Everybody loves a California Poppy – or as Shannon Still likes to call them, Eschscholzia Californica. No one quite admires the flower more than Still, who is a TA for a plant anatomy course and is a graduate student in plant biology. His love for poppies extends all the way to the Mojave Desert, where he thinks he may have discovered a new species of poppy.
What drew you to plant biology?
I really like California florisitics, the plants that are native to California taxonomy. My father was a horticulture professor in Ohio, so that’s why I decided to study horticulture for my undergraduate degree. But horticulture is a lot more growing plants for agriculture purposes. I study plant biology here.
What do you like about being a TA?
I enjoy conveying information. I like it when the students put ideas together and it’s rewarding to see them understand it.
What is your research like here?
I study systematics and phylogenetics of the California poppy. That genus is all over California and half are desert species. So I make family trees of the plants and see how they’re related. There are 12 species and seven subspecies so it’s not a huge genus but it’s interesting. I look at its character and see how flowers have evolved, you can look at chromosome number, how they look, what their leaves look like. That’s what systematic phylogenetics is all about.
What about the California poppy is so interesting to you?
No one had done this work before and it’s the state flower, so that’s what initially got me interested. I thought [the poppies] would have been easy to collect but the past two years the deserts were so dry I couldn’t collect. But things are moving along better now that we’ve had some rain. California is a big hot spot for diversity and there’s a lot of variation in the plants here.
What to you admire most about your adviser, Dan Potter?
He has a good knowledge of plant biology. And whenever you don’t know how to do something, he’s good about sitting down and helping you figure out how to research. Sometimes I start to go astray in my thinking but he pays attention and makes suggestions that are really well thought out. He’s a great at listening and not saying much but being really helpful at the same time.
Do you have plants at home?
Yeah, my wife and I have a patio. She works for a big nursery so she’ll bring home a lot of plants. We have a big wine barrel with bananas and a barrel of water with cattails.
Do plants have feelings?
They’re more complex than people give them a lot of credit for. They do warn other plants that are in the area through the release of chemicals. They move to gather more light, and they’ll grow in different directions to get away from danger.
With your knowledge of plants, are there any fruits or vegetables that you won’t eat?
Celery is not so nutritive so I don’t usually eat it.
What would you like to do after you get your Ph.D.?
I’ll probably get my post doctorate or go work as a professor somewhere. Although my dream is to be a plant explorer – just going out and identifying plants, usually for an industry. But I think I could do that because I can identify plants fairly well.
What has been your most exciting finding in your research?
I may have found a new species of poppy. There’s a whole collection of plants down in Joshua Tree Park and one species has really large flowers, Eschscholzia Parishii, but the rest of the characteristics look like the ones with the small flower, the minuta flora. So based upon the leaves and some other characteristics the larger flowered poppy is more closely related to a different species or subspecies.
How close are you to publishing your results?
I’m still working on it, and there’s still a lot to be done. I’m looking at the molecular evidence by molecular data to find out the phylogeny. So I’ve been going to collect the plants then bringing them back and pressing a lot of them. I also take a little part of the plant and extract DNA to do some work on it.
If the poppy turns out to be it’s own species or subspecies, what do you think you’ll name it?
The Joshua tree poppy. Or maybe after my wife or my father.
LAUREN STEUSSY can be reached at email@example.com.