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At home among the rushes and roses
For peripatetic curator of western plants, it's all botany, all the time

| 16 September 2004


Botanist Barbara Ertter is working to restore the native vegetation that at one time populated the banks of Blackberry Creek behind her Berkeley home. Once the native plants take hold, native animals should follow. “My goal is to eventually bring back the frogs and sticklebacks,” she says. (Noah Berger photo)
A crowd of plant enthusiasts, sporting sunhats and knapsacks, has gathered at plot 25, lot 24, of Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery to contemplate an unmarked grave. Here, at the final resting place of Albert Kellogg — a self-taught botanist and a founder of the California Academy of Sciences — tour guide Barbara Ertter pauses to download a gigabyte of data from her brain: the politics behind the California Geological Survey of 1860; Kellogg’s plan to name the giant sequoia after George Washington; a description of Kellogg, from the foreword to his illustrated guide to trees: “His whole soul breathed into plants and flowers….”

Ertter is cut from similar cloth. She makes her living as curator of Western North American flora at Berkeley’s University and Jepson Herbaria. But matters botanical, invasive as vetch, have crept into every corner of her life.

“I did a family geneaology; the next logical step was to trace botanical ancestors,” she explains, as she leads members of the California Native Plant Society to the interred remains of James Graham Cooper — before paying visits to Crocker, Pardee, Lemmon (Mr. and Mrs.), Carr, LeConte, Rattan. “Some would call this ‘weird,’” she admits. “I say, ‘how fun!’”

Productivity personified

So, too, is a dizzying schedule of botanically related pastimes: Showing local residents the California native plants found on Albany Hill. Re-tracing the collecting route of the 19th-century botanist C.A. Purpus through four western states and Baja California. Creating an annotated checklist of East Bay flora (known as a bible for native plant enthusiasts intent on protecting local biodiversity). Delivering luncheon remarks and learned lectures (in Baltimore, Corvallis, New York, Prague, El Cerrito, Tehran…). Converting the hillside behind her Berkeley home to native riparian habitat. Botanizing for rare or interesting plants (she recorded her first field specimen in 1972; at last count she was up to 18,496).

Ertter’s monumental, exhaustively detailed c.v. is a testament to, and itself an example of, her remarkable energy and focus. “She’s got an incredible ability to be productive,” says Joanne Kerbavaz, a California State Parks naturalist who has known the botanist in many ertterations — among them native-plant advocate, land-management consultant, and enthusiastic co-author of the revised edition of The Flowering Plants and Ferns of Mount Diablo California. (“A great hoot,” Kerbavaz calls their outings on the prominent East Bay mountain. “It’s a state park person’s dream — searching the diverse habitats of Mt. Diablo for rare plants with someone who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the flora.”) “Some of us go home at night and watch reruns of The West Wing,” Kerbavaz says. “I don’t think Barbara does that. I think she goes home and writes more talks on the history of botany in California.”

Within her profession, Ertter considers herself part of the “loyal opposition.” Traditional field botany — as practiced by Kellogg, Purpus, and Ertter herself — is being eclipsed by new forms of inquiry like bioengineering and cladistics (which uses computer technology to identify probable evolutionary relationships between species). Fine tools, in Ertter’s book, but no substitute for intimate knowledge of a plant in its native habitat — what she calls “listening to the organism.” She worries that, while the new trends get ink and funding, “we still have five percent of the nation’s flora undescribed, and therefore not getting the conservation attention it deserves.”

Getting hooked

Ertter’s fascination with plants dates back to childhood. She grew up the “middlest” of five children in Boise, spending summer weekends at a family cabin in the mountains. There, she says, she entertained herself by visiting the golden bells and primroses to see how they changed from year to year. “There’s a photo I lifted from my parents’ slide collection that has me at about two, bending over and looking at flowers.”

The clincher came in college, during a field trip to a place in eastern Oregon called Leslie Gulch. “It turned out to be one of these hotspots that hadn’t been botanized before,” recalls Ertter. “Maybe six plants new to science came out of this one gulch!” She got to name two of them; a botanical expert whom they consulted about their finds named another of the new species Senecio ertterae.

“Getting a plant named after me, and having other plants that I got to name, all from this same little flurry, definitely got me hooked!” She went on eventually, to study for a Ph.D. under the renowned Arthur Cronquist of the New York Botanical Garden, who believed, as she does, that to understand plant taxonomy you have to understand the related geography and geology.

“In the western United States,” she says, “you have a form of island biogeography, in which the ‘islands’ are the mountain ranges. During the Pleistocene, large lakes filled the broad basins between the ranges, leaving plants isolated from each other on the tops of mountains…. I’m trying to understand the West’s modern plants by understanding their evolutionary background.”

Her focus on Western flora (with a specialty in native roses, rushes, and buckwheat) has for many years piqued an interest in the plants of Central Asia — “the part of the world that is most comparable to the western U.S. They have climate, geography, evolutionary history, and plant groups in common.” Finally, in 1999 and again this summer, she got the chance to visit the region, as part of a scholarly exchange initiated by Dr. Fosie Tahbaz, a colleague at the herbaria. Along with Iranian and American scientists, Ertter donned the requisite headscarf and robe to go botanizing in the countryside — where, as promised, both landscape and plant life closely resemble those found in the American West.

“In Iran,” she says, “you’ve got 10,000 years of grazing and other land-management practices in an ecosystem that is totally comparable to here. Half our weeds are native to that part of the world.” Questions naturally arise from the similarities and differences: Why is sagebrush converting so rapidly into monocultures of cheatgrass in the western U.S. deserts, but not Iran? Why have conifers disappeared from the Iranian mountainsides? What’s the susceptibility of our own conifers to a similar demise?

“The comparative possibilities are definitely worth following up on,” Ertter says — her wheels turning as visions of future projects take first form.