We interviewed Dr. Lena Struwe, an accomplished professor at Rutgers University, as well as the Director of the Chrysler Herbarium at Rutgers University, a leading herbarium in the world for the preservation of important plant taxa samples and records!
Dr. Struwe is the mentor of our resident Plant Scientist here at The Sill, Christopher Satch. Her research involves the order, Gentianlaes, which encompases a few plant families that are extremely economically important – including Rubiaceae (the coffee family), Gentianaceae (the gentian family), Apocynaceae (the dogbane family), and more. These plant families contain countless plants that we use on a daily basis – oleander, coffee, and periwinkle, just to name a few. With this in mind, we asked what she could share with us about what plants have taught her…
What inspired you to choose Gentians to study?
When I started out in grad school my advisor had a grant to work on this group of plants, so I actually didn’t choose gentians. But I quickly fell in love with this family and have worked on them for over 25 years now.
What about Gentians makes them special?
They have a long history of being used by humans as medicinal plants around the world, and they also are incredibly gorgeous. Their flowers come in all colors, even black, and there are gentians on every continent and in every kind of habitat (except on top of glaciers and in the driest deserts).
Are there any easy ways to grow Gentians?
No, gentians are generally rather hard to grow. Some are suitable for rock gardens, but most live in symbioses with fungi and are very specific of what kind of soils they want. Some species in the Gentiana genus are probably the easiest for people in the temperate zones.
Are there any indoor Gentians for the houseplant lover?
Prairie gentians (Eustoma) are sometimes sold as a potted plant, but this species is not long-lived and they often get root rot. The same species is often found at florists as well and is a beloved cut flower. Gentians are best grown outdoors.
What inspired you to do taxonomy studies?
I have always loved plants, since I was very young. In third grade our teacher made us do a class herbarium and an inventory of a little forest plot, and I loved to explore and figure out what was growing and flowering there. I come from an outdoorsy family that sailed, canoed, hiked, picked mushrooms, etc., and cool plants are everywhere so it never got boring. When I went to college I had planned to do environmental studies, but ended up in botany classes and with an undergraduate part-time job in the herbarium, and the rest is history. The idea to explore the unknown when it comes to biodiversity, which is really what taxonomy is about, is something that fascinates me every day.
Any cool recent finds or new discoveries in the taxonomic world?
The recent news of a million-years old fossil tomatillo plant is a marvelous find. (Learn more!)
I’ve noticed that a lot of houseplants hail from Araceae family. Is there anything special about that family, to your knowledge, that makes them resilient to indoor conditions?
Many of the indoor Araceae plants grow naturally either as epiphytes (on trees) or on the forest floors in tropical countries. They are used to low light conditions, and sometimes droughts. Even in a rain forest it can be dry, especially if you are an epiphyte with no deep roots in the soil, or no way to catch the water that is falling down.
Do you have any interesting plants in your home or garden?
In our backyard is a large dawn redwood tree planted by the previous owners. It is a tree that is only found wild in a small area in China, but cultivated across the world. Scientists thought it was extinct since it only was known from fossils, but then it was found in the mid-1900s. There are similar stories of other rediscovered conifers, like ginkgo and the Wollemi pine. This is like finding a living Tyrannosaurus rex somewhere on Earth…
If there’s one thing you want the world to know about plants, what would that be?
If there weren’t any plants, there wouldn’t be civilization, agriculture, humans, food, spices, log cabins, hamburgers, gardens, or cupcakes. Wherever you are there are plants to explore, and they are a lot easier to look at than birds and mammals because they sit still!