Welby Smith is a master of Minnesota plant identification. The botanist for the DNR's Minnesota Biological Survey program has for 40 years combed the state's woods, prairies, and wetlands to find, document, and often collect many of the 2,000 species that grow wild here. Smith's plant-finding prowess helps find threatened and endangered species, guide decisions for protecting those rare populations, and create an ongoing record of the state's flora. He shares his voluminous expertise with others through the DNR's Rare Species Guide and in definitive field-guide books he has written on Minnesota's orchids, its trees and shrubs, and, most recently, its sedges and rushes. Smith spends most of every field season out in the elements, often crouched down, keenly observing the finest details of plants in the name of beauty, biodiversity, and botany. We caught up with him for a chat about his plant-based career.
Q |When did you know you wanted to become a botanist?
"It was a gradual process, but I knew from an early age. One of my first recollections was being with my father when I was about 4 years old at the Bell Museum of Natural History. I remember standing with him in front of the moose diorama, and I thought that was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. It totally blew me away. I knew at that time that I was a biology nerd. It was in my genes or something. Then I pursued the outdoors and natural history—plants, animals, trees, weather, rocks, everything. That brought me into science. When I went to college, my major advisor was Professor Gerald Owenby at the University of Minnesota. He was a botanist, the curator of the herbarium, and the head of the botany department. I was amazed at the depth of his knowledge, and he was a role model. That helped me narrow my focus on plants."
Q |You wrote Native Orchids of Minnesota. Are orchids one of your favorite types of plants?
"People are attracted to orchids because they're so beautiful. And they're pretty much all rare. They appeal especially to photographers and people who love a treasure hunt. And I guess that's how I started too. But when I started studying them, I realized they go way beyond that. The biology and evolution and ecology of all the orchids is so unique that it puts them above almost all other organisms for me."
Q |You also wrote Sedges and Rushes of Minnesota. In contrast to orchids, sedges and rushes don't dazzle with beauty. Why are they important?
"There are about 250 species of sedges and rushes in Minnesota, and they're pretty much all native. They nearly all have very specific habitat requirements, and they're very good indicators of what's going on in a wild habitat. If you're able to distinguish between the different species of sedges and distinguish them from grasses, you start to see things about the habitat that you might not have been able to see otherwise—the health of it particularly. Sedges in wetland habitats in Minnesota are probably the best indicator of ecological health that we have."
Q |You collect and preserve plant specimens that are stored at the Bell Museum herbarium. How many specimens have you contributed?
"I think it's 37,000. But it's not really a numbers game. The herbarium is a collection of dried and preserved specimens that go back 150 or 200 years. The herbarium is the archival repository of all botanical knowledge. It's all there, and we go back to it all the time. And now in the last 20 years we're going back to it to get DNA extractions. So we're learning things about the evolution of plants that we never dreamed we could learn. There are about 250,000 flowering plant species known throughout the world, and they're still being discovered at the rate of 1,000 to 2,000 a year, mostly in the tropics. People think botanists roam out into these really deep, dark wilderness areas and go 'Aha, there's a new species!' But it practically never happens that way. New species are almost always discovered in the herbarium by looking at specimens. And the DNA work is very helpful for that."
Q | As a close observer of nature, what advice can you give to the rest of us to develop our observational skills?
"Find your passion and follow it. It's easy to do if you get absorbed by something, whether it's bird watching or studying animal tracks or phenology. Whatever draws you in and absorbs your attention. Once you do that, the observations become easy, almost instinctive. You want to learn more. Then, if you can, seek out a mentor or role model who is willing to have you come along with them and learn from them, and who can help you with resources. It could be books. It could be a website. And then it's unstoppable. You're hooked. And there's just no end to it."