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Looking to past to define future; Biology professor looks for ebb and flow of nature in Worcester County.

Byline: George Barnes

WORCESTER - Those weeds in your yard, odd things growing along the highways, or vines choking your field may be nothing but a nuisance to you, but to botanist Robert I. Bertin, they are indicators of the ebb and flow of nature in Worcester County.

The College of the Holy Cross biology professor has made regular trips over the past decade or so out into private backyards, along rail yards, on the fringes of airports, in forests, fields and kayaked through ponds looking for the flora of Worcester County. He has been attempting to find as many plants as possible in all the towns in this part of the state with plans to use the information to make sense of the effect on the region by such forces as global warming, habitat degradation, habitat change and the damage to native plant species from invasive species.

Mr. Bertin said the work can be tedious, as most of the plants he finds he expects to find in this part of the state, but he said there are still a few things that surprise him. He files these under "interesting discoveries."

"I found a plant called twisted stalk in two places - one plant each at Barre Falls Dam and in Westminster," he said. "It hadn't been previously known to be east of the Berkshires."

He also found something called narrow false oats in Princeton - the first sighting of that plant in Worcester County since 1878, when another plant was found in Princeton. He also found plants never before seen in Massachusetts and New England. But far from a botanical treasure hunt for odd and rare species, his efforts are a scientific study - turning to the past to better define the future.

Mr. Bertin said he is fortunate. Often people conducting nature surveys have little historical data to compare their work to. He said that with plants in Worcester County, there is some significant historical data available to work with. It turns out a plant survey of Worcester County has been done before by an amateur botanical club at Clark University.

Between the 1930s and the early 1950s, members of the Hadwen Botanical Club focused on collecting all the plant species they could find in Worcester County. The club is now defunct and the collection has since been taken to Maine, but the records of the tens of thousands of species are still available at Clark University.

Mr. Bertin said he initially just planned to survey plants in Worcester, but decided to expand it to all of Worcester County. As he started the work on the county, he said he developed a better understanding of what was in the Hadwen Club collection and the scope of the project grew.

Using the Hadwen Club records as a base, and other observations, including his own and those made by Tom Rawinski of Oakham, a botanist from the U.S. Forest Service, Mr. Bertin has been attempting to make sense of how such forces as global warming, increased forestation, the spread of invasive plant species and the degradation of habitat has played on the

approximately 1,000 plant species present in each of the 60 towns and cities in Worcester County. He said he is attempting to hit all of the habitats and that has brought him to such odd places as airports, sewage treatment plants, utility rights of way, cemeteries and schools.

What has most surprised him is that between his work and the work of Mr. Rawinski, 50 species were found that were not previously known to be in the county.

"Massachusetts is probably as well-botanized as anywhere in the New World, and right here in our backyard are those things that weren't here before," he said.

To survey the plants, he had to deal with concerns in schools, about having a tall man wandering around outside the building, was required to fill out a 12-page FBI report to work near Worcester Regional Airport and had to get permission to work on railroad property. But without some of the more unusual habitats, he would have not found the 6,100 species he recorded. He said dwarf snapdragons are pretty much limited to railroad tracks and the best place to find wheat plants also is along railroad tracks because the seeds fall from trains.

The most interesting discovery he made is a tiny non-descript plant in a roadside area of Winchendon that he has not been able to identify.

The surveying end of the project will be completed this year but he will continue spending time studying the data to try to get a sense of what it means. He already has begun creating charts on maps of Worcester County showing the increase and decrease of species from 1980 to the present based on what has been found in 30 years compared to the Hadwen Club's records prior to 1980. One of the starkest set of charts shows the spread of invasive plants. Before 1980, oriental bittersweet was found in only six communities in Worcester County. Now it is in all communities. Burning bush was only in Worcester. Now it is in all communities except four. Glossy buckthorn, found before 1980 in only four communities in the county is now in all except seven. The big up and comer is Norway maple - the favorite snack of the Asian longhorned beetle. The invasive trees were seen only in limited numbers in the county during the earlier survey. They are now found in every community.

By contrast, many plants have significantly decreased. Mr. Bertin's research has shown that orchids in Worcester County are following a trend seen in many places around the world, decreasing possibly due to habitat change. Native moonworts, including daisy-leaf moonwort, leathery grape fern and rattlesnake fern also have decreased dramatically.

There also is a pattern of some Southern species on the increase in the southern and eastern Worcester County while species more likely to be found in Northern states are showing significant decreases, but he is still examining what might be the reasons for the changes.

When the study is completed, it may not tell the whole story of the ebb and flow of plant life in Worcester County, but Mr. Bertin hopes it will add to the understanding of what is out there and possible forces at work to continue to make changes in the county in the future.


CUTLINE: (PHOTO) Botanist Robert I. Bertin holds a compound leaf from a shagbark hickory tree at Cookson Park in Worcester. (MAPS) Evolving landscape (CHART) Central Mass Plants

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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 11, 2009
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