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Workshop series sows the seeds for conservation

For 20 years, a program of public workshops has been cultivating interest in California's flora.

Jepson herbarium

The Jepson Herbarium at UC Berkeley has a big mission: understanding and protecting California’s flora. Given that the state is home to thousands of native plants, nearly 1,500 of which can be found only here, that’s a lot of work for a lot of people with a lot of specialized knowledge. So the Jepson Herbarium has done what comes naturally in order to ensure it will always have the well-trained plant-lovers it needs.

It’s been growing its own.

In 1994, the Jepson Herbarium launched a series of public workshops open to anyone with an interest in California plant life. Now about to begin its 20th season, the workshop series has introduced more than 2,500 participants to local flora and the skills needed to identify and catalog them.

Sonia Nosratinia, lab manager for UC Berkeley's Bryolab (a research lab led by Jepson Herbarium Director Brent Mishler), gets a closer look at the subject at hand during a Jepson workshop. (Photo by Jeanne Marie Acceturo)

Sonia Nosratinia, lab manager for UC Berkeley’s Bryolab (a research lab led by Jepson Herbarium Director Brent Mishler), gets a closer look at the subject at hand during a Jepson workshop. (Jeanne Marie Acceturo photos)

Prior to the workshops, the Jepson Herbarium – founded in 1950 by botanist Willis Linn Jepson – was primarily known for research. It focused on updating Jepson’s Manual of the Flowering Plants of California and expanding its extensive botanical collection. But Brent Mishler, director of the University and Jepson Herbaria, thought it could do more – even though, initially, not everyone agreed.

“The Jepson Herbarium, up to that point, had never seen outreach as part of its mission,” Mishler explains. “But it immediately became clear that by adding the workshops we were actually enhancing our research mission by getting our [experts] involved in trying out their taxonomic treatments in the field and lab with discerning students – who sometimes find mistakes. These same students were improved collectors and field botanists afterwards, and thus were able to make new discoveries.”

According to Staci Markos, the Jepson Herbarium’s assistant director for development and outreach, they also come away with new relationships and a deeper commitment to protecting California flora.

“One of the biggest benefits of our classes, besides the top-notch content, is the opportunity for participants to meet others working in the field,” she says. “By connecting people who care about and work with plants, we’re strengthening the fabric of the conservation community.”

Those new connections are one of the reasons Genevieve Walden keeps coming back for more. A fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Baldwin Lab, a research group within the Jepson Herbarium and the Department of Integrative Biology, Walden signed up for her first workshop in 2009. A few years later she started teaching workshops herself, quickly becoming hooked on the enthusiasm new students bring to the field.

“They’re really interested and motivated,” she says. “I started taking workshops for the plants, but I’m definitely teaching for the participants.”

Although the instructors are authorities on their field, of course, the participants are often experts, as well. Neal Kramer began taking Jepson Herbarium workshops way back in 1995, and in that time he says he’s learned almost as much from his fellow students as from the teachers.

“There are really high-quality, top-notch, experienced instructors,” says Kramer, who received a bachelor’s degree in botany from Berkeley and later earned a master’s in forest ecology from the University of Idaho. “But the people taking the workshops are just as knowledgeable, in some areas. It’s great to be around so many other energized and excited botanists.”

A lifelong plant enthusiast – he started his own garden and lawn-care service at the age of 13 – Kramer began attending Jepson Herbarium workshops for fun. But they eventually led to a career shift. While he’d been putting his botany degree to good use as production manager for a wholesale nursery, it felt like he was spending more time dealing with personnel than plants.

“I wanted to get back to hands-on botany, and the workshops really helped me create a more substantial résumé,” says Kramer. “They were also a fabulous networking opportunity.”

These samples were gathered for an exercise on plant identification in the Jepson workshop "Introduction to California Plant Families." (Photo by Jeanne Marie Acceturo)

These samples were gathered for an exercise on plant identification in the Jepson workshop “Introduction to California Plant Families.”

In fact, it was through a Jepson Herbarium workshop that Kramer learned of just the kind of job he was looking for – one that would allow him to concentrate on field work again. After landing the gig as a project consultant, he left the nursery and founded Kramer Botanical, a consulting firm.

“That little seed has grown into what has been for me a very successful business,” he says.

Now Kramer spends his days doing rare-plant surveys, plant inventories, vegetation mapping and invasive-weed management. And he’s finding time to teach, too. After attending more than 40 different Jepson Herbarium workshops as a student, he finally served as a co-instructor for one in the spring of 2013. And he’s back for the 2014 series, co-leading a workshop that explores the flora of the private, 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch in Southern California.

Other workshops this year include “Sierra Nevada Wildflower Identification Made Fun,” “The Botanical Jewels of Mount Eddy” and “The Spectacular Diversity of Bay Area Public Gardens.” There will be 26 workshops in all, with the first kicking off in late January and the last wrapping up in October. Five are grouped under the heading Basic Botany, while the rest go more in-depth and at times – as with the Tejon Ranch workshop – far afield. Though the workshops are open to all, they’re not free. Fees range from $85 to as much as $715 for the more travel-heavy workshops.

“The basic botany workshops are designed to be accessible to people who have never taken a botany course before and who may not have been in school for years,” says Jeanne Marie Acceturo, the herbarium’s public-programs coordinator. “We think of them as the foundation for our more advanced plant identification workshops and field excursions to study plants all over the state.”

A full workshop schedule can be found on the Jepson Herbarium website.