In a recent post, I wrote about the California Phenology Project aimed at organizing and adding phenology data to online specimens in the Consortium of California Herbaria. Project activities include a blog, ReCAP, with items that feature interesting specimens, including a piece entitled “What Specimens Reveal about LA History.” The specimen highlighted was a pointed rush, Juncus oxymeris, collected in 1899 by Anstruther Davidson (1860-1932). A Scottish physician who had emigrated to California and taught dermatology at the University of Southern California, Davidson was also an amateur botanist and entomologist. He collected throughout the area and also spent time studying the plants of Arizona. He contributed many articles to the Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences and wrote a Catalogue of the Plants of Los Angeles County in 1896.
The Juncus Davidson collected favors a wetland habitat, which at one time was abundant in the Los Angeles basin, with water flowing from the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers into the Pacific. These waterways have since been tamed and the wetlands drained. Juncus oxymeris hasn’t been found in this area for a century, though specimens were collected in the 1920s and 1930s in neighboring Orange County. This example is a powerful reminder of what Los Angeles used to be like and joins many other specimens in linking us to the past. When I visited the herbarium at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in 2011, when there was a herbarium at BBG, the curator Kerry Barringer showed me orchids collected on the south shore of Long Island, a few minutes from where I lived. One was from the area where Aqueduct Racetrack now stands, and another from what is now JFK Airport. I remember this experience vividly. It was early in my herbarium obsession and caused a collage of images to flash through my mind: jets taking off, the smell of jet fuel in the air, and delicate orchids in a wetland—a disturbing juxtaposition. I had a similar experience years earlier on a visit to the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis where one of their amazing dioramas portrayed a wetland scene full of birds, and with an explanatory text noting that the area depicted became the site of the Mall of America.
Kathryn Mauz, the author of An Agreeable Landscape: Historical Botany and Plant Biodiversity of a Sonoran Desert Bottomland, 1855-1920, describes another landscape, like most in the world, that has changed considerably over the past century. The book’s frontispiece is striking (see above). It is a photo montage of plates included in the book. The background is a photo of the Cienega Creek Natural Preserve and onto this are placed historic specimens of the plants that used to be found there; it is, in a sense, a visual representation of the habitat loss scenarios represented by the Juncus and orchid stories. Here is a place that represents in the present day what is found in herbarium cabinets.
Another example also comes to mind. Again, once close to my former home on Long Island. In an area that includes a sports arena, a large mall, and two colleges, there are a few remnant acres of the Hempstead Plains that used to cover 38,000 acres of the island. Adjacent to the local community college, the site managed to be preserved just as the rest of the area was being developed because it was, and is, home to a number of rare plants. The preserve isn’t large enough for a visitor to forget adjacent urbanization, but still, it’s a refuge for plants, animals, and humans, one of many havens throughout the country that are small, damaged, and yet steadfast reminders of the landscapes of the past.
Preserving the land is meaningful in a way that a stack of herbarium sheets can never be, yet we need specimens both in documenting what is lost and what has been saved. Works like Davidson’s Catalogue also contribute to this effort in recording what once flourished in what is now a botanically impoverished area. One of his articles provides some context for the transformation. Written in 1907, “Changes in Our Weeds” is a follow-up to an article he had published 14 years earlier on “immigrant” plants in Los Angeles county, an interesting term for a person to use who was himself an immigrant. Davidson summed up his findings: “None of those then observed have become extinct: the relative frequency of the majority have remained unchanged. Some have increased in numbers, and a few new ones have appeared” (p. 11). Among the latter was Lactuca serriola, prickly lettuce, a European species. He found it at one location in 1896, as a fellow botanist did in another area. “Since that time it has spread so rapidly that it may now be considered the most troublesome weed in this district” (p. 12). When cows ate it, their milk had a sour taste, but he balanced this observation with one on how chickens and turkeys were fond of it. There are, of course, endless stories like this about non-natives from around the world, but sometimes it’s good to focus on just one of them, as was done in the blog post that triggered this stream of consciousness post.
Davidson, A. (1905). Changes in our weeds. Bulletin of the Southern California Academy of Sciences, 4, 11–12.
Mauz, K. (2011). An Agreeable Landscape: Historical Botany and Plant Biodiversity of a Sonoran Desert Bottomland, 1855-1920. Fort Worth, TX: BRIT Press.