Twin Cities plant geeks connect through Facebook

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 17, 2013 - 6:26 PM
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Mike Lynch explore the Lost Valley Prairie, SNA (scientific and natural area) in Cottage Grove.

Photo: ANNA REED • anna.reed@startribune.com,

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Social media are awash in pictures of kids, pets, selfies and photogenic meals.

But the members of one local Facebook group, Botanical Wanderings, stick to one subject: plants — rare plants, favorite plants, endangered plants and plants they need help identifying.

“I can’t abide not knowing what something is,” said group founder Mike Lynch. “We pool knowledge and share.”

Sometimes members get together to scout plants in the wild, preferably to unspoiled natural areas far off the beaten hiking path.

Heather Holm, a Minnetonka landscape designer, consultant and blogger (www.restoringthelandscape.com), likes seeing which plants grow together in the wild. “As a designer, it gives me a better sense of plant associations,” she said.

“It’s fun to get out in nature, be adventurous and explore,” said Julia Vanatta of Minneapolis. And she appreciates learning from people who know more about plants than she does. “I’m not an educated botanist.”

Lynch is an educated botanist, with a degree in applied plant science from the University of Minnesota. A self-described “plant geek,” he’s been fascinated with flora since third grade. “One friend got into airplanes; I got into plants,” he recalled. “There was nothing stopping me. We lived in apartments, so I never got to grow much, except lots of house plants.”

Today plants are both his vocation and his avocation. He has a seasonal job with the city of Minnetonka, controlling invasive plant species at parks, and he and his wife, Kassa, have a thriving boulevard garden filled with 40 species of native plants he’s collected. “It makes me happy,” he said.

Coming together

The seeds of the Facebook group grew from a list of people with whom Lynch communicated regularly, through his involvement in the Native Plant Society and Wild Ones.

“I thought, ‘This is kind of silly, sending separate e-mails to a dozen people,’ ” he said.

So about a year and a half ago, he started Botanical Wanderings and invited his fellow geeks to join him. They invited like-minded friends. Now the group has grown to 61 members, who sometimes get together to “wander” but mostly to connect online.

“It’s a loose-knit group,” Lynch said. “We use it to coordinate trips and pool that brain trust.”

When they do get together, the gatherings tend to be small and impromptu. “It’s better to do spontaneous walks than a planned day; you can’t control the weather,” Vanatta said.

And some “wanderings” meander longer than anticipated. Vanatta recalled a hike last year to the Louisville Swamp near Shakopee that she took with Lynch and another group member. “I’m 62, and the two of them are in their 20s or early 30s,” she said. “We were out 6½ hours, and I said, ‘If we stay out any longer, you’re going to have to carry me out.’ ”

Lynch can easily lose track of time while looking at plants, he admitted. “The longest wandering I’ve ever done was from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. It was bedrock on the Minnesota River, an old flood-plain forest, with every grade of plant.”

He doesn’t limit himself to fair-weather hikes. “If it’s a snowless winter, you can get a lot of botanizing in,” he said. “I’ve gotten really good at identifying things by seedhead.”

But you don’t have to be hard-core to join the group for an outing. Kassa comes for the exercise and fresh air. “It’s a really good excuse to get outside,” she said.

From common to rare

Some members are on very specific horticultural missions, such as seeking a particular wildflower, Lynch said. “But if you just want to walk your dog, that’s fine, too.”

Members’ wanderings have led to some rare finds.

Holm and her husband joined the Lynches for a hike through a Minnetonka bog. “We saw some orchids, some wild cranberries and a rare butterfly, the bog copper, that didn’t even have a county record,” she said. “That trip yielded that discovery.”

Last year, Lynch spotted a rare prairie fringed orchid, an endangered species he found growing at Blue Mound State Park near Luverne, Minn., where he stopped while en route to a family reunion in Nebraska.

But mostly he’s not hunting for rare species. “I’m more of the type to just go out and see what’s there. I’m looking to find neat native plants and habitat.”

On a recent Sunday morning, the Lynches headed to the Lost Valley Prairie SNA (scientific and nature area) near Cottage Grove, a remnant of what the prairie used to look like before development. Limestone knobs made the area unsuitable for farming, so it was left undisturbed, Lynch said. “This shouldn’t be rare. These natural areas are protecting something worthwhile. I want to preserve the unique features that make Minnesota Minnesota, instead of a weird global meadow of invasives.”

During a 90-minute hike, Lynch was able to identify every plant in sight. “That’s a lead plant,” he said. “That’s a sign of a high-quality prairie. Cattle love this stuff.”

He pointed out a prairie turnip. “The Native Americans ate it as a root vegetable. It has a deep taproot, like a yam.”

He picked up a long stiletto-like plant. “Needle grass. It has a razor-sharp needle. You can suture a wound with them. They plant themselves, drilling their seed into the soil.”

And, like a true plant geek, he even knows all their Latin names. “I think of them in Latin,” he said. “But when I use Latin, people glaze over.”

 

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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