Botanist, teacher, curator, scholar — Dixie Damrel encourages her students to experience the green world around them.
One step off the asphalt parking lot, Dixie Damrel enters another world.
It is a world of individuals, families, clans and communities. Damrel knows the names of thousands of the inhabitants, their Latin names and their familiar ones. She knows about their sex lives and their histories. And she is delighted to share what she knows.
Last semester, I tagged along on one of the weekly field trips to the world she loves. The Whitewater River access is inside the Duke Power Bad Creek property above Lake Jocassee. The students hardly had time to stretch from the van ride before Damrel got going. “Today, we’re going to visit four communities — early successional, pine-oak heath, rocky stream bed and an original acidic cove forest,” says Damrel. “We’ve got a lot to see.”
Dixie Damrel is a botanist, teacher, curator of the Clemson University Herbarium and newly minted Fulbright Scholar. A walk in the woods with Damrel is no ramble. You have to keep up physically and intellectually.
Botany is too important not to pay attention. No matter how you like your ribeye cooked, it started out as grass. Oxygen and energy, food and fuel, the green world is the primary production engine of the planet.
“Look at this,” Damrel instructs, bending a shrub branch for inspection. “Look at the leaves. What do you see?” The students lean in. Some pull another branch closer to see. “What’s different about these leaves? Look at the top. Now look at the underside. What’s different?”
A student takes a shot: “They’re gray.”
“Yes, they’re silvery gray!” Damrel responds. “This is Elaeagnus umbellata — silverberry — a deciduous shrub with green leaves above and silvery ones below.”
The students know not to move yet. There’s more — there’s always more — and sometimes a story.
“Look at the silver side of the leaves. Feel them. What’s different?”
No one offers, and Damrel doesn’t have time to wait them out. There are about three miles to cover, and dark clouds are gathering off in the distance over the lake.
“The leaves have scales. Now look at the berries. What do you see? Feel them.”
Some of the students see where this is going. “The skin is rough, like the leaves.”
“Yes! The berries have scales, too,” says Damrel, picking one of the ripe, red, pea-size berries. “You can taste them if you want.”
Damrel doesn’t allow eating unless she has tried the fruit on the preview trip she takes to scope out an area. Later, we will come to bear huckleberry, which has edible fruit, but she had not tried it. “It scared me,” she said.
But the silverberry is ok. Damrel pops one into her mouth. “How does it taste?” Sweetly tart is the verdict.
“Birds like the fruit and so do bears, and that helps the silverberry reproduce. The birds eat the berry, and the seed is eliminated along with bird poop, which acts as a coating of fertilizer when there’s the right place to grow.”
And grow it does, says Damrel. “It’s an invasive species brought to the U.S. to use as a wind break and erosion control.”
BEYOND SEEING FORESTS AS WALLS OF GREEN
I hear “look, look, look” over and over again, as Damrel imprints her legacy of “see for yourself and learn by looking” on her students. We stop at a sawtooth oak. It’s another invasive species, where good intentions to provide wildlife food were undone by unintentional consequences. Deer and other browsers will only eat the bitter acorns if no other food is available. No one checked with the animals.
There are quick stops at the sourwood — “it makes the best honey in the world,” Dixie declares. We admire the goldenrod flowers. “What kind of flowers are they?” Composite. Goldenrod gets a bad rap, says Damrel. It doesn’t cause hay fever because its pollen is too heavy and sticky to be windborne. Ragweed is the culprit.
Then, dog fennel sets off a story.
“Dog fennel is from the genus Eupatorium, part of the aster family. There was a king with a similar name. The king decided to eat small amounts of poison to build up tolerance to poison. He was an enemy of the Romans, and when they advanced on him, he attempted to poison himself, but it wouldn’t work. So finally he had to ask his friends to stab him, and they did.”
The king’s name was Eupator Dionysias, another name for Mithridates VI of Pontius, for whom the plant was named.
Damrel’s students listen, and I wonder what they think of all this. Is it simply a case of politely listening to a slightly eccentric elder?
“I love this class,” says Dan Blanchard, horticulture major. Every student I asked used the words “passionate” and “smart” to describe this spare, spry woman in worn jeans who wears her honey-brown hair in long braids that tangle in the cord holding her “nerd eye” — a magnifying loupe. She is the kind of teacher you remember for life and hope your kids find.
Thunder cuts the field trip short. We don’t make it to the old trees, survivors of European pioneers, colonials, settlers and capitalists. We quick-step back to the parking lot. Plant identification and plant lore have filled the afternoon. Rattlesnake orchids have astonishing sex lives involving moths. Buffalo nut is a member of the sandalwood family — “You’ve smelled sandalwood incense if you’ve ever been in a head shop” (students snicker). Yellowroot lives by streams, but it keeps from being washed away and stabilizes the banks because it is anchored in place by rhizomes, and its flexible stems bend but don’t break during flooding.
Over the course of the semester, students will learn and be quizzed about the names and key characteristics of 130 plants. “If I can get them to look more closely, beyond seeing forests as walls of green and groundcovers as carpets of green, they will see the world differently and ask questions,” says Damrel.
