Winter 2014: Writing a Flora, the Story of Jennifer Ackerfield by Mo Ewing

In March 2015 Jennifer Ackerfield will publish the first complete Flora of Colorado since Harold Harrington’s 1964 Manual of Plants of Colorado.  Her 800+ page book will contain 3,322 taxa (species, subspecies and varieties), 912 color photos, most of which she took herself, and  descriptions and distribution maps of every species.  Jennifer is 39 years old.

What kind of person would write the first complete flora in 50 years?  And what is it like to write one?

Jennifer was born in rural Kansas in 1975.  When she was 5 years old, she says, she was already in love with birds and trees.  She used to drive her mother crazy bringing home all kinds of things from the fields around her house.  “What are all those weeds doing all over the front porch?”, her mother complained.  In high school she had an herb garden, a medicinal plant garden and another garden for vegetables.  She decided to go to Colorado State University because it was the closest place that offered botany and horticulture which became her double-major.

She loved collecting plants, organizing them and trying to figure out how they related to one another, but she didn’t quite know how to combine all those interests into a career.  Then, in her last undergraduate semester at CSU she took a course in plant systematics with Jun Wen and said, “this is where I can do all of the things I want to do.”  Systematics would allow her to both collect, organize and piece together the relationships of plants.

She intended to get a PhD, but, “life got in the way”, and she received a Masters degree in 2000.  At that time the CSU herbarium was run by a handful of volunteers but CSU decided that it was time to create a part-time, 15 hour position for a collection manager.  Jennifer applied for the position and was hired.  Over the next 14 years she would create a student internship program, get grants for the herbarium and students, digitize the whole collection, create a complete database of specimens and collect over 7,000 plants.

Just after she started in her new position, Jennifer thought she would start a reference collection.  Her reference collection would pull together into one cabinet, one example of each species in the herbarium so that people could easily pull out the plants they wanted to study.  But Jennifer found an interesting thing.  There were a lot of species that were misidentified.  Plants that were the same species were split into separate species, and others that were different were lumped together.  Additionally, in spite of the fact that the taxonomy of many plants had been changed over time, the collection had never been updated.

So she decided to create a spreadsheet which described each of the characteristics of each plant.  Species names on the Y-axis and plant parts (stems, flowers, petals, leaves) on the X-axis.  In order to make sure that she got plants correctly identified and described, she had to use five or six different floras, some from Colorado and some from other states.  In this process, she discovered another interesting thing.  Many of the mistakes in identification in her herbarium seemed to occur because the keys that botanists used were incorrect or unclear.

At the same time she started teaching botany students at CSU and began to put together keys for problem plant groups.  The first key that her students needed was a good key to the asters, so that is where she started.  (Asters are so problematic partly because there are so many of them; one of the things Jennifer found after she had completed her flora was that the aster family comprises nearly 17% of the entire Colorado flora.)
Jennifer loved writing the keys.  “I love sorting and organizing things; my closet is color coordinated. I always keep puzzles on the table for my children.  When I get bored, I reorganize all of the shelves in my kitchen.”

One day Bill Jennings came into the herbarium to bring in some specimens.  He happened to notice some of the keys and spreadsheets on Jennifer’s desk.  “These are terrific”, he said.  “You should compile them into a flora!”  And she thought, “really?  Well….maybe that would be useful”.  Bill Jennings suggested starting with the smaller plant families, and working towards the larger ones from there.  She would not have completed this project without Bill’s support and assistance.  Jennifer first went to the Provisional Checklist for Vascular Plants for the Southern Rocky Mountains Interactive Flora, written by Neil Snow and Jeffrey Brasher in March 2000, and compiled a list of all known vascular plant taxa in the state.  After writing keys for a couple of the smaller families, she changed course and started writing keys for the plants that her students were collecting (such as the Asteraceae).  She thought the project would take about five years to complete.  That was 12 years ago.

In order to figure out how to key the plants, she did what she calls, “arm’s length botany”.  She would hold the plants at arm’s length and ask the question, “what are the most obvious differences between these plants”?   Luckily she had collections of all the species in her herbarium. That was partly true because the Colorado Natural Heritage Program used it as the repository for all the rare plants they collect and track, and because of the extensive collections made by Harold Harrington.  Most of the keying work was done on herbarium specimens.  She would look at the differences between each plant and then split them in piles on the floor according to their different morphologies, splitting and splitting until her piles were down to individual species.

She found that some genera, like Ribes, had morphological characteristics that were rather easily quantifiable.  In those cases she could use just the few species in the herbarium.  But other genera had very plastic morphology, like Epilobium or Cirsium, which varied so much that she had to look at a lot of specimens to make sure that the keys worked properly.  For these she often went up to the Rocky Mountain Herbarium in Wyoming to look at additional specimens, where she received mentoring and assistance from Ron Hartman.

