Crooked River Reflections | Women who know wild plants

Writing by Arrye Rosser

When most of us walk through nature, we appreciate the scenery, but the living things that make up that scenery are strangers to us. Darting wildlife might catch our eye and capture our attention. Many common animals are familiar neighbors. Raccoon, white-tailed deer, grey squirrel, and northern cardinal have crossed our path before. 

But what of the plants around us? Nature lovers might master the names of spring flowers. These little sprites dab cheerful colors along roadsides and forest trails. We greet them eagerly after months of winter drab. However, few people can make sense of a carpet or wall of greenery.

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Biologist Sonia Bingham is the exception. Her expertise is wetland plants. For years, she has led the small team of Heartland Network scientists who have studied more than 1,500 wetlands in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. 

Ohio has lost almost 90% of its wetlands, from 4.4 million acres historically to 481,900 acres now. Of the remaining wetlands, most have experienced physical, chemical, or biological changes resulting from forest clearing during Ohio’s settlement period and from current farming and urban land use. 

Until Bingham came along, the park had only a general understanding of the scope, diversity, or condition of these vital communities. They are nature’s kidneys, holding and filtering water. They are nature’s nurseries, where many animals raise their young. They are nature’s insurance policy, protecting us from floodwaters. Sonia has helped us understand that wetlands are more than cattail-choked marshes. They include sedge meadows and floodplain forests. Some even “hang” on the valley walls. 

Bingham’s team identifies plants in a study site as the primary measure of environmental health. They also look at water chemistry and water levels as well as breeding birds and amphibians. (Nearly half of all endangered species rely on wetlands.) She watches for changes over time, rechecking areas on a five-year rotating basis. Invasive species can quickly overrun native plants, so patches are mapped for removal. Information about these sensitive habitats is important when park managers plan new trails, for example. 

Since March is Women’s History Month, let’s also pause to consider the remarkable career of Cleveland botanist and educator Harriet Keeler, who made her professional mark more than a century ago. Brecksville Reservation, within the national park, preserves her legacy via a memorial woods and picnic shelter. 

Keeler distinguished herself in several areas, but is most famous as an author of seven nature guides. Unlike other areas of science, botany was an acceptable activity for women starting in the early 1800s. It fell into their domestic sphere because of its practical applications in preparing home remedies. At the time, there was a division between “scientific” and “recreational” study of plants, with the latter being the domain of women. Being a professional scientist wasn’t an option in Keeler’s day, although she was widely respected for her plant knowledge.

As you venture outside in the warming weather, watch for changes in the plant life. Observe their differences. In time, plant traits and habits will become more familiar.

To learn more about Bingham’s wetland research, visit www.nps.gov/im/htln/wetlands.htm. To learn more about Keeler’s life, visit https://home.nps.gov/people/harriet-keeler.htm

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