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Aura of the Flora: C of I enjoys rich botany tradition

It has been 85 years since The College of Idaho’s founding president, Dr. William Judson Boone, taught botany. Eighty-five years since the sun beat down upon his fedora-shaded face as he stood in the dusty Owyhee desert and slinked over to inspect and show his students the “ruts” of a plant. But Boone’s spirit—and the botanical prowess of the College—lives on. 

On a warm June morning, several C of I students hopped into a van and headed toward the Boise Mountains. Their first stop was 55.6 miles away from Caldwell at Grimes Creek on Highway 21, near Idaho City.

The students jumped out of the van as biology professor Dr. Don Mansfield pulled off the road. The rush of water over pebbles broadcasted as they collected plant specimens among the Ponderosa Pines, willows and syringas for Mansfield’s Field Botany class.

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The class teaches students to identify and classify plants, and to interpret evolutionary and ecological relationships among them. The course combines classroom, lab and field time as students collect 70 plants that will join more than 50,000 existing specimens in the C of I’s Harold M. Tucker Herbarium as part of ongoing floristic research at the College.

“We are testing evolutionary hypothesis every time we’re out in the field,” said Mansfield, who is only the fourth botanist and curator of the herbarium in the 124-year history of the College.

On this particular day, students Cory Barham and Joshua Kabins collect a periwinkle-colored, bell-shaped penstemon flower. They recognized the plant by its five petals, with fused pairings of three and two, and its five stamen, one of which is sterile.

“It’s closely related to the snapdragon,” Kabins says as he cut the flower at the roots.

Along with the plant sample, the biology majors note the habitat, dominant plants, soils, and rocks nearby, the exposure of the plant, and even road directions and GPS coordinates of the plant.

But that type of note taking isn’t limited to the classroom or field work—at least not anymore. Senior environmental studies major Miles Ranck said every time he goes hiking, it’s like a study session as he connects and identifies plant families.

“It’s been such a rewarding experience,” Ranck said. “And Mansfield, the walking encyclopedia—there is no better professor for this.”

Once back in the lab, the students look at the plant samples under the microscope and further identify the species of the plant. McKayla Stevens, a junior biology major, described looking at the plants under the microscope as artful, seeing the carefully constructed architecture and colors up close.

The specimens are then bound between newspaper, cardboard and wood to be flattened and dried for a week. The plants are then glued onto a piece of paper with labels and placed into the herbarium collection.

Though the technology has changed (and the transportation has improved), Boone’s practice of familiarizing students with southwest Idaho’s flora remains the same. Perhaps to the extent that a C of I student is as much a part of the Owyhee ecosystem as sagebrush or penstemons.

Founded in 1891, The College of Idaho is the state’s oldest private liberal arts college. The C of I has a legacy of academic excellence, a winning athletics tradition and a history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.