Botanical exploration and Norwegian fiction: What I’ve been reading lately, part 2

Ok. “Lately” isn’t entirely accurate; the books discussed below are more along the lines of “What I was reading this winter and spring and then never got around to writing a blog post about.”

This is the second installment of my “What I’ve been reading lately” series; the first post in the series is here. If your read my reflections on the first post, you’ll remember that it was conspicuously lacking in fiction. I decided to wait until I had read at least one novel to publish this post, and if you scroll all the way to the end, you can read about the novel I finished reading last week.  Continue reading “Botanical exploration and Norwegian fiction: What I’ve been reading lately, part 2”


History of botany and warnings for Trump: What I’ve been reading lately, part 1

Inspired by Mike Taylor’s What I’ve been reading lately posts at the Reinvigorated Programmer, I have decided to start posting an occasional annotated list of the books I have read recently. Here is the first installment.

One thing I noticed upon making this list is the absence of any works of fiction. That was not the result of any deliberate choice on my part, but it is a reminder to me that I should look for a good novel or collection of short stories next time I drop by the library.

Note that I added bold text for emphasis in several of the passages quoted below.


The Books

Asa Gray (A. Hunter Dupree, 1959, Harvard University Press), 420 pp. text + 82 pp. notes and index

Asa Gray (1810–1888) was the leading botanist in the United States in the mid to late 19th century, a frequent correspondent of Charles Darwin, and one of the first university professors in the USA to adopt the professional specialization that is now standard practice in science. A biography of Gray, therefore, ends up being much more than a simple profile of his life. All while telling the story of his main subject, Dupree provides historical accounts of botanical research in North America (and contemporaneous research around the world), scientific societies in the USA, growth and change in private and public universities, and the debate surrounding Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Gray’s role as one of the original Darwinians is fascinating from multiple angles. He was the only scientist in the western hemisphere in Darwin’s inner circle, and accordingly he was the person responsible both for ensuring the publication of the Origin in the United States and for defending natural selection and common descent in scientific meetings throughout 1860 (especially in debates with Louis Agassiz). At the same time, Gray was a devout Christian and wrote extensively during the following decades to argue that his faith and his science were not incompatible.

Because of my interest in the gymnosperm genus Torreya, one of the passages from this book that caught my eye mentions Gray’s own pilgrimage to the Apalachicola, back in the years before this species’ tragic decline.

“The railroad journey into the byways of the deep South required long delays, poor quarters, and ‘ablutions made at the tank of the locomotive.’ But to see Torreya [taxifolia] growing in its unique locality on the Apalachicola River was a thrill. Gray had some eye for a romantic landscape as he passed on a steamboat ‘down the brimming river, bordered with almost unbroken green of every tint, from the dark background of the Long-leaved Pines [Pinus palustris] to the tender new verdure of the Liquidambar [Liquidambar styraciflua]…interspersed with the deep and lustrous hue of Magnolia grandiflora.’ The names were there, but so was the landscape.” (p. 408)

Although this book starts off slowly with a somewhat plodding introduction to Gray’s genealogy, it is quite good overall and is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in the history of botany or evolutionary biology.


The Imperial Presidency (Arthur Schlesinger, 1973, Houghton Mifflin Company), 419 pp. text + 82 pp. notes and index

This book is a fascinating historical study on the Presidency of the United States. Schlesinger discusses how ambiguity in the Constitution and international crises have led, over time, to the concentration of military and foreign relations power in the Presidency at the expense of Congress’ explicit constitutional authority to declare war and ratify treaties.

Schlesinger’s book feels especially relevant today in light of the current administration. I have seen a few articles online (such as this one from the BBC) drawing a parallel between Nixon’s Watergate scandal and various scandals surrounding Trump (contacts with Russia, unreleased tax returns, the misuse of ‘fake news,’ etc.). While such comparisons may be appropriate, what concerns me most is not the smoke—Watergate, tax returns, nonsense on Twitter—but the fire: a President both unaware of and openly hostile to the real world.

“Presidents like Roosevelt [FDR] and Kennedy understood that, if the man at the top confined himself to a single information system, he became a prisoner of that system. Therefore they pitted sources of their own against the information distributed to them through official channels. They understood that contention was an indispensable means of government. But Nixon, instead of exposing himself to the chastening influence of debate, organized the executive branch and the White House in order to shield himself as far as humanly possible from direct question or challenge—i.e., from reality.

