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The uglier the better

When people find out that I study and collect wild plants I suspect that they have visions of me tromping through the woods to study beautiful orchids and majestic wildflowers.  The fact of that matter is that attractive plants, orchids in particular, are pretty well-studied compared to many other groups.

A stunning Western Prairie Fringed Orchid.

A stunning Western Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera praeclara).

Orchids attract a devoted cult of nature lovers who, for fun on their weekends and vacations, wander through bogs and remote forests in the hopes of discovering new species or taking a perfect photograph of a rare Lady’s-slipper.  In fact Manitoba has three non-profit organizations (Nature Manitoba, Native Orchid Conservation Inc. and Conserve Native Plant Society Inc.) that are involved in some way or another in the appreciation, documentation and conservation of orchids.  So I’m not too worried about the orchids-I know that they are being meticulously documented by their legions of fans.

We know very little about the rare annual Winged Pigweed.

We know very little about the rare annual Winged Pigweed (Cycloloma atriplicifolium).

What I am worried about are the ugly plants-the wind-pollinated ones with tiny flowers that grow in very specific microhabitats.  These plants are either completely overlooked or regarded as weeds and stepped on.  They are like neglected younger siblings in a large family that only get attention when they do something bad, like grow in someone’s garden or in a crack in the sidewalk.  We don’t know much about the distribution and ecology of these ugly species and since they are unattractive and sometimes hay-fever inducing, no one loves them enough to study them.  No one but me.  I’ve developed and odd fondness for these homely plants because they are a challenge to locate and identify.   I find it very satisfying to be able to identify plants that most amateur and even some professional botanists  ignore.

This ugly Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) specimen that was recently donated is 3 m tall.

This ugly Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) specimen that was recently donated is 3 m tall.

One of my recent projects has been to identify “taxonomic gaps” in the botanical collection here at the Museum.  I prepared a list of plants that I know have been found in Manitoba but that we don’t have many (or any) specimens of.  Most of them were “ugly” wind-pollinated sedges, rushes, grasses or exotic, naturalized “weeds.”  Others were rare native annuals that don’t germinate every year and can be hard to find.  Some were at the edges of their North American ranges and not present in high numbers.  Quite a few are aquatic plants (like pondweeds) that grow in lakes, sloughs and rivers.  Not a single native orchid though is unrepresented in our collection.  In addition to our collection of specimens we also have a slide collection which features mostly pretty plants; there are 300 photographs of orchids but only one slide of goosefoot plant.

Abandonned railroad tracks are a great place to collect exotic weeds!

Abandoned railroad tracks are a great place to collect exotic weeds!

So I don’t really need a lot beautiful wildflowers in my collection (unless they are from a part of the province that hasn’t been visited before).  What I DO need are the weeds growing by the side of the road, the pondweeds that cling to your leg when you’re going for a swim in the lake and the grass-like plants that grow in damp, muddy areas.  But no orchids please, they’re just not ugly enough.

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Dr. Diana Robson

Curator of Botany

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Dr. Robson obtained a Master’s Degree in Plant Ecology and a Ph.D. in Soil Science at the University of Saskatchewan. She has been working at the Manitoba Museum since 2003, conducting research mainly on rare plant and pollination ecology.