Primitive-plant uber-geek’s heart belongs to lycopods

When Jeff Benca moved to Berkeley last month, he came so loaded with valuables he had to rent a truck. Make that a cargo van, air-conditioned to accommodate its contents — thousands of plant starts, many of them incredibly rare and entirely new to cultivation, all of them members of primeval lineages, packed bare-root in Ziploc bags.

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After surmounting a challenge he’d anxiously anticipated all summer — agricultural inspection in Washington state, then again at the California border — Benca delivered his mother lode of ancient vascular plants known as lycopods, along with members of a relic fern group dating to the dinosaur age, to the UC Botanical Garden in Strawberry Canyon. Only then did he move into graduate-student housing down the hill — living in spartan conditions for several weeks, and tending to the plants by day, until his brother trucked down his clothing and household items.

Jeff Benca

Integrative-biology grad student Jeff Benca (Cathy Cockrell photo)

“These plants were first priority for me,” he says of his daily ministrations to the large collection of sensitive lycopods — representing more than 70 species and variants from far-flung locations — that he’s donated to the Botanical Garden.

He is especially keen to discover what they may tell us about mass extinctions and climatic changes in deep time.

Call him a prehistoric-plant geek. (He raises no objection, except to add “über” for emphasis.) Only a small number of academics study lycopods, not to mention related “big-picture” questions — such as how they not only survived but dominated ecosystems across the planet during and after the world’s largest mass extinction, at the end of the Permian Period, some 250 million years ago.

Early in his undergraduate career at the University of Washington, Benca learned of a scientist doing pioneering paleobotanical work on ecosystem collapse and recovery associated with mass extinctions: Cindy Looy, assistant professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley.

Just a few years later, his early intellectual passions have borne fruit. Supported by a National Science Foundation fellowship, Benca is now a student in the campus’s Department of Integrative Biology — aptly named, he says, because it’s “integrative to the max; you get to talk to people who work with living plants, fossil plants, ecosystems, everything.”

Benca holding a piece of a lycopod

Benca nurtures lycopod specimens from scraggly starts to “fluorescent green glory.”

With enthusiastic support from Bot Garden staff, he has space there to nurture and greatly expand its now-outstanding collection of lycopods and other ancient plants. And with Looy as his adviser, he’s doing research on mass extinctions in her Valley Life Sciences lab, near the Museum of Paleontology T. rex that dominates the building’s central atrium. (“I thought I was on the Jurassic Park set,” he says of his first sighting of the impressive dinosaur skeleton.)

Prehistoric life has captured Benca’s imagination since childhood, and bizarre plants since his early teens, when he bought his first Venus flytrap and marveled at how, sans brain or nervous system, it could “lure an animal, manipulate it, trick it, kill it and eat it,” he recalls. “I realized wow, there’s something really weird and crafty about plants.”

Soon he had a closetful of rare carnivorous plants and orchids lined up under grow lights. “It became like an addiction,” he recalls. (Friends insisted it was a pot-growing operation.) By high school, the primeval lycopods had captured his imagination, along with a conundrum custom-made for a methodical young brainiac — how to grow them from wild-collected cuttings, keep them alive, then propagate them en masse. (To get his initial plant material, Benca enlisted help from staff at far-flung biological field stations, along with researchers and herbarium curators across the country.)

Jeff Benca in a greenhouse

Despite their “long history of not being friendly to cultivation,” grad student Jeff Benca says he’s developed a promising lycopod-cultivation protocol.

Many of the ancient lycopods he’s been working with — commonly known as “terrestrial club mosses,” though they’re not technically mosses — “have a long, long history of not being friendly to cultivation,” Benca explains. Although people “try and try,” he says, their lycopods typically “linger rather unhappily for a while as they slowly rot” — or, more often, die shortly after being removed from the wild.

First at his home outside Seattle, later in the botany greenhouse on the UW campus, he experimented systematically with cultivating lycopods — varying conditions in search of the magic formula. By pure chance, after many failed attempts, Benca discovered that the plants thrive best in low-nutrient soils (as many of his colleagues had suspected), but “actually prefer soils a little nastier and grittier” than others had tried, he says. Careful attention to humidity, light and timing, he adds, results in a successful cultivation protocol “regardless of whether you try growing them in Washington or California.”

The aspiring paleobotanist and paleoecologist hopes to publish his how-to instructions in an international scientific journal, so conservationists, researchers and teachers can work more successfully with “these rare, ancient and evolutionarily important plants.”

It’s all part of Benca’s grand plan to get a new generation of scientists excited about the largely uncharted, and sometimes lonely, field of paleobotany. Lycopods and other ancient plants “are so bloody cool and so weird — and hardly anyone knows anything about them,” he says with infectious enthusiasm. “It’s like studying life from another planet.”

At the Botanical Garden, where he can be found almost daily, Benca hopes to raise these scraggly looking starts to their “fluorescent green glory,” then begin sharing healthy specimens with other scientific collections. Ideally, he says, the collection could serve as an international repository for lycopods used for research and teaching, and become part of a national native-plant conservation.

So far in his short career at Berkeley, Benca has hit one bump. A natural growing material found widely in the Bay Area — which he’d hoped to use in his lycopod-cultivation regimen — turns out to harbor an introduced plant pathogen. “We’re now trying to substitute a pre-packaged athletic-facility product, of all things,” Benca says. “It’s working beautifully so far,” he says. He launches into a detailed explanation of the new medium — then stops himself.

“My apologies for the extra info,” he says. “I get excited about this.”

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