecting. Today Liesner can identify a plant by family, often by genus, and sometimes by species -- instantly.

Piperaceae, Erythroxylaceae, Myrtaceae. Black pepper, cocaine, guava.

"My favorite place to collect," Liesner says, "is a just-cut forest that hasn't wilted yet, or where they're bulldozing a road. Just look out if the bulldozer comes back and decides to widen the road right where you are! That happened to me in Panama. The bulldozer didn't see me."

Grunts and "y'know"s, the chummy trademark of a northern Wisconsin accent, punctuate his slow speech.

"One rule I have is, I'll never climb a tree after drinking again. I was in Venezuela, and the people I was with, they opened one beer, so I was trying to be polite, sociable, y'know, then they opened another!" He laughs. "I climbed a tree, and I reached out for a branch and miscalculated. Luckily I fell on a bush."

Out pour stories of near-misses in busted helicopters and beat-up cars, of freezing and starving, of eating arepa after arepa after arepa, not to mention the unthinkable. "The thing I dislike the most is monkey. It looks too much like a person." But, he admits, "They make a sauce with ants in southern Venezuela which is really good. Wasp larvae is actually good. I think it has a lot of fat and protein."

Liesner hasn't been in the field since 1993, for fear he'll ruin his fragile eyesight. "You're constantly getting hit in the face by branches and things!"

Today it's mothballs tumbling out of the specimen boxes, leaving a chalky trail on his navy pants. He plays chess during his lunch hour and lumbers home in his white Chrysler to the love of his life, a microbiologist, a handler of bacteria and fungi. "She hates plants!" he laughs.

Liesner has, however, passed on prescriptions for collecting based on his and others' experiences in a paper guide called "Field Techniques Used by Missouri Botanical Garden."

"Remove field books from luggage when in cars or hotels in case the luggage might be stolen," the document warns on page one.

On page six: "It is much safer and more efficient to collect if you have a sheath for your clippers and machete, i.e., you have an extra hand available."

And on page nine: "A few people have used quality target guns to shoot branches down. This requires great skill and special permits are needed in most places to carry guns. Also, local people are much more concerned about strangers when they are carrying guns."

There are tree-climbing techniques and tips for concocting portable convection systems: "Sometimes it is possible to mount presses in front of a car radiator to take advantage of air movement when the vehicle is in motion, and radiated heat from the radiator when the vehicle has stopped. (Some botanists put canned food in the engine compartment to heat while driving, and stop for lunch without setting up the stove!)"

The packing list cites obvious things like machetes and money, easier-to-forget items like a hammock and dental floss, plus little "musts" like fish hooks, safety pins, and needle and thread. Question one of those, and tested logic prevails. "Oh!" Liesner jumps up, starts pulling at his pants and cackling, "I'll never forget the time I walked into a camp in Venezuela, and two guys had ripped their crotches open! They were happy when I had needle and thread!"

He sits back down. "And if you figure what they weigh, y'know, it's next to nothing."

It's been at least fifteen years since Liesner penned the list. Does he think anything should be added? "The only thing would be a GPS [global positioning system]." Little has changed, really.

Liesner fiddles with his magnifying glass. He could talk for hours, but there's sorting to be done, and his wife's waiting at home for dinner. Outside dusk has settled over the botanical garden's parking lot, shrouding the rarefied vanity plates, "DESRAT" and "BOTNIST. "

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