MARKERS OF ENVIRONMENTAL AND EVOLUTIONARY CHANGE
Damrel reckons she can identify and name 2,000 plants. “But I can’t remember my phone number,” she laughs. A couple of thousand seem like a lot of plants. How many plants are there in the world?
It should be a Google-able answer. Botanists have been collecting, naming and studying plants for centuries, but all they have is a best guess.
Their estimates range from 200,000 to 400,000, maybe more. Oddly, there are a lot more plant names than plant species. The problem is synonomy. Botanists think they have found a new species and name it, but many of these are synonyms — same plant named by someone else.
One international project has compiled the Plant List that contains 298,900 documented species, 477,601 synonyms and 263,925 still-to-be vetted names.
How do botanists figure out what they have collected? Often, it’s not enough to see a photo and read the description. Seeing the plant in person makes a difference between “looks a lot like” and certainty. But botanists cannot always travel to the corners of the world to see similar species; nor can they travel back in time if a species is extinct. Yet, there is a way for them to see beyond their range in space and time. There are herbaria.
An herbarium is a research archive of expertly dried and mounted plant specimens that identify and document a particular plant collected by botanists, students — anyone with an interest in plants — in a particular place and time. The specimens are arranged in special cabinets so that they can be removed and consulted by researchers. The largest herbaria have more-than-million-specimen collections started in the 1700s.
There are about 100,000 specimens in the Clemson herbarium housed in the Bob and Betsy Campbell Museum of Natural History. The oldest specimen dates to the 1860s and was collected by Henry William Ravenel, a South Carolina planter and botanist, who lived from 1814 to 1887.
Looking and comparing, researchers look for changes in biodiversity and plants coping with stresses. Drought and heat linked to climate change can trigger plants to adapt, giving rise to new species. Other times, plants disappear because of land-use change or from invasive plant populations crowding out the natives.
FROM DRAWERS AND SHELVES TO AN ONLINE DATABASE
Research demands are leading to new ways of looking at plants. High-definition digital images and the Internet provide extraordinary detail and accessibility for research. Clemson is part of the digitization initiative.
The herbarium is set to launch a four-year project to make digital images of its collection. The herbarium is included in a National Science Foundation grant that aims to build a digital inventory highlighting the Southeastern United States. Clemson’s specimen records will be part of a three-million plant dataset from 107 herbaria in 13 Southeastern states that will enable large-scale research in a region that has been a biodiversity hot spot for 100 million years, say botanists. The digital database will help researchers examine the effects of climate change, identify vulnerable species and help conserve regional biodiversity.
Clemson joins the University of South Carolina’s A.C. Moore Herbarium to coordinate digitizing plant collections statewide. Seven other colleges and universities are participating, including: Converse, Francis Marion, Furman, Newberry, Winthrop, USC Salkehatchie and USC Upstate. “I’m very proud that South Carolina has one of the largest numbers of herbaria participating of any state in the Southeast,” says Damrel.
The digitization will make collections at Clemson and at other institutions accessible via the Internet. The digitized data will eventually be publicly available through the iDigBio (Integrated Digitized Biocollections) specimen portal.
“There are specimens that have been around for 100-200 years, but they are in a drawer or on a shelf somewhere, and it’s hard to know where everything is and how to get the data you need,” iDigBio Director Larry Page said. “If it’s online, you can touch a button and find in seconds what might have taken you a lifetime to know was there.”
The work will start this summer, after Damrel returns from a field trip halfway around the world.
Damrel is one of 1,100 U.S. faculty and professionals who will travel abroad through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program in 2014-2015. The grant enables her to work and conduct botanical research in tropical Southeast Asia. She will lecture and research at the Sarawak Biodiversity Center and the Forestry Research Institute in Malaysia throughout the spring 2015 academic year.
“Ecologically, Malaysia is a fascinating place and a real treasure house of plant biodiversity,” Damrel says. “It holds some truly ancient ecosystems and has what some say are the oldest undisturbed equatorial tropical rainforests on earth. It is also facing some serious environmental challenges as there are new economic and social pressures connected with how the land should be used.”
Damrel will be working with the Sarawak Center’s Traditional Knowledge Program. It’s a project to gather plants and preserve oral histories and folk wisdom about plants used for cooking and healing. “I will be joining ethnobotanists who visit tribal peoples living in remote parts of the Sarawak highlands. We’ll use powerboats to go upriver and visit communities to gather plants and ask the people about how they use them.”
This is not Damrel’s first trip to the region. She accompanied her husband, David Damrel, an associate professor of comparative religion at USC Upstate, during his Fulbright award to Indonesia in 2008.
“In Java I realized how important it is for Americans — and our Clemson community and campus particularly — to take on a more global perspective,” Damrel says. “Living and working overseas you get to see the dimensions of a problem — environmental degradation, for example — in ways that you cannot fully appreciate from a classroom back home. In the same way, firsthand experiences with different peoples, cultures and world-views will help you grow in unexpected ways both as a person and as a scientist.”
Looking, looking, always looking.