A botanical encyclopedia for the Four Corners

New tome excites aficionados of area’s diverse plant life

Early last October, “The Flora of the Four Corners Region,” a four-pound compendium filled with encyclopedic plant descriptions and illustrations, was finally released by the Missouri Botanical Gardens Press. It languished in the printing queue for five years while the esteemed botanical company finished publishing the 45-volume monograph “Flora of China.”


Field botanist Arnold Clifford shows artist Gloria Emerson some plant material he collected
and pressed in folios for identification. Clifford is one of the co-authors of “Flora of the Four
Corners Region,” which catalogues the “last major botanically and endemically rich, but virtually
unexplored region of North America.” Photo by Sonja Horoshoko

When it did roll off the presses it was heralded as one-of-a-kind, the only “flora” (the term used by botanists for books depicting a collection of plants) focused solely on a water drainage – the San Juan River watershed. There are hundreds of floras published about regions in the U.S., but in the preface of this flora, the publisher states that it catalogues the “last major botanically and endemically rich, but virtually unexplored region of North America.”

Because of this unique characteristic, the flora collection area spreads out over terrain the size of Connecticut, extending to Colorado’s La Plata Mountain Range in the east, Gallup, N.M., in the south, two-thirds of Montezuma County, Colo., in the north and west to the Colorado River at Page, Ariz. The vast, rugged terrain with its diverse topography and climate has produced one of the highest rates of regionally unique indigenous plants in North America.

A flora is a systematic treatise, a book covering the plant world of a region, or epoch. It is written to record an inventory of plants and is used by specialists with botanical knowledge as a reference in disciplines that require scientific identification.

The densely detailed, largely text-based tome catalogues 2,303 taxonomic botanical records found in the watershed.

Kenneth Heil, one of the authors and a professor emeritus at San Juan College in Farmington, N.M., explained that “in addition to academic use and botanical research, the oil and gas industry relies on our flora in its procedures, too. Company personnel as well as federal investigators from the BLM, BIA., and EPA use our flora during environmental site assessments for exploration or remediation.”

Regional Concept

As indispensable as the book is to business and academic fields today, it was an unusual project concept 15 years ago when the idea germinated in southeast Utah. “Some of us botanists were sitting around a table at a restaurant in Blanding and decided we should make [write] our own flora,” said Heil, “one that addressed collection in the Four Corners as a region, not four separate states. We called authors of the existing books published for Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, and as it turned out each corner [within the Four Corners] was the least-collected of the areas their floras studied, and the Navajo corner of Arizona had no exclusive field flora published at all.”

Heil and co-authors Steve L. O’Kane, Jr., and Linda Mary Reeves proceeded with their plans to define the study by the San Juan River watershed. They invited field botanist Arnold Clifford, a member of the Navajo Nation and a native of Beclahbito, N.M. and the Carrizo Mountain Range, to join the team.

THE FLORA OF THE FOUR CORNERS REGIONAccording to Heil, his fellow scientists didn’t just want Clifford just to take them places and show them where to look. “Instead we wanted him as an author, contributing his scholarship and expertise in the flora of the Navajo Nation, his particular knowledge of the Four Corners region.”

The formal education Clifford began at the University of New Mexico in the late 1980s eventually led him to Heil’s college classes. “He was a brilliant student and is a brilliant scientist,” said Heil, who has been a mentor and colleague of Clifford’s since he met him in his classroom decades ago.

Cultural inclusion

Since the beginning of Clifford’s education and professional work he has surveyed much of the remote and very rural regions in the study area. He is profoundly familiar with the geology and botany found there, but his wisdom about the plants and the ecosystems that support them was gained from childhood experiences.

He credits the influence of his maternal grandmother, Sarah Charley, with sparking his interest in natural sciences. An elder, weaver and herbalist, she taught him the Navajo names, occurrence and uses of native plants near his home. His knowledge of landforms in the Southwest, rocks and fossils, culture and arts, is a rich resource that includes indigenous approaches to the process.

Montezuma County resident Linda Robinson is a licensed landscape architect. She feels the region offers a wealth of native material that is suitable to her projects and advocates the use of it in local landscaping. She finds the book’s inclusion of plants from the reservation area a significant addition to the information previously published.

Native people are typically keen at observing the natural environment, she said, interested primarily in living with a landscape as opposed to having dominion over it. As such, their approach to plant identification often comes from ancient knowledge passed forward only in an oral tradition and is very valuable.

Robinson lived the first 13 years of her life with her parents at Rough Rock, Ariz., on the Navajo reservation, 100 miles southwest of Clifford’s home community and still within the flora study zone.

During those formative years, she observed that the Navajo people “have a long and intimate knowledge of the plants of the land, many of which are used for life applications. Indigenous approaches to collection that perhaps aren’t official academic strategies for plant identifications bring a deep cultural knowledge to the book. Clifford’s work is a huge contribution, and long overdue.”

Stories of discovery

Al Schneider, president of the San Juan/ Four Corners Native Plant Society based in Lewis, Colo., is enthusiastic about the insight s the multi-skilled authors bring to the material.

