Catching Up with Dana York

Botanist Dana York. Photo: Ann Dalkey
Botanist Dana York. Photo: Ann Dalkey

Botanist Dana York talks about life as a native plant botanist and his new book, Illustrated Flora of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

Dana, you moved to the foothills between Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon as a young adult. What first drew you to the area?
Living in the Sierra Nevada was a dream come true. My earliest memories in the Sierra were camping trips to the Yuba River with my father. He taught my brother and I how to fly fish on those childhood trips. I also spent three summers at Oakland Kids Camp near Quincy.

You lived and worked in the area for years. What are two or three of your favorite native plants in that region and why?
1. Purple fairy lantern (Calochortus amoenus) —  I had it growing on my property and thought that it was the coolest plant. It also got me excited every year about what plants I would find.
2. Tree anemone (Carpenteria californica) — How awesome is a chaparral shrub that can be covered with large white flowers?
3. Monarch goldenaster (Heterotheca monarchensis) — This is my first new species, and when it’s in full bloom on limestone, nothing else compares.

In the course of your career as a botanist, you’ve discovered a number of new plant species. For those of us that aren’t botanists, let us live vicariously through you. What’s it like to discover new taxa?
Finding new plants in Kings Canyon is what really started this entire journey. I like exploring unique habitats to find rare plants, and sometimes they turn out to be undiscovered treasures. (See Dana’s self-video taken while discovering an unnamed fawn lily in 2012, which he later described as Shasta Fawn Lily (Erythronium shastense)

Here’s a question that we like to ask a lot of folks in our community: Why plants? What inspired you to devote your career to native plants?
I really got interest in knowing about the plants around me while hiking the Sierra Nevada along the PCT and then working in the Marble Mountains after my first year at Humboldt State University. I then had summer jobs, after two seasons of fighting forest fires, that involved forest inventory plots and gathering vegetation data. After all my seasonal jobs I was pretty hooked on working in nature. My best gig was working as the botanist for Death Valley National Park for almost five years. It’s an extreme place that tested my physical limits on many occasions, but the rewards were many. The diversity of desert plants and habitats in Death Valley is a product of having an elevation range of -282 to 11,049 feet in a 3.4 million acre park.

As part of your Master’s thesis, you created a database of 10,000 collection records, including 2,000 of your own from trips in the Southern Sierra. Can you describe what goes into creating a single record?
When I make a plant collection I gather lots of data in a notebook so the information can later be placed on a specimen label. I place the collected plant in newspapers and then into a plant press. After it dries in a week or so, I print a label with the plant name, location information, and other data about the species and habitat where it was collected. I then give it to an herbarium or two, such as California Academy of Sciences and Humboldt State University, for permanent mounting and assession into their collections. These herbaria, like several others in the Consortium of California Herbaria, post the specimen label information on the internet.

This is the kind of painstaking work that so many in the CNPS community are committed to completing. How do you explain its importance to people less familiar with native plants?
With all the changes natural communities face, from fire, invasive species, climate change, etc., having a snapshot in time about the parks’ vegetation is vital for adaptive management and research. The Flora also provides a local plant reference that park visitors can use if they want information about any of the plants that occur in the parks or the surrounding Sierra. To continue to protect and manage natural communities in the Sierra Nevada, education is extremely important.

Books like these are a labor of love. Many authors published through CNPS Press volunteer their time to create botanical texts. You mention in the forward of your book that you had a weekly “night off” from family life to work on the book, and often worked at your computer with little ones on your lap at the same time. Can you talk about the responsibility you and other scientists feel to share the knowledge you’ve accumulated?
All my research for the book, it started with my graduate studies, was always meant to be shared. Some of the places that I discovered during my research may need protection or active management in the future. Land management agencies need to be aware of these places. Park visitors need to know that there are unique plants and communities in these two parks and the surrounding Sierra. What I didn’t know was how much work it would take and how long I would have to work on it. If my eldest son, at over 6 feet tall, sat on my lap now it would be painful and strange!

Thank you, Dana!

Illustrated Flora of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks is available for sale at the CNPS store.

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