The Penstemon Predicament

Since last month, things have been moving along quite well, and quite as expected. We’ve started a handful of collections, and we’ve been keeping a close eye on scouted populations as we continue to keep eyes out for any new populations that may be coming up as summer hits us full force. As with any new job, there is a lot of information to take in and a lot of discrepancies in the small details as compared to other places. These small differences are easy to become acquainted with once you’ve become acquainted with them, and especially when you have kind and patient coworkers to help you along.
The same can be said for the plants. They are similar everywhere you go. You can see in most of them some familial resemblance that ques you into their relation. You remember the general trends and fashions of things, but it is the tiny details that can trip you up. Each key has different breaks that can cause trouble for us botanists. Of course each plant presents it’s own set of genetics that may or may not allow it to hybridize within its community and so on and so forth. The troubles you can run into are endless and all part of the “art” and the FUN of keying as many botanists, including myself, would tell you.
It turns out that much like becoming acquainted with coworkers, one can quite quickly become acquainted with the surrounding plant life. Running through the key each time we see someone on our list is incredibly fun. What is even more entertaining, and confidence-boosting is being so familiar with these individuals that we know which features to look for which set them apart from others. This also allows us to be more efficient with our time spent in the field, if we can pinpoint those key features. Many plants on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forests so far have been kind “coworkers,” if you will. Geum triflorum has three pronged leaves that make it obviously “triflorum.” Green gentian has green flowers as opposed to the white flowers of the other Frasera in our area. And Geranium viscossissimum is quite sticky and the only pink-flowered perennial geranium around, and G. richardsonii is the only white-flowered perennial geranium, so those are both simple enough to get to know.

I cannot say the same for Penstemon albertinus. Penstemon albertinus is like that person in the office who is incredibly shy and reserved, yet you know they’re REALLY cool, so you invite them to every party, but they are always busy doing other things and so you never get the chance to actually know them. Oh, and they have a twin named Penstemon attenuatus who often shows up to your parties, but you think upon first seeing them that maybe, just this once, it could be albertinus. The anthers are glaborus, the verticillasters are open. You note the acute tips on the stem leaves and hope it’s just a morphological difference. But as you get closer, you find the basal leaves to be quite thinner than Albert’s and you know you’ve again been fooled by Attenuatus.
When this occurs over and over, it can be quite frustrating, and makes you question your abilities as a budding botanist. In this case, we asked the botany techs based out of Helena. They so kindly invited us out for a couple days together in the field so they could share some of their experience and knowledge from four years on the forest. During this time, we did spend some time with Penstemon. Both Dayna and I were relieved to find that we are not the only ones Penstemon rejects. In fact, Nate mentioned there are many conversations had over the exact differences between the two species, and even with his four years of experience in the area, he still has to return to the details each year to refamiliarize himself with the need-to-knows. So we’ve begun to accept that we may just never be on very good terms with Albertinus. We may just have to take a key to this particular individual each and every time we meet in order to truly ensure we’re accurately identifying. Which is great practice and it makes you appreciate the more “firiendly” and straightforward plants all that much more, and forces you to really hone in on those botancial skills and instincts. I’m looking forward to finding more challenging individuals throughout the season, and hope to learn a lot from them!

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About Tori Bauman

Me? I'm just a lowly collector of seeds, trying to get by here in the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forests of Montana, also know as "a land of extremes." My favorite part of the job is the identification of species. It's good fun AND strength building to carry a multitude of keys around the forest on the hunt for flowers and fruits. In the coming months, I hope to gain an understanding of the flora and fauna that can make a living in such a harsh environment.