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Explore Nature with a Field Botanist

Posted on 6/13/2014 by State Nature Preserves
Andrew Gibson

Hello, everyone! My name is Andrew Gibson and I work as a field botanist for the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves. I have a deep rooted interest and passion for the natural world and find myself incredibly lucky to spend my days immersed in our great state’s scenic beauty and biodiversity.

I’ve been asked to share some of my experiences, thoughts, and photos from the field to give an inside look at the wealth of flora and fauna of my region and the habitats and ecosystems they call home. I was more than happy to accept the offer and always jump at any chance to help spread the word on just how incredible and unique Ohio truly is.

Pink Lady Slipper

So what does a field botanist do exactly? Well, in short most of my time is spent traversing our state in the search for rare plants. With 136 state nature preserves and hundreds of thousands of acres of state parks, state forests, and national forest, there is plenty to be seen and discovered; such as these pink lady’s slippers (Cypripedium acaule) at Christmas Rocks State Nature Preserve in Fairfield County.

Here in Ohio we have something called the Natural Heritage Database, which is used to track and record all the known instances of our rare plant and animal species such as the state endangered and very rare flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum). I survey, monitor, and update the respective rare plant records and occurrences within the counties I am responsible for to help keep our knowledge of what is out there and how it is doing up to date. It can be a daunting task but each and every record is a small victory for our state’s biodiversity.

Spring Coralroot

The aforementioned act of monitoring and updating the known records bears the brunt of my time and energy but it is the potential for new discoveries that keeps any field botanist on their toes and their senses heightened. You just never know what awaits you when walking out the door each morning. This past May, I had the pleasure of serendipitously finding a new population of the potentially threatened spring coralroot orchid (Corallorhiza wisteriana) in Strouds Run State Park. The fact it was an orchid was extra special for me, as anyone who already knows me knows our wild orchids are my biggest botanical obsession.

Running Buffalo Clover

Some plants that grow in Ohio are not only rare here but everywhere else they occur. These plants have the special designation of being federally listed as a threatened or endangered species. Here in Ohio, we have six species at the federal level including the federally endangered running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum). A couple weeks ago Natural Areas and Preserves chief botanist Rick Gardner, preserve manager Levi Miller, several volunteers and I surveyed our state’s largest population of this rarity at Boch Hollow State Nature Preserve in Hocking County.

Lake Katherine

If asked what my favorite aspect to my job is, I’d have to say the unique opportunity to explore sites and places that few others ever get to experience firsthand. There is just something about feeling like you are in another world, one bereft of human influence where only the wild things roam that scratches me right where I itch. One particular instance that comes to mind is the back country of Lake Katherine State Nature Preserve in Jackson County. At over 2,000 acres in size, it ranks as one of our largest preserves and a great deal of it is left wild with no trails or public access. The view out across the mirrored water of the lake on that clear and sunny morning is the real reward for my time and dedication. Nature certainly seems to reward those who take the time to seek out her treasures.

Umbrella Magnolia

Speaking of Lake Katherine SNP, one of the best features of this phenomenal gem of a preserve is the presence of two of our state’s native magnolias. The tropical-looking leaves and huge flowers of the potentially threatened umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) are a real treat to see in full bloom during the second half of May.

Big Leaf Magnolia

Even more impressive is the exceedingly rare state endangered big leaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) at Lake Katherine. Its capacious leaves are unlike anything else in our state and look like they belong much further south in the equatorial jungles. My hat placed next to the aptly-named plant’s leaves shows just how exorbitant they are. Interestingly, this species is only known to occur in a handful of deep sandstone hollows and gorges in Lake Katherine and a few other nearby locations and that is it for the entire state! Updating their records last month was some of the toughest and most rugged hiking and terrain I have seen yet on the job but I loved every minute of it.

Fringe Tree

At the end of the day I consider what I do to be on par with a “dream job” and I take the time every day, even on days when the sun is scorching, the mosquitoes and deer flies are hungry, and the skies drenching, to thank my lucky stars I get to dedicate myself to something I am so passionate about. It makes all the spent sweat and blood worth the chance to do what I love. Seeing so many of Ohio’s rare plants such as the fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) in person and their wonderfully diverse habitats is what this botanist lives for and I can’t thank the wonderful and gracious powers that be at the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves to present me with the honor of working for them.

I could easily go on and on but I’ll end it here for now and will be back later this month to share more of my experiences and travels and the interesting plants and animals that I come across. Hope you enjoyed this introductory look in and happy botanizing!

Andrew Gibson