She spent a summer creating a key to the plant families of Colorado.  “I hated having to cut open the ovaries of plants to figure out what family it belonged to”, she said.  She also felt that students struggled greatly with this as well, so she avoided using this character in the family key.  The key to the families really begins with the number of perianth parts, is the perianth absent, or are the flowers in parts of 3’s or in parts of 4’s or 5’s?  This also avoided the issue of determining whether the plant was a monocot or dicot.

Her students were a great help to her because they used her new keys all the time and gave her constant feedback.  When she saw them becoming confused or making identification errors, she would look at the key and say, “what is it about this that is confusing them?”

There were some genera that were really problematical.  For these, Jennifer had to go all the way back to the type specimen (the specimen that was used to first describe the species).  Often the original descriptions of the type specimen were not very complete, so she had to have the specimen sent to her so she could study it.  (Later, as the internet developed, high-resolution digital images became available so that this was no longer necessary.)  From the original description she would work forward in time through the various floras to see where the taxonomic errors occurred.

An example of this issue occurred in the genus Abronia.  There were several collections of Abronia in the CSU herbarium that were identified as Abronia argillosa.  Bill Jennings said to her one day, “this Abronia argillosa feels like Abronia glabrifolia to me, a species known from the type specimen but rather forgotten in the flora of Colorado.”  So she had the type specimen from 1906 loaned to her and it turned out that all of the plants were, in fact, the same species, Abronia glabrifolia.

Jennifer chugged along on her project until 2005 and then, as she said, “life happened”.  She had twins and because she wanted to spend more time home and experience motherhood, she did no work on her flora for about a year.  Then she came back to work “part-time”, that is, she was paid part-time, but in fact worked on her flora for about 40 hours per week.

Then in 2011, her life totally caved in.  She was diagnosed with cancer; and the same week she separated from her husband.  She went through six months of chemotherapy, 36 rounds of radiation, and had 8 surgeries in a 2 year period.  When she stopped the chemotherapy and radiation, things got worse.  She developed “chemo-brain”, an affliction resulting from chemotherapy and radiation that alters the functioning of the brain.  She felt like she was walking around in a constant, thick fog.  Something as simple as going to the grocery store overwhelmed her.  She couldn’t do any more than one thing at a time.  She completely lost her short-term memory.  Botanical descriptions wouldn’t stay in her mind.  If she tried to compare one description with another she would forget the first one before she finished reading the second.

In addition she was crippled by peripheral neuropathy, a chemo-induced destruction of the nerves in her feet.  She couldn’t walk from her car to her office without experiencing severe pain.  The flora was put aside while she struggled to regain her health.

And then, all at once, she said, the fog lifted, her neuropathy subsided and after a year of hell, she was able to start working on her flora again.

As she approached its completion, working on the keys to the grasses, she decided that she should write complete descriptions of all 3,322 species in her flora.  By that time she had all the information she needed in her Excel spreadsheets, but it still took her a year to complete.  Then she thought, “I really ought to have distribution maps of the species.”  So she added those, and came to the end of the project.

The Flora incorporates many of the taxonomic changes that have been recommended by genetic research.  Although this drives people crazy, Jennifer thought that the changes should be incorporated in her flora.  In order to do this responsibly, she follows the nomenclature in The Jepson Manual: Vascular Plants of California by Bruce G. Baldwin et. al.  She chose this manual because it was very conservative in accepting newly described genetic relationships.  Often genetic researchers jump to conclusions about plant relationships without completely understanding all the genetics.  Once she accepted the changes, she had to find morphological characteristics to support them.  “So far”, she said, “I have always found a way to do this.”

“I never had second thoughts about writing a flora”, she said.  “If no one wanted to use it, it would have been useful for me and my students, and that was enough for me”.

So now the book is formatted and ready to publish.  All Jennifer needs to do is to raise the money for the printing.  As of this writing, over 200 people have pre-ordered a copy of the flora, and several organizations including CoNPS have donated funds, getting her two-thirds of the way there.

Already, she is making plans for the second printing.  “I would like to have botanical illustrations of key characteristics in the margins, the way Jan Wingate does in her Illustrated Keys to the Grasses of Colorado”, she said.  “I just wanted to create a Flora that nearly anyone with a little bit of botanical knowledge could pick up, use, and key out a plant with confidence and success.”

Pre-Order a Copy
Flora of Colorado
The price is $65 but CoNPS members can receive a 10% discount by using the new code CONPS-2014. Don’t forget the hyphen between CONPS & 2014. Offer good through
12-31-2014!

Make a Donation
Your donation is tax deductible:
Send to CoNPS — Flora of Colorado Fund
P.O. Box 200, Fort Collins, CO 80522

1 Comment on “Winter 2014: Writing a Flora, the Story of Jennifer Ackerfield by Mo Ewing

Comments are closed.