With the nation's largest botany program, Humboldt State is cultivating the next generation of plant experts.

IF YOU HAD TO NAME the top botanist of all time, who would you pick? The obvious choice, would be the sly and debonair Leonhart Fuchs, but, then again, Otto Brunfels's observations were groundbreaking too. And then there's Hieronymus Bock – he developed his very own classification system. He's got to be in the running.

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Never heard of these people? You're not alone. While we live among a sea of plants, grasses, algae and fungi, modern society's knowledge of the natural world, and hence the field of botany, is pretty limited. But at Humboldt State, these groundbreaking botanists are a big deal. A core of dedicated professors and students are ensuring the world is kept in steady supply of well-educated, highly trained botanists.

Largest Undergraduate Botany Program in the Nation

Students studying plant specimens in HSU's greenhouse

Students study plant specimens in HSU's greenhouse as part of a class led by instructor Robin Bencie. This geodesic dome houses the University's extensive collection of subtropical plants, one of eight different climatic zones represented in the greenhouse.

Humboldt State's Botany program is home to an 11,500-square-foot greenhouse containing about 1,800 plant specimens, a 2,500-square-foot research greenhouse and the largest vascular plant herbarium in the California State University system with nearly 100,000 specimens. It's these unique teaching and research facilities, coupled with dedicated professors who are experts in their fields, that have allowed Humboldt State to become the largest undergraduate botany program in the United States. With 112 students choosing the major, HSU's program is home to more future botanists than any other campus including Ohio University, the country's next largest program with 80 enrolled majors, and UC Berkeley, with 60 students.

"We have a broad selection of botanical courses from which a student may choose; our breadth is exceptional," says Professor Casey Lu, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, which houses the botany major. "We also have a really strong and in-depth lab component in the majority of our courses and that's something we've tried to retain."

The program's ambitious scope and well-deserved reputation was built over decades by professors passionate about and committed to studying plants. Lu credits HSU botany professors such as David Largent, Robert Rasmussen, John Sawyer, James Smith, Dennis Walker and others, for establishing the nation's premier undergraduate botany program.

"Botany has been a strength at HSU for a long time. Our strength came from the previous cohort of professors," Lu says. "We're just trying to carry on that tradition."

Removing the Green Blurs

"Usually, when students arrive at our program they sort of know about plant life, but not too much," says Professor Frank Shaughnessy, a marine algae and seagrass specialist. "Then you get a professor explaining how these organisms work and how they're put together. We call it removing the green blurs – the students' understanding of botanical life starts off blurry and then we just keep adding layer upon layer of knowledge and it gets sharper and sharper."

Shaughnessy explains that the entry-level botany courses help students build a strong science foundation, gaining an in-depth understanding of the various organisms they will study during their academic careers. Hands-on learning, both in the lab and in the field, is a major component of the program and another reason it has been so successful.

A phycology class studies intertidal algae samples at Baker Beach near Trinidad, Calif.

"With our greenhouse, forest walks, trips to coastal intertidal areas, alpine zones – I'd say we have more field time than other botany programs simply because we can," Shaughnessy says. "We have a spectacular natural setting and it would be ridiculous to not take advantage of it and that's one of the things that makes us unique. Other programs can't do that as inexpensively as we can."

Once students are enrolled in the botany program, the University's facilities, its natural setting and an abundance of research opportunities keep them busy and interested. But why do students choose to come to HSU to study botany in the first place?

"The students are interested in life, protecting it and working on environmental problems," Shaughnessy says. "The desire to save the world is definitely something that our students bring here to HSU – they're defining us in that way. That's what attracts them to Humboldt."

The North Coast: A Mycologist's Paradise

Left: A plant ecology class spends a Saturday collecting and identifying plants in the Manila Dunes. Right: A mycology class field trip in a coastal spruce forest turns up these varied fungus specimens.

It's hard to imagine a better place to study mycology than Humboldt State. With a distinctive coastal climate that provides ample opportunities for fungi to proliferate, students are able to get unparalleled hands-on experiences in the field, often just minutes from campus. Largent, who developed the mycology specialization at Humboldt State for decades up until his retirement in the 1990s, left in his wake a robust program that regularly produces some of the world's top mycologists. For example, one of Largent's former students, Professor Timothy Baroni of State University of New York, Cortland, recently discovered a genus of polypore mushroom while on an expedition funded by the National Geographic Society in the remote mountains of Belize.

Upon Largent's retirement, Professor Terry Henkel took the reins and now heads the mycology program. While completing his doctoral dissertation at Duke University in North Carolina, Henkel found out about the opening for a mycology professor at HSU and was immediately excited about the opportunity.

"If you're into field-oriented biology, especially botany, and good training at the undergraduate level in a traditional broad sense, you know about this school," Henkel says. "One of the reasons is that you run into people who are Humboldt graduates all over the place. They're either working for federal agencies as staff botanists or you meet a number of people that went on to graduate schools who are now professors, and that's especially true for mycology."

Students in Botany lab

ABOVE: A student prepares to dissect a flower under the microscope. Pressed plant specimens from HSU's extensive teaching collection hang on the wall. BELOW: In class, both live and pressed plant specimens are available for learning identification skills. Students dissect live specimens, and then practice sketching them in their notebooks. The illustrations for this article came from sketches student Jade Paget-Seekins made in her plant taxonomy course.

