While scouting locations for his summer Field Botany class, Ross McCauley, professor of Biology at Fort Lewis College, stopped for a sip of water when his eye caught something familiar – yet different. He crouched down, peering at the spindly plant at the edge of the trail. It was something he had never seen on his forays in the San Juan Mountains. He snapped a couple of photos, carefully snipped a sample, and took it back to FLC’s Herbarium to identify.
To his pleasant surprise, the perennial herb he had found, Kelloggia galioides, was in fact a species that has never been reported in Colorado. Native to California’s Sierra Nevada with small occurrences extending east to Arizona and Utah, this discovery represented not only a new addition for the state, but also the easternmost native existence of the species.
“Finding a previously unknown species in a region may sound difficult, but it’s actually not that uncommon. Many plants can be overlooked unless someone knows what to look for. It’s the fine details that make all the difference in the world,” says McCauley.
A week after the finding, McCauley welcomed three students to join him in a five-week Field Botany class. The goal of the course mirrored McCauley’s venture: to learn how to identify vascular plants while in the field.
With classes shifting to online at the end of the Spring term due to the coronavirus pandemic, McCauley was excited to offer a class that took full advantage of FLC’s access to the natural laboratories and classrooms of the great outdoors. While the class abided by all social distancing and mask guidelines, they were able to stick to the syllabus that included long days trekking in the mountains around Durango.
“Not all biology teaching is sitting in a lab looking at cells in a petri dish,” McCauley says. “To know plants, you have to slow down and open your eyes to a new way of seeing. Sometimes you have to get down on your belly and feel the environment at the same level as the plants. Getting to know the plants is best done by teaching in the moment, having students get their hands dirty and experience those ‘aha’ moments for themselves. It’s powerful.”
Under blue skies, the class would settle into a slower pace, pausing often to look behind stones or putting in the extra effort to scramble up ridgelines. McCauley encouraged the students to identify the plants based on what they knew of other species. They also developed an understanding of the importance of precise systematic data for use in management, conservation, and research activities.
Marian Kinsel, a senior Biology major, signed up for Field Botany to help her complete her senior thesis on plant regeneration in the burn scar of the 416 Fire. On the first field trip of the summer, she was annoyed by being slightly out of shape and things sticking to her pants. But by the end of class that day, she found the joy in being outside and learning to appreciate each plant with fresh eyes.
"All these little plants and trees have characteristics that make them unique. It’s important to see this uniqueness because they help us so much. Without them, we couldn’t survive. We need to do what we can to keep them there."
“All these little plants and trees have characteristics that make them unique,” she says. “It’s important to see this uniqueness because they help us so much. Without them, we couldn’t survive. We need to do what we can to keep them there.”
Five weeks later, Kinsel was not only successfully identifying around 35 families of native plants but even had a favorite new plant family, the Crassulaceae. She says these kinds of little things have marked her student experience at FLC from the beginning.
“I’m a pretty average student, so I need all the help I can get,” says Kinsel. “If I didn’t have the intimate student setting with my peers and could ask questions of professors like Dr. McCauley, I don’t think I would’ve succeeded.”