Perspectives: Newsletter of the College of Arts & Sciences

Collecting Plants and Friendships
at Annual Foray

Don Knoke
Don Knoke

Don Knoke celebrated his most recent birthday in the woods, camping and collecting plant specimens for the UW Herbarium along with nearly three dozen other volunteers. The group feted Knoke with a cake, celebrating both his birthday and his long involvement with the Herbarium.  After all, it’s not every day a volunteer turns 91.

Yes, 91.

“Don can still out-walk and out-collect many of our participants who are one quarter his age,” marvels Richard Olmstead (PhD, Botany, ‘88), professor of biology and curator of the Herbarium, who has organized the annual five-day collecting trips, or forays, for 16 years.

Thanks in part to the forays and volunteers like Knoke, the Herbarium is now home to more than 600,000 plant specimens, each of which has been pressed, catalogued, and filed.  Administered by the Burke Museum and housed in Hitchcock Hall, the Herbarium serves as a resource for both academics and the general public.

“The collection is a mine of information,” says Suzanne Anderson (PhD, Plant Physiology, ’92), a wetland scientist/ecologist and Herbarium volunteer. “As the data are digitized, they allow complex analyses of how populations, communities, and species change over time.”

Group photo of Herbarium Foray participants, 2011.
2011 Herbarium Foray participants pose for a group photo.

Famed UW botany professor C. Leo Hitchcock curated the Herbarium collection from the mid-1930s through 1971, building the collection substantially by collecting plants himself each summer. After his retirement, interest in collecting specimens waned until Olmstead arrived in 1996. “With climate change occurring and invasive plants becoming more common and even new native plants being found, I saw a need to document plants over time,” explains Olmstead. “I thought the best way to do this was to enlist the aid of the knowledgeable lay public.”

Olmstead introduced annual forays, inviting plant enthusiasts to join him.  About 30 volunteers participate each year, ranging from professional botanists to interested amateurs. They collect plant specimens from early morning to late afternoon, working in small groups.  Some, like Knoke, enjoy hiking to remote areas; others drive and collect specimens near the road.   

“We collect a sample of every plant that is in flower or in fruit,” says Olmstead, explaining that the flowers and fruits (a mature ovary with seeds inside) are the species-determining part of the plant.  The plants are pressed on site, with location, soil quality, and other useful information noted. Identification comes later, during winter work parties at the Herbarium.

Rickard Olmstead and David Tank
Richard Olmstead (left) and David Tank (PhD, '06)
during a previous foray. Tank, now a University of
Idaho professor, brought students along on the 2011
foray. Photo by Sheila Olmstead.

The foray travels to a different Northwest location each year. Before the trip, Olmstead works with local botanists at land management agencies to learn more about the region. “We always let them know we’re coming,” he says, “and they are universally thrilled to have botanists interested in this.“ The trips are scheduled based on when plants at that location are likely to be in flower, with dates ranging from early May to late July.  “Plants flower at different times, so we can never get everything,” says Olmstead. “But we do get a pretty darn good snapshot of what’s in the area.”

Olmstead figures that more than 200 volunteers have participated since the forays began, many of them returning year after year. For the 2011 foray, held in Idaho’s Payette National Forest, the UW team was joined by botanists from University of Idaho, Idaho State University, Boise State University, and College of Idaho.

“One of the best aspects of the foray is the participants,” says Anderson, who has attended nine forays. “There is a wide range of ages, experience, and backgrounds, but we all share a common interest in plants. Everybody cooperates, everybody shares, everybody helps, everybody learns, and everybody teaches.” Anderson particularly appreciates Knoke’s participation. “He embodies the concept of a field botanist,” she says. “He is incredibly patient, even when he identifies the same plant for me five times in a single afternoon!”

"One of the best aspects of the foray is the participants.
...Everybody cooperates, everybody shares, everybody helps,
everybody learns, and everybody teaches."


Knoke’s own interest in plants can be traced back to his senior year at the UW in 1942, when he heard about a class that involved hiking and camping for most of the summer. “I figured that was good way to earn my final credits,” says Knoke, a chemistry major. “I didn’t know anything about flowers except what I’d seen around the farm, but I knew about camping.” After identifying plants all summer, Knoke was hooked. He kept at it, even during a stint with the U.S. Naval Air Transport Service in Kansas, where he completed instrument training for R4D transport planes. “Plant identification is a great hobby,” he says. “There’s no end of plants out there.” [See videos, below, for more from Don.]

Don Knoke describes celebrating his 91st birthday with
fellow plant enthusiasts during the 2011 Herbarium Foray.
Don Knoke recalls his first plant collecting experience—
a UW field course taught by C. Leo Hitchcock in 1942.

In the dark of winter, with the summer foray a distant memory, volunteers meet up again in Hitchcock Hall for monthly work parties. There they identify all the plants collected during the foray.  “There are usually snacks, and we do have a chance to catch up with each other, but mostly the work parties consist of a bunch of people alternating between peering at dried plants under dissecting scopes and consulting the key,” says Anderson, referring to a guide to plant identification. “Periodically you’ll hear people mutter (under their breath) comments such as ‘I can’t tell whether the #@!&* pod is subglobose or lance-ellipsoid!’"

While all foray participants are encouraged to attend the work parties, some, like Knoke, live too far away to participate.  But Knoke promises that, come summer, he’ll be on hand for the next collecting foray.
“I hope to continue for another six to eight years,” says the nonagenarian.  “Why not? It keeps me young, going out with all these younger people all the time.”

Return to Table of Contents, September 2011 issue