Henkel sees his charge as carrying on the tradition started by Largent of educating highly skilled mycologists that go on to be leaders in their field. Aside from time spent in the classroom and lab, Henkel takes his students on numerous field trips every semester to identify and collect fungal specimens. One of his classes even takes its final exam in the field during an overnight camping trip at a local collecting spot near the Smith River. Henkel guides his students on a mushroom hunt during the first day of the excursion and has the collected specimens laid out at the group's campsite the following morning complete with accompanying test questions.

"We've got the perfect collusion of ecosystems and climate," Henkel says. "We can rely on fresh material for nearly everything. If we want to study specific fungal groups, at almost any given time of the academic year we can go out and collect representatives either as a class or myself with lab assistants. Very few other places in the entire country can boast that."

Mycology students have had remarkable research opportunities with Henkel in Guyana, where the professor travels annually to collect specimens. He began visiting the South American nation while working on his Ph.D. at Duke and has brought a number of students with him on expeditions since coming to HSU. The country, with its pristine tropical rainforests, is rich in biodiversity and home to large numbers of yet-to-be-identified fungi. Several of Henkel's students have crafted their senior or master's theses based on research conducted in Guyana, with more than 45 species or genera new to science formally described so far.

"I have well-performing students in my courses who have a strong interest in tropical field experience," Henkel says. "These students are aware of my field program in Guyana, as I regularly insert our research findings into my mycology courses. After a rigorous screening process, a group is selected to participate in a summer expedition. Their tropical field experience is unparalleled and has led to numerous students co-authoring peer-reviewed papers."

Spreading the Botanical Word

While Humboldt State professors and students are passionate about botany, modern society doesn't regard the study of plants as highly as it once did. Motivated by economic factors, if botanical researchers aren't pioneering new medicines or foods, Lu says, outside interest is limited. However, Lu and Shaughnessy stress the continued need for professional botanical scientists in a variety of settings including working with government agencies and environmental firms.

"Botany faculty have a missionary zeal because we know how important plant life is," Shaughnessy says. "Thanks to the media and our popular culture, we know that most people have a very incomplete understanding of the life around them and its importance to their own survival. We are very aware of this operating environment and thus we need to have a real passion for our discipline."

So, even if you didn't know that Fuchs, Brunfels and Bock are the three recognized fathers of modern botany, don't feel too bad. In a world where plant life is often disregarded unless it fails to generate economic returns, having basic knowledge about the ferns, algae and fungi that make up our natural environment is more useful than remembering the names of three long-dead German scientists. With Humboldt State's 112 eager students and its team of dedicated botany professors on the case, the discipline's foundations will continue to be strong. End Story

Students in the field

LEFT: Professor Terry Henkel leads students on a mushroom hunting trip in his class Botany 359: Biology of Ascomycetes and Basidiomycetes. Ascomycetes include such delicacies as morel mushrooms and truffles, while basidiomycetes include many of the familiar "gilled" mushrooms characterizing the North Coast region. TOP RIGHT: Some mushrooms, like this Clavulina species, have coral-like fruiting bodies which produce spores from the surface of the branches. BOTTOM RIGHT: A student holds a specimen of Podostroma alutacea, a wood-decaying ascomycete common on the forest floor.

Field Testing

Give Professor Terry Henkel a downed tree, a little fungi and a mystery to solve and he turns into a mycological version of the Crocodile Hunter meets Sherlock Holmes.

But with Henkel, you also get quizzes.

"It's pretty much a clean snap," he tells students during one outing, as they peered up at a broken hemlock in Redwood National Park. "I'm almost certain if you could get up there and look at that broken part you'd find a nice decay column and maybe some cubicle brown rot. We can't tell for sure because we can't see the crown of the tree…"

Henkel pauses, then points in excitement after spotting the tree's crown in an adjacent ravine. "Let's go check it out."

About 40 students in Henkel's course on Biology of Ascomycetes and Basidiomycetes follow him down into the gully. With sun refracting through the forest, the students – most clad in hiking boots, fleeces and bulging backpacks – take notes and chat. They're botany majors, so this is just one Saturday among many they will spend in the field.

"I know the fungus already!" Henkel shouts as he nears the fallen crown. "There's a definite decay column. This rot looks like stringy, spongy white rot that is associated with Armillaria," he says, digging at the log with his pocketknife. "It's spread inequilaterally in the bole. I want to get a good diagnostic indicator of the Armillaria rhizomorphs to try and see what happened to this tree."

Soon after, it's back to the trail for more fungi hunting. The group splits into small groups and, after a half-hour of traipsing through odoriferous swamps and squinting to spot unusual specimens, the students gather again to display their finds.

Henkel takes a quick look at what they found. Then it's quiz time.

"You've had plenty of time to study this one," Henkel says as he holds up a translucent, gelatinous mushroom. "Look at the fruiting body. It's got a laterally attached stipe, it's clearly rubbery in texture, and has a dentate hymenophore. The basidia, under the microscope, have longitudinal septations. We talked about two orders that can have that basidium type. So, if you can tell me the name of either of the two orders among the jelly fungi that have longitudinally septate phragmobasidia, you'll get the question right."

"Can we get extra credit if we name both orders?" asks a student.