Herbarium director receives award for telling the story of plants

Aug. 19, 2014

by David Tenenbaum

Ken Cameron

Ken Cameron, director of the Wisconsin State Herbarium and professor of botany, looks over a selection of orchid samples — his expertise — inside Birge Hall in 2008. Cameron was honored earlier this month for his public outreach on behalf of plant research and conservation. 

Photo:

Ken Cameron, director of the Wisconsin State Herbarium, received the Peter Raven Award Aug. 5 from the American Society of Plant Taxonomists. Cameron, also a professor of botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a world expert on the orchid family.

Cameron was recognized for his public outreach on behalf of plant research and conservation. “There is so much focus on conservation of animal species, and we talk about plant blindness,” he says. “When I teach general botany, I emphasize that the ecosystems of the world are mostly defined by their plants, climate and geology, not necessarily by what animal species happen to live there.”

Ken Cameron

Ken Cameron

The Wisconsin State Herbarium, which is housed at the UW, is a collection of more than 1.2 million dried plant samples from around the world. “Herbaria are the ultimate authority on what plant is what,” Cameron says. “Collections like ours have always served to help taxonomists distinguish one plant from another, and to study the evolutionary relationships among plants.”

Cameron, who came to Madison from the New York Botanical Garden, has always wanted to be a botanist. “In third grade, I had to write a report on what I wanted be, and I said, ‘botanist.’ I grew up in Michigan, in a very outdoorsy family. Dad bought me a camera. I got into taking pictures of wildflowers, and now this dream has come true.”

The path to orchids was more circuitous. “Like a lot of kids, I was interested in carnivorous plants, Venus flytraps, pitcher plants,” Cameron says. “I knew the lady slipper orchid, and I mistakenly thought it was carnivorous. The flower does trap insects, but it is luring them for pollination, not to eat them.”

“There is so much focus on conservation of animal species. I emphasize that ecosystems are mostly defined by their plants, climate and geology.”

Ken Cameron

Orchids, Cameron says, “are the poster children for plant conservation,” and that gives him an opportunity to speak to the world beyond science. “There are many passionate orchid enthusiasts around the world, and when I am invited to speak to them, I warn that I’m going to give a scientific presentation, not simply show pictures of my travels to Costa Rica or instructions on how to grow orchids. I do promise to make the science understandable.”

The award is named for Peter Raven, an eminent botanist who has made outstanding contributions to conservation, science education and outreach.