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Plant hunters: C of I team researches Idaho’s flora

“Try this miner’s lettuce,” says College of Idaho botany professor Don Mansfield, tearing off a couple leaves of a small plant growing along the edge of Currant Creek Trail in the Boise Foothills.

As student research assistants McKayla Stevens and Lauren Polito nibble on the leaves, Mansfield notes “you can make a great salad with them” before pointing out the hemlock growing right next to it, one of the most poisonous plants in North America.

Such is the nature of Southwest Idaho’s botanical diversity—an edible plant can grow next to a toxic one, with the typical passerby unaware of the difference, or of the important role each plant fills in the region’s ecosystem.

That’s where Mansfield and his C of I student researchers come in. For decades, C of I research teams have crisscrossed Southwest Idaho documenting the region’s unique and largely unknown flora. 

On this sunny May day, the C of I team is on the lookout for biscuitroot, a perennial herb with small yellow flowers that is native to western North America. Dozens of species of biscuitroot are present in Idaho, yet they are largely undocumented and very little is known about the genetic diversity and related ecological factors influencing the plant.

“It’s in just about every ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain West and it was very important in terms of food and medicinal purposes for Native American groups,” Mansfield said. “That makes it very interesting in terms of its ecological and ethnobotanical diversity.”

Digging for answers

Barely 100 feet down the trail, the C of I team spots its first biscuitroot in an unusual location, a dry creek bed. Mansfield guides the students through a checklist of items to note: soil type, soil depth, the slope of the ground, whether the soil has been disturbed, the dominant grass surrounding the sample, and so on.

Recording the data takes 10 or so minutes per site, with Mansfield sharing tips that he’s learned from decades of field research.

“How do you tell whether there’s clay in the soil without testing it in the lab?” Mansfield asks Stevens and Polito as he picks up a pinch of soil to demonstrate a simple field technique. “You see if it’ll form ribbons when you roll a bit of soil between your fingers.”

Polito, a junior biology and environmental studies major who is focusing on the biscuitroot research this summer, helps collect a sample to preserve in the C of I’s Tucker Herbarium and for DNA sequencing before noting the GPS coordinates of the collection site.

This summer, Polito will be collecting biscuitroot specimens, analyzing their DNA, and comparing the physical features of newly-collected specimens to those that have been collected elsewhere.

“We’re trying to dig up some answers to questions about biscuitroot,” said Polito, who’s planning to pursue graduate work in wildlife biology. “Getting out there and collecting specimens, learning the process of field work and learning how to do DNA analysis is really helpful preparation for what I’d like to do.”

Half a mile down the trail, the team comes across several more plants that appear to be part of the same population group, though the soil and terrain are much different.

“This part of southwest Idaho is an interesting area and a great place for botanical research,” Mansfield said. “You have Lake Idaho deposits of sand and then you get the basalt of the Columbia Plateau, as well as the granitic batholith where Bogus Basin is, so we’re at this interesting junction of three geological features that contribute to the diversity of our flora in this area.”

Mansfield notes that biscuitroot is also known as desert parsley and the students stick their noses into the flowers to smell how the moniker came about.

“This is what we’re trying to figure out, if what makes sense when we think about it in the classroom or lab is actually what we see in the field,” Mansfield said.

Going places

While each student working with Mansfield pursues an individual research project, they all support the College’s larger effort to better understand the flora of the Owyhee region. In 2011, Dr. Manfield received a nearly $370,000 National Science Foundation grant for that project, which has included establishment of SWITCH (Southwest Idaho: The Comprehensive Herbaria), an online resource for botanical research and education (pnwherbaria.org).

Other botanists throughout the United States and abroad are making use of the SWITCH database, and even pitching in to help advance the C of I’s research. This summer, the College will host the annual Idaho Botanical Foray from June 26–29 in the headwaters of the Owyhee River. The annual event, sponsored each year by a different Idaho university, draws dozens of botanists who converge on a single, understudied area to catalogue the plants inhabiting it.

Meanwhile, the four students conducting research with Mansfield this summer are learning not only about Southwest Idaho’s botany, but also, in collaboration with Boise State University scientists, DNA sequencing, database management, bioinformatics and a range of field techniques.

Stevens, a freshman biology major who plans to go to medical school, said getting a chance to do research so early as an undergraduate was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“I’ve been interested in scientific research since I was really young,” she said. “I know pre-med versus botany, they sound completely different. But it’s a great opportunity to gain field research experience, and do DNA sequencing to track down patterns and compare morphological features. Those are all skills that are important looking at going on to a career in medicine.”

Mansfield intentionally identifies C of I freshmen with an interest in science and research to get them involved early in their college careers.  Learning a variety of scientific techniques, seeing how professional biologists work and developing communication and observational skills all contribute to many different occupations, he said.

“I’ve had students go on to medical school and research careers. A recent graduate went into a marine biology graduate program and another just finished a graduate degree and took a job at a national preserve in New Mexico,” Mansfield said. “Our students just jump at the opportunity to get experience with research after their freshman year. They realize that they can go on to do whatever interests them and answer interesting questions.”

Click here to check out more photos of the C of I plant hunters in action.