Sam Pryer graduated Pitt State with her master’s in biology this May after completing a monumental project that will have a lasting impact on the study and understanding of plant life in Kansas.
As part of a floristic survey, Pryer spent more than two years collecting and identifying 1,439 plant species and subspecies in Southeast Kansas, which she said is about 63 percent of the floral biodiversity for Kansas.
“After having identified them, there were several that had never been recorded before and we had 33 new records for the state, and then on top of the state records we had 262 county records, meaning they had never been reported in either Crawford or Cherokee counties,” Pryer said. “… I did two years of collections, and then probably another full year, year-and-a-half of writing and identifications and confirmations.”
According to a press release, the closest competitor is a documentation of 25 state records in New Mexico 10 years ago.
One example of newly recorded plant in Kansas, Pryer said, is the buttercup.
“We found buttercup, it’s very pretty, it’s a horticultural plant so some people plant it in gardens, but we wouldn’t expect it to be naturalized here,” she said. “The closest record for it is in St. Louis, so that’s a huge range extension from what we would expect a plant to be able to move, but it’s really taken over this person’s property, not that it’s going to become an invasive species, it’s probably not going to be.”
While the buttercup did not pose a major threat, Pryer said that other invasive species are a major reason why research like hers is so important.
“Projects like this that increase the knowledge of plants in a given area are really important for people who are doing land manamgenet in an area so they know what are some of the rare plants to look out for, what are some potential invasive species that they need to combat and be able to remove before they become a major problem,” she said. “An example would be either Bradford pear or Callery pear, depending on what your preference for common names is. People plant them a lot, we have a lot on campus, but they are starting to naturalize. They generate thorns when they naturalize, so they are starting to choke out native trees, and so we’ve documented a lot of those in this area, not that that’s a new record, but all of these lists are really important in working with land in any way.”
The plants Pryer collected for her project now permanently reside in the T.M. Sperry Herbarium located on PSU’s campus.
“We have a processing room to process the few hundred specimens that I would bring in at a time, and then they’re all dried and then they’re brought into the Sperry Herbarium, so now they’re permanently stored there,” she said. “I would do mostly I.D.’s in there, they have to be kept free from bugs and any type of contaminant, so they’re frozen before they’re even taken into the Sperry Herbarium.”
Pryer said one of the most challenging parts of her project was having to cover 1,200 square miles of land across Crawford and Cherokee counties, much of which is private property.
“Collecting plants can be difficult, especially in Crawford and Cherokee counties, they’re mostly private properties, and so you have to gain access to these properties and work with local land owners to let them let you collect plants, so I’m out there with a mason’s hammer digging up plants in their yard,” she said.
Pryer received permission from the private land owners to conduct her research on their property, where she collected specimens by means of “intelligent meandering.”
“Intelligent meandering … (is) where you would take a look at a landscape and try to figure out what’s different about it, there’s going to be different habitats, there’s going to be different places that you might find different types of plants that you might not have come across before, and so I would just walk around trying to find these plants and collecting them with my mason’s hammer, throwing them in my ice chest overnight. So I would collect about three large ice chests every day and then I would come back, process them, get them all dried so that they’re now going to be herbarium specimens.”
Even though Pryer has now completed extensive and important research in the botany field, she said she originally wanted to go into entomology but decided to pursue botany to expand her skills and knowledge.
“… I went to a national entomology conference in 2013 and got to work with a lot of individuals in pollination biology and it was apparent that they really need people that come in with a background in plant identifications and plant classifications, and that really enriches their careers by having that background, and so I decided to take a step back and do a master’s degree in plants and really learn in depth how do you actually I.D. these things, how are they kind of classified, that way I can take that skill set into a different field,” she said.
Now that she has completed her master’s degree, Pryer said she hopes to return to entomology, now equipped with botany experience.
“I’d like to go into pollination biology, I’m not sure where because there’s a lot of different aspects, but I would like to go back to more of the insect side, like bees or native pollinators,” she said.