“The result was the enthronement of unreality. ‘The more a President sits surrounded only by his own views and those of his personal advisers,’ said Senator Charles Mathias, ‘the more he lives in a house of mirrors in which all views and ideas tend to reflect and reinforce his own.’ … With Nixon, withdrawal from external reality allowed him to impose his private sense of what was real on the government and, if he could, on the nation. America was entering the age of the solipsistic presidency.” (pp. 222–223)

As I read this book, I was stuck time and time again by how Schlesinger’s comments on Nixon could apply equally to Trump.

“The president, it could only be supposed, suffered from delusions of persecution.” (p. 230)

Trump even seems to borrow from Nixon’s public relations playbook at times. When his first press conference as President-elect featured a large stack of manilla folders purportedly containing his plans to eliminate conflicts of interest with his business holdings, all I could think of was Nixon’s appearance on television with stacks of three-ring binders containing, he said, transcripts of conversations that would show he had no knowledge of the Watergate coverup.

This is why it’s important to read history. It points out that patterns that have succeeded and have failed in the past. It also reminds us that, in some sense, we’ve been here before.


All the President’s Men (Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, 1974, Simon and Schuster), 336 pp. text + 12 pp. index

I’d previously read the sequel to this book (The Final Days, which addresses Nixon’s resignation), so I though I ought to read this one too. It is a fast-paced, enjoyable read about Watergate from the perspective of the reporters who investigated the story. Still relevant today and well worth reading.


The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (Olivia Laing, 2016, St. Martin’s Press), 281 pp. text + 25 pp. notes and bibliography

I was drawn to the title of this book because it reminded me of a cold, lonely December I once spent in Chicago, subletting a small, unheated room in Hyde Park and dealing with a breakup while doing research on lichen taxonomy. This is actually a book of art history, and so I learned quite a bit about artists of New York City while also reading Laing’s insightful comments on loneliness.


Leopold’s Shack and Ricketts’s Lab: The Emergence of Environmentalism (Michael J. Lannoo, 2010, University of California Press), 159 pp. text + 33 pp. notes and index

Having previously read Steinbeck and Ricketts’ The Log from the Sea of Cortex, and planning to finish Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, this seemed like it would be an interesting book. A few months after reading it, however, I mainly remember it for the facts about Leopold and Ricketts that I either learned or recalled while reading it, and not for any original idea that Lannoo advances. Still, it is a quick read and is worth reading, particularly if (like me) you haven’t read much of the literature about either of these men.


A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There (Aldo Leopold, 1949, Oxford University Press), 226 pp. text.

Although I have read portions of this book before, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I’ve never before read it in its entirety. It was everything I had been told to expect in terms of beautiful nature writing.

“Lunch over, I regard a phalanx of young tamaracks, their golden lances thrusting skyward. Under each the needles of yesterday fall to earth building a blanket of smoky gold; at the tip of each the bud of tomorrow, preformed, poised, awaits another spring.” (58)

I’d love to write a paragraph like that.

Sand County Almanac also fulfilled my expectations as a work of environmental philosophy, written over 60 years ago but still, in many ways, ringing true today.

“It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a hight regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.

“Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, and intense consciousness of land. Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow. Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a ‘scenic’ area, he is bored stiff.” (224)

As I pursue my passion for biology into grad school and beyond, I always want to keep in mind that one of my reasons for doing science, for working to understand the natural world, is to spread understanding, respect, and even awe for nature, and thereby encourage its protection.

Botanical sightseeing: Torreya species in Florida and California

This past summer, I visited Florida’s Torreya State Park to see the United States’ rarest tree species. Located along the eastern bank of the Apalachicola River, this state park protects Torreya taxifolia, an endangered and extremely range-restricted gymnosperm species in the family Taxaceae (the yew family).

Torreya species in the United States. A. Global range of Torreya californica. B. Global range of Torreya taxifolia. Maps not to scale. Images in public domain, from Little (1971) via Wikimedia Commons (

My interest in Torreya began several years ago, when I was working in California doing fire ecology fieldwork. On one of our weekends off, my friend Paul and I decided to go hiking at Mt. Tamalpais, a 784-meter peak between San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Being botanists, we planned our hike based on the plants we wanted to see; we acquired recent specimen data (including GPS points) from herbarium records, overlaid those points on the trail map, and picked a route accordingly.

