Little known research center holds the secrets of rare park life
Those seeking to see a living specimen of Yellowstone National Park’s most rare species, Yellowstone sand verbena, are sworn to secrecy. Its location is closely guarded, and those who visit are asked not to discuss its exact whereabouts.
The little-known, delicate flowering plant grows on a sandy patch of land, less than 1.5 acres, on the shores of Yellowstone Lake. It’s been theorized that what makes the nation’s premiere park popular — it’s volcanic nature — is why the Yellowstone sand verbena (Abronia ammophila) grows only within the park’s boundaries. Most similar species live in much warmer environs in southern states and Mexico.
It’s one of only three endemic plants in Yellowstone — plants that only grow in the park and nowhere else.
Past records of the plant show its decline. The sand verbena is in danger of extinction due to trampling — human traffic — and has been extirpated from other areas of the park that see foot traffic, such as Fishing Bridge. In other words, ironically, this important link in the Yellowstone ecosystem is being stepped on by those flocking to areas to enjoy the diversity of species in its unique habitat.
How important are little-known plants like sand verbena? Besides providing food and shelter to pollinators and animals — which in turn provide food for animals higher on the food chain like humans — the National Library of Medicine reports the sources of many new drugs and active ingredients of medicines are derived from plants.
Recent medical discoveries include a compound from rosy periwinkle used to treat childhood leukemia, and Pacific yew, which contains the best hope for the treatment of ovarian cancer.
The Yellowstone sand verbena blooms for much of the summer and fall, until frost kills the part of the plant above the sandy ground it helps to secure. Most plants in the park only bloom for a short period.
It’s highly possible that, someday, the only proof of the existence of this variety of sand verbena will be kept in a vault-like storage facility at the Yellowstone Herbarium, part of the Heritage and Research Center in Gardiner, Montana. Very few of the park’s millions of visitors even know of the existence of the research center, let alone the herbarium.
While the center is open to the public, the 19,000 fragile presses (including plant and fungi) of the herbarium are only available for research and viewing under the watchful eyes of the center director — its lone employee.
Heidi Anderson has stood in a vigilant watch of not only the herbarium collection, but possibly the park’s biggest secret for the past 15 years. And she wants to share.
“I share my love for plants in hopes of creating more lovers of the park’s plants,” she said. “People only take care of things they know and love.”
Research of botanical life often begins at herbaria. Soon, that research will be easier at the Yellowstone National Park herbarium as they prepare to put all of their records online.
Anderson’s job is far from romantic, but she loves her work. She spends most of her time being chewed on by mosquitoes while working to delineate wetlands. More than half of the park’s diverse plant life occurs in wetlands, she said. And elk love hanging out just on the other side of her office window — sometimes there are so many they delay her exit at the end of the work day.
“Working in the park feels like I’m on vacation,” the Michigan native said. “I thought I should be
sending postcards from work the first few years.”
Part of her work makes it possible for trails to be built without jeopardizing the park’s plant species. Every trail or road requires an environmental assessment and careful consideration of many plants that live in the park, in part due to the thermal qualities of volcanic activity.
“People that refuse to use pullouts don’t realize how much damage they’re doing,” she said. “I see all these cars parked on the vegetation and I just want to cry.”
Another portion of her work is protecting the park from invasive species. Several species have been introduced to the park, hitching rides to their new home with park visitors. Some, like cheat grass, are so prevalent there is no way to rid the park of them. Center volunteers spend much of their time pulling invasive weeds.
But few have the patience to prepare collected species for herbaria. It is tedious, difficult work, despite its importance.
Herbaria have been described as a morgue for plants. Each plant, including every tiny detail, must be pressed, dried and glued to acid-free paper before being stored. Aquatic vegetation is even more difficult due to its fragile nature.
“Herbaria are libraries, and like libraries of books, each specimen in a herbarium tells a story. The story includes characters, a place and a time. The plot line revolves around change — in land use, in climate, in human ingenuity, from the time of collection until now,” wrote Burrell “Ernie” Nelson, curator of the Rocky Mountain herbarium at the University of Wyoming, in describing his work.
Anderson likes Nelson’s description.
“I think that is part of the reason people really find the herbarium to be so enchanting. Who doesn’t like a good book?” she said.
Plant life is far from the sexiest species at the park, which boasts views of grizzly, wolves and bison.
The Yellowstone herbarium is at the northernmost part of the 2.2 million-acre park — the driest area of Yellowstone. Anderson’s work is laborious and specimens, which take a great deal of time to prepare, are backing up. An average of only 10 groups per year sign up to tour the collection in the out-of-the-way public research facility.
“Most people don’t know this place exists,” she said.
In days gone by, herbariums were used as a teaching tool to tell you what you could grow in your garden without poisoning yourself — especially herbs that were used as medicines at a time when medical care was done in the home. Now the collections and research centers are living time capsules of what is here now and what was once here. Like a seed bank, they hold the answers to questions about the past and future of the world’s plant life.
The Draper Museum of Natural Science in the Buffalo Bill Center of the West recently received a donation of a small herbarium, a synoptic collection typical of the area, but especially from the Shoshone National Forest, according to Charles Preston, curator of the museum.
The collection was donated by Kent Houston, a retired soil scientist, who is now a volunteer at the museum. Like the Yellowstone collection, the Draper’s collection is available by appointment only. The delicate nature of herbaria has resulted in many collections being off limits to the public.
Plants deserving of protection grow across the state of Wyoming. Endangered or threatened plant species in Wyoming include blowout penstemon, the Colorado butterfly plant, Ute ladies’ tresses and desert yellowhead. Many rare species live in habitats inaccessible to researchers. For example, very little research has been done in alpine areas of the state due to the difficulty navigating the areas. But all are important, according to Anderson.
“Life would end without plants,” Anderson said.