Art Kruckeberg, one of the founders of the Washington Native Plant Society, passed away on May
25, 2016, age 96. He was a grand old man of Washington botany, a mentor, and a mensch.
What follows is an appreciation of Art that I wrote for the Washington Native Plant Society journal Douglasia in 2000.
The faithful and the newly converted gathered to hear the gospel of serpentine from one of the Northwest’s most esteemed natural history preachers, Art Kruckeberg, on a Sunday morning at Camp Brotherhood. We sat cozy on folding chairs in the downstairs gloom of the library, as Art started his slides. He sat among us, his tall frame balanced on a wobbling chair.
He told us of his studies with Herbert Mason at U.C. Berkeley, where as a post-World War II graduate student, he became fascinated by the serpentine story, and how edaphic factors can lead to narrow endemism in plants.
He then led us through the geological tale of lizardite, olivine, and peridotite dunite; a tale of plate tectonics, subduction zones, mantle material, and metamorphosis. The serpentine soils derived from all this are low in nutritional status for plants, and yet plants grow on them. This brought Art to one of his career’s fundamental questions: how do plants cope, and why?
By this time, Art was out of his chair, poking at the screen with his pointer. His slides took us on a tour of serpentine areas in Washington, all old friends to Art: Sumas Mountain, Fidalgo Head, Cypress Island. A horseshoe-shaped rim in the Wenatchee Mountains surrounding Mt. Stuart. Small outcrops in basalt on Mt. Chopaka.
And near Mt. Baker, the red rock of Twin Sisters. This last, he said, is “a real rugged outlier, of dunite. It’s fairly inaccessible; you need to bushwhack from Mt. Baker. There’s Canadian granite glacial deposits in the dunite of Twin Sisters—the glacier was 5,000 feet thick at the border between Canada and the U.S.!”
At Twin Sisters and in the Wenatchee Mountains, Art was instrumental in helping establish two Research Natural Areas. “I go around twisting arms,” he said, “and long enough twisting works.”
He showed us maps of serpentine throughout the west and especially in California, and noted that it is “dramatically insular.” This insularity promotes endemism among the plants. From Jasper Ridge, near Stanford, Art showed us a “goddammed awfully dramatic” picture: a mixed annual grass/forb meadow with a line down the middle. One side of the line was yellow with flowers of Lasthenia; the other side was pure green.
Some years ago, Art hired a small plane, (“with a pilot,” he said) just to get an overview of the Wenatchee Mountains. He showed us the dramatic contact between normal rock and serpentine, where the metamorphic rock is slick, soapy, and comes in many colors. These serpentine sites, including one known unofficially as “Kruck’s Canyon,” look barren and uninviting.
But for Art, they are wonderful places, filled with plants he knows and loves. At a picture of Upper Beverly Creek he exclaimed: “Oh god, I love that spot!” Some plants are absolute endemics on serpentine (they grow nowhere else), and some are bodenwags, or soil wanderers, a term he got from a German scientist named Unger. They have genetically distinct, serpentine tolerant races.
Art toured us through some of his favorite endemics and bodenwags: ferns Adiantum aleuticum, Polystichum lemmonii, Aspidotis densa and perennials Ivesia tweedyi and Polygonum newberryi. At one point he thwacked the screen with his pointer and asked “What the hell is that?” before praising Thompson’s cryptantha (Cryptantha thompsonii) for not being “one of those nasty annuals.” Finally he showed us the namesake of this journal (which he edited admirably for years without number), Douglasia nivalis.
Slides over, our group emerged from the basement, blinking into the bright high overcast. We reassembled at Washington Park, and coalesced into two Volkswagen vans. Art led, with his van’s signature license plate reading “BOTANY.”
We stopped first on the west side of the park, at a floriferous slope among juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) and madrone (Arbutus menziesii). Reddish-brown mantle material lay under our feet. “We treat soils like dirt!” Art said, and a several of our party engaged him in a discussion of soil science.
We wandered over the slope, oohing and ahhing at the blue camas (Camassia quamash) and purple violets (Viola adunca), the creamy death camas (Zigadenus venenosus) and bright pink sea blush (Plectritis congesta). Art pointed out plants with his “Daubenmire stick”—a meter-tall rod painted black and white in alternating decimeters, and so-called because Rex Daubenmire had included this measurement in his photos of Washington’s ecosystems.
Some rowdy park visitors passed us, and Art noted that “H.L. Mencken would have called them ‘Boobus americanus’.” Our group continued through the woods, and Art pointed things out:
“Here is our old friend Osmorhiza.”
“Believe it or not, this is a native.” (Rubus ursinus)
“What’s the name for big corvid? ‘Crow Magnum’.”
We drove up to the top of Fidalgo Head, and gathered for lunch. Art lowered his tall self stiffly to the ground and sat regally in the shade of madrones. Sun and warmth, sandwiches and cookies lent a sleepy air to the blue-green view of Sound, sky, and islands.
As we moseyed back to the vans, Art remarked that bulbous bluegrass (Poa bulbosa) has “forsaken sex for instant babies.” Every inch an educator, he gave an impromptu lecture on apomixis: “a deviation from normal bisexuality that functions just like vegetative reproduction.”
One of Art’s most striking gifts is his ability to make information sound fresh and new, when he’s been at this game for 50 years or more. His lecture ended with a modest, “Well, so much for philosophical rumination,” and an expressed eagerness to head for home, at least for now.
Reprinted from Douglasia 24 (3-4): 5-10 (2000)
Memorial services will be held at the Center for Urban Horticulture in Seattle on July 24, 2016. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden (www.kruckeberg.org), the Washington Native Plant Society (www.wnps.org), or the UW Department of Biology (www.biology.washington.edu).