One of the plants we were looking for was Torreya californica, a California-endemic species in a small (<10 species) northern hemisphere genus.* Torreya californica is locally abundant in ravine habitats throughout the California Coastal Ranges and Sierra Nevada. The beginning of our search was filled with false starts, as time after time we would catch sight of some distant tree which we were sure was the one we wanted, only to find that, upon a closer inspection, it was just another Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).

We finally spotted a grove of our trees of interest as we got closer to the top of the mountain.

Torreya californica (habitus). Very different from Douglas-fir once you’ve actually seen both of them.
Torreya californica (leaves). Those spine tips are sharp!
Torreya californica (seed in aril). Sometimes called a “drupe” in older literature. But this is not a fruit… Torreya is a gymnosperm.

Fast-forward three years, and I was in Florida doing vegetation mapping fieldwork in Gulf Islands National Seashore. I decided that since I’d already seen one of the two Torreya species in the United States, I ought to see the other—Florida’s Torreya taxifolia.

Florida torreya was once an abundant species within its very limited distribution. Today is a different story: “Since 1962 there have been no observed canopy sized trees, nor mature seed producing trees” (Schwartz et al. 2000a). Over the last century, particularly since the 1950s, the population  of Torreya taxifolia has declined by around 98.5 percent due to disease and complicating environmental changes (Lee 1995Schwartz and Hermann 1999; Schwartz et al. 1995, 2000a; Smith et al. 2011).

When I arrived at the state park, I saw Torreya taxifolia almost immediately—planted near the parking lot.

Saplings of  Torreya taxifolia. I visited on a rainy day, so all my pictures are, unfortunately, somewhat blurry.
Torreya taxifolia leaves.

Nearby, I caught a glimpse of a larger tree. I’m not sure whether it was also planted or whether it is a naturally occurring individual.

A larger individual of Torreya taxifolia. Note its position as a subcanopy tree.

I hiked a few of the park’s trails, but the rain (at one point I was caught in a downpour) prevented me from exploring the area as thoroughly as I would have liked. I looked closely for Torreya taxifolia whenever a trail intersected a ravine (the species’ preferred habitat), but didn’t see any live individuals aside from those at the entrance.

What does the future hold for Florida torreya? The species is likely to persist in the short term (Schwartz et al. 2000b), but in the long term, extinction in the wild is a real threat. There are currently in situ and ex situ conservation efforts to protect this species, and one group is advocating for assisted migration ( I’m hopeful that some of these conservation projects will be successful; for now, I’m glad that I had the chance to see this species growing in its native range.


* Extant Torreya species are present in the United States and eastern Asia; however, fossil evidence shows that the genus also occurred in Europe up to the Pleistocene (Li et al. 2001). See Burke (1975) and Jang et al. (2001) for additional information on the economic botany of this genus; see Xiao et al. (2008) and Ghimire and Heo (2014) to put this genus in a phylogenetic context.


Literature Cited

Burke, J. G. 1975. Human use of the California nutmeg tree, Torreya californica, and of other members of the genus. Economic Botany 29(2): 127-140.

Ghimire, B. and K. Heo. 2014. Cladistic analysis of Taxaceae sl. Plant systematics and evolution 300(2): 217-223.

Jang, Y. P., S. R. Kim, and Y. C. Kim. 2001. Neuroprotective dibenzylbutyrolactone lignans of Torreya nucifera. Planta medica 67(5): 470-472.

Lee, J. C., X. Yang, M. W. Schwartz, G. Strobel, and J. Clardy. 1995. The relationship between an endangered North American tree and an endophytic fungus. Chemistry & biology 2(11): 721-727.

Li, J., C. C. Davis, M. J. Donoghue, S. Kelley, and P. Del Tredici. 2001. Phylogenetic relationships of Torreya (Taxaceae) inferred from sequences of nuclear ribosomal DNA ITS region. Harvard Papers in Botany 6(1): 275-281.

Little, E.L., Jr. 1971. Atlas of United States trees, volume 1: Conifers and important hardwoods. U.S. Department of Agriculture Miscellaneous Publication 1146, 9 p., 200 maps.

Schwartz, M. W. and S. M. Hermann. 1999. Is slow growth of the endangered Torreya taxifolia (Arn.) normal? Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 126(4): 307-312.

Schwartz, M. W., S. M. Hermann, and C. S. Vogel.  1995. The catastrophic loss of Torreya taxifolia: Assessing environmental induction of disease hypotheses. Ecological Applications 5(2): 501-516.

