Ask Jennifer Ackerfield about blood and she pales; ask her about plants and you’ll feel the flood of enthusiasm wash over you. Jennifer knew she wanted to work with plants from early on when her kindergarten teacher pointed out buds on trees. Jennifer said, “I thought it was the coolest thing ever!”
Growing up on a farm in Kansas she was always curious about her surroundings. In high school, she planted her first herb garden and was always bringing home plants. Learning about plant adaptations, medical properties, habitats, and all the diversity in the botanical world has sustained her interest since.
She also loves to solve puzzles, especially when you sort out the pieces and make them fit, or find out why they don’t fit. Plant identification is a puzzle with pieces that include not only the physical properties of the plant, but also the geography where those plants are distributed, whether they are rare or invasive, and whether they’re in a bog or along a steam, on a hillside, in a mountain forest, or on the prairie.
Jennifer curates the CSU Herbarium which houses plant samples well over 100 years old. When she began teaching classes in plant identification 15 years ago, she became frustrated with the convoluted dichotomous key provided. She and her students couldn’t even properly identify a dandelion.
She explains, “A dichotomous key is simply a series of paired questions about the plant you are attempting to identify. It’s like a choose-your-own-adventure for plants.” If the key contains questions that are unclear, you will go down a completely different path and misidentify that plant.
As a way to improve the situation she developed her own keys and used them as a lab manual for her students. To test the key, she decided to clean up the Herbarium and create the best annotated collection possible.
Jennifer knew she was on to something when other botanists used her key and said things like: “Great!” “This is fast and easy!” and “How can I get one?” After several years of classroom use Jennifer took the keys to another level and developed her comprehensive Flora of Colorado (2015, BRIT Press). The flora, a dictionary of every plant in the state, includes species descriptions, photographs, and maps along with the dichotomous keys.
With a flora in hand as you gather plant data from a geographic location, you can begin to make predictions. It’s a snapshot – here is what is in this location at this point in time. Do that enough times and you can begin to track species, and perhaps see how their distribution and abundance is changing. You can determine whether invasive plants have altered the landscape. You can also use DNA fingerprinting to compare the plants of today to the historical specimens in the CSU Herbarium. The puzzle then becomes, are things shifting, and if so, how?
Observations become data, data become predictions, and natural history meets science! If change is happening, what’s likely to be imperiled? You can use the genetic data to assess relationships between populations now and in the past, and between species.
This comprehensive Flora of Colorado is an essential tool for botanists and planners, and is a cornerstone of scholarship and .achievement. The book is the only guide to flora ever to have been authored exclusively by a woman. Join us in congratulating Jennifer on the publication of an important milestone in Herbarium history.
The Flora of Colorado can be purchased online form the Colorado State University Bookstore: