Catching Up with Dr. Matt Ritter
A CNPS conversation with the author of California Plants: A Guide to Our Iconic Flora
Dr. Matt Ritter is a seventh generation Californian whose passion for California’s native plants and places is contagious. A botany professor at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, he’s the author of several books, including the best-selling guide to California’s urban forest, A Californian’s Guide to the Trees among Us (Heyday, 2011). Earlier this year, Matt released his latest book, California Plants: A Guide to Our Iconic Flora, published by Pacific Street Publishing. With a forward by Governor Jerry Brown, this beautiful book is at once accessible for newcomers and a delight for seasoned native plant enthusiasts. Recently, we caught up with Matt to talk about the inspiration for his latest book, botany becoming “hip,” and the one thing he most wants to instill in his students.
Matt, your book is gorgeous. What inspired you to write it?
Being a professor presents you with constant challenges, mostly involved with inspiring young people to look closely and critically at the world. I teach botany at all levels, from students who know next to nothing about plants to advanced graduate students. I wanted to write a book that would reach all of them as well as the population of California. The goal is really to inspire people to love this place and our plants. California is different than anywhere else in the world, and we need to learn about it and appreciate it in order to love and protect it. So really the plants inspired me to write the book. I wanted to share my passion for these great organisms with the people of California.
We love your simple ID guides and no-nonsense glossary in the back of the book. Who did you picture as your audience for this book, and what did you feel they needed?
The audience is anyone who is curious about plants. There will be novel information in the book for everyone from beginners to more advanced students of the California flora. For beginners, the book helps to identify the most common plants you see in your surroundings. More experienced botanists will likely be familiar with many of the plants included, but I have filled the text with interesting and exceptional facts on each specimen so everyone can learn something new about the plants they know and love. It’s one thing to know the name of a plant and another to know where it lives, how it lives, who first described it, what it’s named after, etc.
Can we talk yellow flowers? How do you get average folks to care about all those yellow flowers? What do they mean to California?
California really is the golden state. If you look closely at different vistas throughout the state in the spring you can develop an eye for the subtle variances in the yellows. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sunflower or a mustard, there is beauty and history associated with each kind of yellow flower in our state.
In your acknowledgements you write that you believe California’s botany community is stronger than ever. How so, and what are the implications of that strength?
The CSU and UC systems have hired many new botany faculty in the last ten years. There are several thriving state organizations focused on botany such as the Northern California Botanists, the Southern California Botanists, the California Botanical Society, and of course CNPS. Plus it seems like more and more students want to learn botany, and even the general public thinks botanical information is cool to know about now. Botany and plants are now “hipster.”
Everyone takes the world for granted. This is especially true for knowledge. It’s much more enriching to ask how do we know that fact? Is it really true? I want students to observe, ask questions, to cultivate their curiosity, to look closer and ask more questions. Curiosity brings real richness to one’s life.
Speaking of which, the forward of your book is by Gov. Jerry Brown. What does it mean to you to have this particular Governor speaking to the importance of significance of California’s native plants?
I have a lot of respect for Jerry Brown. I think he’s done an excellent job managing our challenging state. It’s the 5th largest economy in the world with over 40 million people in it. I think that the governor appreciates the real threats, opportunities, and challenges to the state moving forward, and his words reflect that understanding.
You grew up in the Pacific Northwest. What’s the first native plant you came to love?
I’m a seventh generation Californian. I grew up in the small town of Potter Valley, near Ukiah, in Mendocino County. I spent a lot of time swimming in the Eel River and hiking through chaparral. I believe the first plant I fell in love with was the madrone. I think of it as one of our state’s most beautiful trees. On a warm summer day, a madrone trunk can feel cool to the touch, earning it the nickname “refrigerator tree.” A small stand grew on the hill above where I grew up and I remember as a kid touching the smooth, cool, red bark.
You’re a professor at Cal Poly. What surprises you most about your students?
I’m often surprised by many things. I could write a different book about this question. One thing I have been struck by lately is that many students are craving real content and experience. It is deeply meaningful for them to go outside and look closely at something and learn about it, such that they feel empowered by the knowledge. They transition from being passive listeners, to active observers of the natural world. But it seems like they don’t get much of this in their day-to-day lives. Now more and more kids are raised in cities and on screens. They don’t have much time to interact with the world alone. Their parents have kept them as safe as possible, with little to no unsupervised time spent outdoors. But from what I’ve seen many students aren’t satisfied by this disconnected way of interacting with the world, they just don’t know that there is an alternative. For example, I teach many classes with field trips. On one of those trips to a serpentine rock outcrop, I found Strepthanus glandulosa, the most beautiful jewel flower. I made a big deal about it because it’s truly exciting to find this beautiful plant. Then years later, I met a student from that class and she had gotten that plant tattooed on the back of her neck because the experience was so meaningful. I am surprised that there aren’t more meaningful experiences with the natural world in young people’s lives and we should all work hard to correct that.
What is the one thing you want your students to take away from a class with you?
Above all else, I want my students to leave the class more curious than they were when they came in. Everyone takes the world for granted. This is especially true for knowledge. It’s much more enriching to ask how do we know that fact? Is it really true? I really stress direct observation over anything they can read on Wikipedia. I want students to observe, ask questions, to cultivate their curiosity, to look closer and ask more questions. Curiosity brings real richness to one’s life. I hope that students carry that trait with them into the rest of their lives.
What’s next for you?
I don’t have any new book projects on the horizon. I have a great year of teaching botany ahead of me and various wood-working and masonry projects.
Okay, we were asking people this question at this year’s conservation conference: What California native plant is your “spirit animal” and why?
Today, I’ll say that the Valley Oak, Quercus lobata, is my spirit plant. I love these trees. I grew up around them. They are majestic, stately, provide abundant resources for other organisms, and are deeply rooted in California’s history.