Schwartz, M. W., S. M. Hermann, and P. J. van Mantgem. 2000a. Estimating the magnitude of decline of the Florida torreya (Torreya taxifolia Arn.). Biological Conservation 95(1): 77-84.

Schwartz, M. W.,  S. M. Hermann, and P. J. van Mantgem. 2000b. Population persistence in Florida torreya: comparing modeled projections of a declining coniferous tree. Conservation Biology 14(4): 1023-1033.

Smith, J. A., K. O’Donnell, L. L. Mount, K. Shin, K. Peacock, A. Trulock, T. Spector, J. Cruse-Sanders, and R. Determann. 2011. A novel Fusarium species causes a canker disease of the critically endangered conifer, Torreya taxifolia. Plant Disease 95(6 (): 633-639.

Xiao, P. G., B. Huang, G. B. Ge, and L. Yang. 2008. Interspecific relationships and origins of Taxaceae and Cephalotaxaceae revealed by partitioned Bayesian analyses of chloroplast and nuclear DNA sequences. Plant Systematics and Evolution 276(1-2): 89-104.


Soil-dwelling lichens of Gulf Islands National Seashore

Vegetation in Gulf Islands National Seashore dominated by soil-dwelling lichens, mostly Cladonia leporina. Graminoids and dwarf shrubs are also present. This picture was taken near the edge of a sandy upland area; the middle of this area had less lichen cover and more species of herbaceous vascular plants.

This summer I am—officially—conducting vegetation surveys of vascular plants. But while I do love the beauty and diversity of tracheophytes, I am a cryptogam biologist at heart. When our team was in Big Thicket National Preserve earlier this summer, I identified (with Reese 1984 and other sources) any moss or liverwort species that covered at least 1% of a survey plot. In Big Thicket, wet floodplains whose non-woody vegetation is dominated by Sphagnum palustre and Pallavicinia lyellii occur frequently throughout the park. Drier upland sites sometimes support Leucobryum glaucum and Atrichum angustatum, although these species are never dominant.

Now we are working at Gulf Islands National Seashore, and the bryoflora is much less conspicuous. Aside from one wet depression in the middle of Quercus geminata shrubland, which at ground level was covered by a Sphagnum sp. I have yet to identify, I have not seen any sites where bryophytes form a dominant component of the vegetation.

But while Gulf Islands hasn’t been a bryologist’s paradise, I have been pleasantly surprised by the prominent role terricolous (soil-dwelling) lichens play in some of the park’s habitats. Three species of Cladonia are of particular note: C. leporina, C. prostrata, and C. evansii. They all seem to be most abundant in the Naval Live Oaks and Fort Pickens areas of the park, although I have seen them, albeit not in any abundance, in other areas.

Cladonia leporina. This species is unique among “red-fruited” Cladonia in having richly-branched podetia (Hammer 2001).

These three species are all characteristic of the southeast coastal plain and are found growing on sandy soils in full or partial sunlight. Cladonia prostrata has the most restricted range; it is found in Florida and adjoining states. Cladonia evansii can be seen further north along the Atlantic coast, while C. leporina has the broadest range of the three and occurs in more inland areas towards the southern Appalachians (Brodo et al. 2001).

In our field sites, I have seen Cladonia evansii most often in semi-shaded areas under an oak canopy. Cladonia prostrata and C. leporina have seemed more common at more exposed sites, either under a sparse layer of shrubby oaks or in gaps in herbaceous vegetation. Vegetation communities containing Cladonia species have tended to be in areas of stable soil: relic dunes and sandy uplands.

Cladonia species have received some attention in ecological studies of Florida scrubland. They may suppress seedling recruitment in vascular plants (Hawkes and Menges 2003). In addition, they tend to become more abundant in post-fire landscapes (Menges and Kohfeldt 1995) and benefit from larger gaps in shrub vegetation (Menges et al. 2008).

Cladonia prostrata. This species is sometimes called “resurrection Cladonia” because its large squamules noticeably curl up when dry and unfurl when wet.


UPDATE, 30 AUGUST 2016: When I originally wrote this post, I hadn’t taken any photos of Cladonia evansii. Below are a couple from today’s fieldwork.




Literature Cited

Brodo, I. M., S. D. Sharnoff, and S. Sharnoff. 2001. Lichens of North America. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, USA.

Hammer, S. 2001. Growth dynamics and the taxonomic status of Cladonia leporina. Rhodora 103(916): 405-415.