“Plants do not exist by themselves. They live alongside bumble bees and gophers, an immense range of influences, and adjust over eons of time so they can deal with climate shifts, adapt and survive,” he said in a phone interview. “Every good botanist is a good geologist,” he continued, and around here the soils are so variable it is crucial to understand how geology influences the plants’ survival.

According to Schneider, the flora required efforts from a network of specialized scientists all over the country. Dozens of people behind the scenes, personal friends of the authors, contributed detailed scientific descriptions of plant entries. Sometimes that treatment work “had to wait for a colleague’s project in Texas to complete before the description could be written,” Schneider said. “Time was a big factor in the production of this comprehensive project.”

But over the years the folios of plant samples grew. They were pressed, examined, stored for description, illustrated, and catalogued. What began to surface among the thousands of plant identifications were 41 endemic plants in the watershed. Many were rare plant discoveries.

“Original identifications like those found in this project are like the gold medals of the botany world,” said Robinson, “and I suspect a lot of them come from the unfamiliar, remote drainage territory the flora covers, including northwest Arizona on the Navajo reservation.”

The stories of discovery often involve simple patterns of recognition. A rare plant can appear in an everyday setting. Heil found a specimen on the San Juan campus. “Its common name is the San Juan milkweed, but in the flora it’s listed under its scientific name, Asclepias Sanjuan, named after the college location.”

When a plant is discovered there is no protocol that guarantees it will be named after the scientist. But one of Heil’s favorite findings was named after him by a colleague in the field. “It’s a milkvetch down around Crownpoint, the Astragalus Heilii.

Last November, Clifford attended a workshop in Waterflow, N.M. He invited another guest, artist and writer Gloria Emerson, and the Free Press to the tailgate of his truck. There on that dusty road near a sheep pasture, he held out the huge, beautiful, newlypublished flora, bearing his name among the four authors on the cover. Carefully, but with typical, quiet modesty, he opened the pages to show the compilation of plants. He then cleared a space in the truck bed where he opened a large, green plastic storage container and lifted out a deep stack of outsized manila-colored, paper folios. Pressed inside were the specimens of his recent collections.

It was an opportunity to see specimens that were precious to look upon, timeless and static, yet bearing a robust amount of information at the beginning steps in a complex scientific process. Clifford’s appreciation of the plants was apparent. In his eager presentation of each one he also explained how he works mostly “on the ground with a loop,” for long periods of time.

“But,” he said, “it is good to have the book now, and there are even some included in it that I discovered.”

Upon request, Schneider used the flora to locate three of Clifford’s specimen discoveries. Very often the person doing the field work and finding plants neither publishes the full description nor names the plant, he explained. The Senecio cliffordi in the sunflower family and the Astralalus cliffordi in the pea family were named for him by the Utah botanists who described the plants.

The third one, a member of the buckwheat family, Eriogonum sarahiae, was named by Clifford after his grandmother.

Making changes

“Some discoveries didn’t happen until the deadline for printing had passed,” said Heil. “A professor at SJC, after working there for 30 years, found a new specimen on the path she takes to work everyday. Previously it had only been on record in the south of the state near Silver City, N.M. It has moved up here.”

Looking at the long-range picture, Heil expressed concern for the individual plants. They have taken prolonged periods of time to acclimate and as the climate is impacted by changes in temperature and precipitation – as well as residential development and traffic — the plants must either move to a climate more suitable for their needs or physically adapt to the changes to survive. He knows that the alpine plants are the most vulnerable. “They really have no place else to go once it gets too warm for them.”

Heil said climate change does affect the flora collection. “Plants will pop up and that changes the content and, of course, there are also taxonomy [classification] changes. One person puts a plant in a different category,” and the evaluation then continues.

Schneider, a retired professor of English, agreed. He added a corrections page to the plant society’s website, where the book is available for purchase. Changes or edits to the flora can be entered and are passed on to the authors, who consider the suggestions.

“Like any scholarly / scientific text, you put the edition out there and then sit back and accept the feedback,” Schneider said.

“The criticisms, when valid, improve the next edition, keep the science as up-todate and scientifically correct as possible for future editions, and therefore science evolves.”

The authors and users of the book all see the flora as a snapshot of individuality. “As a student I would walk a mile and a half to college under a canopy of trees,” said Schneider. “After taking botany class the trees were no longer just trees, plants no longer just a plant, rocks no longer, ‘Oh, a rock.’ Instead they all became individual living entities. I began to know them as such.”

“The Flora of the Four Corners Region” assembles this individual material into an identifiable whole, a place-based thesis that increases awareness of the diversity of the sum total in this region.

Ric Plese, owner of Cliffrose, a nursery and landscaping business in Cortez, stocked the book when it came out. “I had to buy it in greater quantity than I was anticipating,” he said, “but I sold over 80 percent of the stock and most of that before Christmas. There is a readership here and that may be partly because many of us see the range it covers and the biodiversity as a whole sustainable community, not just separate states, government entities and boundaries.”

Missouri Botanical Gardens Press’s suggested retail price for “Flora of the Four Corners Region” is $71.95.

From March 2014.