Arizona volunteers catalog thousands of plants

The Cochise County Herbarium helps residents identify ordinary and unusual plants found in backyards, alleyways, mountains, and deserts.

Volunteers Virginia Bealer, left, Bob Ballard, and Mimi Kamp discuss how to press native grass at the Cochise County Herbarium located on the University of Arizona South Campus in Sierra Vista, Ariz.

Ever wonder about that unknown plant in your yard — is it a good weed or a bad weed? Thanks to the efforts of a group of volunteers, that plant can be identified, dried, and even archived. The Cochise County Herbarium, a facility that houses mounted plant specimens, is a little-heralded resource for residents of the county to identify the thousands of plants found in backyards, alleyways, mountains and deserts.

Cecile Lumer, the curator of the herbarium, pulled out some yellowed files of plant identifications performed 50 years ago from 1958 to 1962 in the Chiricahua Mountains. Though the plants have lost color from the drying process, they still hold all the attributes necessary to identify them. What has piqued her interest, though, is the mapped recordation of plots and a list of the plants found in them.

"We could go back to these same plots today with GPS and see what, if any, change has occurred," she said. "There could be something different there now."

It is just one of the projects she has on the back burner.

Volunteer Virginia Bealer was working on mounting a plant that had been dried and then frozen (to kill any bugs). Delicately, she placed the long stemmed wildflower onto mounting paper. The paper notes the genus, species, year of collection, location, and who provided it.

Ms. Bealer, from Sierra Vista, is a retired schoolteacher who said she has always liked botany as she glances as an enormous source of information, the "Arizona Flora" written by Thomas Kearney and Robert Peebles, that provides listings for 3,438 plants in the state. She has been volunteering with the program for the past three years.

It is just one of many guides that volunteers use to identify an unknown type of plant, said volunteer Bob Ballard. He has contributed more than 300 types of plants to the herbarium.

"I enjoy the study of plants," he began as he pulled out another guide and leafs through the pages. "There are ways to find out what a plant is by knowing its leaf structure or flower structure. Some require the use of a microscope to find the characteristics that help you identify it. There are seeds and flowers of many plants that are so tiny you need the microscope. It can be quite challenging."

Mr. Ballard emphasized that it took him a few years to get up to speed in the plant world. He found that the books with detailed line drawings were the best sources for identification.

Lumer points out that Ballard is the go-to guy who enters all the data on the Web site. So far, there are 2,697 entries in the database.

When asked what was the most amazing thing he found, Ballard replied, "The most amazing thing will be what I haven't found."

Several years ago, Lumer went back to college and earned a doctorate in botany. With her degree came the urge to find a place that would serve as a repository for all the plant life found in the sky islands and high desert area of the county.

The herbarium is currently in a former potting shed on the University of Arizona South campus in Sierra Vista and is quickly outgrowing the small, 8-by-12-foot facility. Several cabinets hold thousands of files. A long counter provides a table to work on while identifying and mounting the specimens. In one corner, a computer awaits the input of new data; another holds a bookcase stacked with reference books. There is little room to move around.

Lumer has managed to get half-a-dozen more needed storage cabinets, but there is no room for them in the facility.

All the volunteers would like to see the herbarium receive more attention and find a new home where there is room to carry on their work. Overhead expenses are a concern.

"We don't have to pay any rent here," said Lumer. "I don't know how we'd pay for something larger."

Mimi Kamp is another avid collector as is Cindy Sprecher, who also a birder. Both women like to hike and bring back things of interest.

"I knew nothing about plants when I started this. Then I got addicted," added Ms. Sprecher.

Lumer explained, "When you have a passion for plants, you have it for the rest of your life."

Editor’s note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor’s main gardening page. Our blog archive. Our RSS feed.

You may also want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. Take part in the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos and enter our next contest. We’ll be looking for photographs of fruits. So find your best shots of summer’s blueberries, peaches, plums, etc., and get out your camera to take some stunning shots of early fall apples. Post them before Sept. 30, 2009, and you could be the next winner.

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