Hawkes, C. V. and E. S. Menges. 2003. Effects of lichens on seedling emergence in a xeric Florida shrubland. Southeastern Naturalist 2(2), 223–234.

Menges, E. S. and N. Kohfeldt. 1995. Life history strategies of Florida scrub plants in relation to fire. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 122(4): 282–297.

Menges, E. S., A. Craddock, J. Salo, R. Zinthefer, and C. W. Weekley. 2008. Gap ecology in Florida scrub: Species occurrence, diversity and gap properties. Journal of Vegetation Science 19(4): 503-514.

Reese, W. D. 1984. Mosses of the Gulf South: From the Rio Grande to the Apalachicola. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA, USA.

On my way to Savannah for Botany 2016

After a couple months of vegetation mapping fieldwork at Big Thicket National Preserve, I spent last night packing up my plant presses, floras, food, and field gear. Today, I’m on my way to Savannah, Georgia, for the Botany 2016 conference.

I’ll be giving a talk on Monday (you can see my abstract here); I will write a post about that later. I’ll also write something more detailed about the work we were doing in Big Thicket. But for now, here’s a sunset over the Neches River.

Bye Big Thicket. It’s been fun. So long and thanks for all the shrubs!


Incidentally, this is my first post in a long time… about three years. I’m going to try to start writing posts more regularly. We’ll see how that goes.

Burning Bright in the Range of Light – Thoughts on my Summer 2013 Internship

I am writing this coffee-enabled post from San Francisco International Airport, as I wait for the red-eye flight that will carry me away from California, a state I had never visited before this summer, a state of botanical wonders of which I have only seen a brief glimpse.

My internship with the John Muir Institute of the Environment (JMIE) at the University of California, Davis gave me the opportunity to know intimately the plants of Eldorado National Forest. As I hiked through dense shrubs and on dry, grassy hillsides, drove through the “moonscape” of a recently burned forest, and documented with my notebook and plant press the diversity of plant life of post-fire areas, my east-coast eyes were opened to the central role fire plays in the ecology and management of California’s forests.

                       Kyburz Fire, 8 July 2013

Over the course of the summer I saw firsthand the plethora of invasive grasses that inhabit treated—meaning planted with Pinus ponderosa seedlings and sprayed with herbicides—areas of the 2004 Freds Fire. I also saw, as I crawled along the ground underneath dense Ceanothus integerrimus,  what happens when large areas that have lost all their trees to high severity fires are not reforested.

Pinus lambertiana


Post-fire reforestation is a classic conundrum of human interference in natural systems. If we artificially regenerate  forests, the results tend to be even-aged stands with little understory diversity. If we do nothing to burned areas, it may be many decades before trees become reestablished. In areas of high severity burns I cannot support the argument that we must do nothing and let nature take its course, for without the human interference of fire suppression many high severity fires would not have taken place. Fire suppression is  partially responsible for the loss of the mature seed sources that facilitate natural stand regeneration in lower severity fires. With forests serving as important carbon sinks, it may be irresponsible for us to wait for nature to repair the damage done by the fires that, through policies influenced by our incomplete understanding of forest ecology, become larger and more destructive than they would naturally. And as fires grow larger and more devastating due to climate change, the implications of human errors in forest policy will become even greater. The question of what is “good” or “bad’ interference looms large in the field of fire ecology, as it does in any discussion of humanity’s relationship with the natural world (including other humans).

For now, I will return from philosophical musings to thoughts on practical forest management. What seems to be a good compromise is planting so-called “founder stands” in areas that have lost all seed sources to fire. These planted clumps of trees would be allowed to grow up and naturally reforest the surrounding shrubland. I witnessed the potential effectiveness of this technique while taking regeneration data in a small unplanted area bordered by trees that survived the 1992 Cleveland Fire. Though the shrubs were dense, seedlings and saplings were scattered throughout. A diverse, mixed-aged stand of trees—a forest—is growing.

Fire ecologists like Gabrielle Bohlman, the master’s student for whom I worked this summer, hope that the evidence they collect on post-fire regeneration will influence the United States Forest Service (USFS) to shift reforestation policy and practice away from herbicides and indiscriminate planting and towards methods that take into account the ways in which forests naturally recover from fire, and respect the beauty of plant diversity: grasses, forbs, shrubs, and trees. Though policy is lagging far behind science, I am proud to know that the data I collected this summer may contribute to badly needed changes in our policies of forest management.

Sunset over Frenchman Lake, Plumas NF