NAPLES, Fla. (AP) — George Wilder doesn’t know what, exactly, he’s looking for on this cloudy morning in May.
He’s riding on a swamp buggy with a band of fellow searchers, bumping across a prairie at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary on the way to a hardwood hammock forest off in the distance.
Wilder, 75, a retired botanist, spent the past two years making 160 forays like these into the sanctuary in rural Collier County. He and his co-researcher Jean McCollom finished their field work in October, creating the most complete inventory yet of what’s growing at Corkscrew.
It’s an ambitious pursuit, cataloging nature’s chaos; walking, wading, climbing over, under and around, for hours in the woods, their eyes scouring the spongy ground for a glimpse of a flower or a leaf of a plant they didn’t know would be there.
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Wilder says it beats watching TV.
“You wander, and you find things,” he says.
As a freshman at Cornell University, Wilder was lost.
He said he felt like he didn’t know what he wanted to do, or even who he was. Then, he took a personality test offered by one of the university’s departments. The results showed a knack for science — and art.
Wilder would find both in botany.
He credits his mother with instilling in him a love of nature when he was growing up in Yonkers, New York. At first drawn to animals, he ended up preferring plants.
“More subtle, less conspicuous,” Wilder says.
He earned a doctorate in botany from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and did post-doctoral work in botany at Harvard University, including a stint in Panama studying leaf development of Panama hat plants.
When he retired as a professor of biology at Cleveland State University in 2003 and moved to Naples with his wife, Rebecca, he brought his art with him.
Wilder’s herbarium is a kind of museum where he keeps a lifetime of plants he’s collected, pressed and preserved. Stems are bent at dramatic right angles or graceful curves. Petals are arranged just so. Volunteers help glue them onto archival paper.
He’s up to 40,229 specimens. And he’s still wandering, still finding.
“I hope I do this until my last day on Earth,” Wilder said. “I can’t stay away from it.”
Into the woods
Even the air seems tinged green inside the forest. The clouds have given way to a blue sky. Sunshine floats through the canopies of trees that have rooted in just the right spot to catch the light. Plants grow, high and low.
Few, if any, straight paths open up through the woods. Instead, Wilder picks his way along, rambling aimlessly, often finding himself suddenly walking alone but never lost. The crew keeps track of each other with an occasional high-pitched, “Woot!”
Otherwise, they walk mostly in silence except for the crack of sticks breaking underfoot, or an excited shout of discovery from out of nowhere.
“Another one! Another one! Good for you, Jean!” Wilder says to his co-researcher, marveling at her find, scrawling some notes in a beat-up spiral notebook.
Wilder, a thin man with a soft voice, travels lighter on these expeditions than he did when he was younger. He asks others to carry his trusty plant identification books and the wooden press used to get specimens back to his lab at Naples Botanical Garden.
He always carries a compass, just in case, and a knife, also just in case, along with a pair of plant scissors. He wears a small magnifying glass on a cord around his neck. A diabetic, Wilder always has a banana within reach and plenty of water.
Wilder stops to admire a pop ash tree. Resurrection ferns cover its bark. Shoestring ferns hang from its limbs.
“Isn’t that spectacular?” Wilder says.
Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary manager Jason Lauritsen conjures up a quote from conservationist Aldo Leopold to describe the importance of Wilder’s and McCollom’s work: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
In other words, Lauritsen says, he can’t really manage Corkscrew unless he knows what is there to manage.
“I couldn’t pay someone the value of this work,” Lauritsen says.
The most recent Corkscrew plant list from 1999 has fewer than 600 species on it. Wilder and McCollom have added roughly 200 plants to the list, they report in a peer-reviewed paper to be published this summer. Of the newly recorded 773 plants, Florida or other researchers consider more than 40 of them to be imperiled.
Wilder and McCollom discovered three species at Corkscrew — Southern grape fern, smallfruit spikerush and American halfchaff sedge — that once had been thought to be extinct in South Florida.
Hurricane Irma helped with the discovery of a twisted airplant, the only one found at the sanctuary, after the storm brought down a slash pine branch where the airplant was anchored.
In yet another find, Wilder and McCollom found a non-native plant called a leafflower that, after some cross-country debate with other botanists, was determined to be the first of its kind found in North America.
Turns out that assigning a species name to a plant is not always black and white. In nature, every specimen doesn’t necessarily match the identification keys designed to label them.
“If all you did was read keys, you wouldn’t know it,” Wilder says.
The Corkscrew inventory serves as a snapshot of a landscape that is always changing, with species blinking in and blinking out over time, McCollom says.
“It’s nice to have a record of what you have,” she says.
Someday, it might be too late to know it was ever there.
A fern in the hand
The Corkscrew expedition stops in its tracks.
Louis Barrett, a native plant specialist at the Naples Botanical Garden, has just spotted an endangered hand fern growing on a cabbage palm tree.
“Louis, good for you,” Wilder says.
Named for their shape, hand ferns have spawned a side project for Wilder at Corkscrew. He stands back from the tree and starts counting the ferns sticking out of it.
“We’ll go clockwise: 1, 2, 3 …,” Wilder says. At about 15, he loses track. “We have to start again. Who said science was easy?”
This time, with McCollom’s help and a stick to keep track of what’s been counted and what hasn’t, Wilder counts 44 hand ferns, a new record for his survey. They record the tree’s GPS coordinates and add it to the list of cabbage palms with hand ferns.
The riddle is that while hand ferns grow on only a minuscule number of the sanctuary’s palms — just 29 have been found with the ferns — the palms that have them often are loaded with them.
“Isn’t that interesting?” Wilder says.
The record of Wilder’s life in botany is housed within a maze of cabinets at the Naples Botanical Garden. It’s called the Herbarium of Southwest Florida, the state’s fifth largest.
Long rows of tall metal cabinets form narrow hallways. Each cabinet, and in turn each cabinet’s stacks of folders containing the preserved specimens, is organized alphabetically by family, genus and species. He has 75 cabinets. Each year he has to find more.
Wilder says he can put his hands on any of the thousands of preserved plants in minutes. Over there: a wispy grass with delicate purple flowers he found along a road in the Panhandle. And then here: a chunky fern he found in Central Florida that is so large it stretches across 13 sheets of mounting paper.
In his research papers, Wilder cites each specimen’s herbarium number so anyone can come find it among the cabinets and confirm its identity.
Disorganization is the kiss of death, Wilder says.
If something gets put out of its place, it could be lost among the files forever.
Toward the end of the day in the Corkscrew hammock, Wilder and McCollom have yet to put anything in the press to take back to the herbarium. He spots a wild citrus tree.
Wilder snips off the end of one of the sapling’s branches, opens the press to an empty page, and arranges the cluster of leaves between two sheets of paper before closing the press back up.
Now sitting, he pushes his feet against the press and pulls tightly on the straps that bind it.
Looking up from his work, at the group of tired, sweat-soaked searchers standing around him and watching, Wilder beams.
“Won’t that be a nice specimen?” he says.
Information from: Naples (Fla.) Daily News, http://www.naplesnews.com