Eric DeChaine is the curator of the Pacific Northwest Herbarium and a professor of biology at Western Washington University, but he says that at heart he is a naturalist.
DeChaine was one of two presenters at the April 21 Wild About Nature presentation held at the White Salmon Grange.
Bothered by bugs while researching in tropical rainforests, he had the bright idea: “I’m going to the arctic!” The audience laughed as he confirmed, “Yes, mosquitoes!” He now researches in the area of the Pacific Rim, the “Ring of Fire,” which consists of an arc of volcanoes stretching from south of Japan north through Russia, across to Alaska, and down the west coast of the Americas.
DeChaine was working with a Russian counterpart in exploring these questions, but that work is suspended until the situation in Ukraine is resolved.
DeChiane is considering some big questions. He explores the patterns and processes that give rise to biodiversity. “Why are things living where they live? Why do some plants have so many fragmented, endemic (locally unique) populations? How does diversification and colonization work?” He chose saxifrage as his prototype plant to explore these issues. He is able to use DNA sequencing, computer predictions, and other modern tools to make new discoveries.
In addition to research and botany, DeChaine loves mountaineering. Is it coincidence that his chosen species can often be found up high on beautiful and steep mountainsides? Saxifrages need moisture so they are often found near waterfalls, and they grow only on basalt rock substrata. Waterfalls, steep slopes, basalt — it’s no surprise saxifrages love the Columbia River Gorge.
Isolated by Ice Age conditions, Saxifrages differentiated into separate species. That’s why you could have collection of unique plants on this particular mountain top, and nowhere else in the world. Small areas of ecological stability, refugias, gave shelter to saxifrages throughout weather cycles. These refuges include the Sea of Okhosk in Russia, Hanshu in Japan, the Olympic Peninsula and others.
Considering climate change and forestry practices, what does the future hold for plants? There will be more shipping through the arctic, more human presence, and more introduced non-native species. Warmer temperatures mean drier conditions, and we are already losing saxifrages, especially in the southern portion of their range. How can we help? We can do analysis to predict where the plants will be able to survive. We can create an evergreen corridor and practice assisted migration wherein we help the plants move north and uphill to cooler temperatures.
“Aren’t there some concerns about doing this?” an audience member asked. “Yes, it is hotly debated, and with good reason. My opinion is that human actions cause this stress on the plants, and I feel we have a responsibility to help them survive,” DeChaine answered.
“We talk about climate change, but there are other threats. Current forestry practices present a danger with clear cutting and herbicides damaging the forest ecology. Then there are pollution and invasive species. Wildfires are increasing in frequency and intensity, like the Eagle Creek Fire in 2017.”
One audience member bluntly asked, “Why should we care about saxifrages?”
“So much is unknown,” said DeChaine . “There is a lot we don’t understand about the connections between pollinators and plants, between plant communities, between plants and grazers. When we start pulling out the threads, losing parts, the ecosystem can start to unravel. We are just beginning to learn about the complex relationships that exist.”
DeChaine has some hope, despite the dire threats, in how the younger generation seems to be valuing nature more.
“Forest bathing is the thing now. We used to call that ‘a walk in the woods,’ but whatever you call it, being outside in nature lowers stress and increases health and happiness,” he said, adding that the more people appreciate wild nature, the more willing they will be to protect it.
Continuing the highly qualified list of presenters in this series, Brian Thompson is the Curator of Horticultural Literature at University of Washington Botanic Gardens. The library contains not only books about plants but also biographies about the people who investigated them. In his “Women Plant Explorers in North American at the turn of the 20th Century” presentation, he discussed women botanists who hailed from the Hudson Valley in New York, noted for its beauty and the great number of artists who painted it. They declared the Columbia River Gorge to be even more beautiful, and the waters as clear as crystal. Many of the authors wrote for an East Coast audience, introducing them to our beautiful wildflowers.
If we want to find out about a plant, we google it, or purchase an ID app, or a wildflower guide with luscious photos for $25 or $30. The first field guides, mainly written by women, were published in the 1890s, before the advent of photography. The illustrations were hand drawn and detailed, and the printing process for color involved lining up the pages for each color. One of the books cost $750,000 to print, about $11 million in today’s money, and the purchase price then of $500 would be about $7,000 today!
Julie Henshaw pioneered the use photography and produced her “A Simple and Popular guide to the Names and Descriptions of the Flowers that Bloom above the Clouds,” in 1906, making guides more accessible. Edith Schwartz Clements, who, along with her husband, Frederick, established the science of plant ecology, studying plants in community and environment.
Unlike the east coast women, Lilla Leach was born in Oregon to parents who had crossed the Oregon Trail. Her studies were focused in the Siskiyou Mountains. She discovered a charming pink flower and it was named for her, Kalmiopsis leachiana. It grows only in southwestern Oregon, and the Kalmiospsis Wilderness area is named for the plant.
The University of Washington Botanic Gardens and library in Seattle are open to the public. The Miller Library has the most extensive horticulture collection in the Pacific Northwest.