'Pressing Matters' museum exhibit reveals drama behind plant collecting

The kit that Ken Marr carries for his field work as botany curator for the Royal BC Museum hints at the perilous side of plant collecting.

Deadly hemlock, grizzly bears, among perils for plant collectors

Royal BC Museum botany curator Ken Marr says bears are one of the hazards of collecting plants in backcountry B.C. (Royal BC Museum)

Pressing flowers and digging up plants might sound like a genteel Victorian-era pastime.

But the kit that Ken Marr carries for his field work as botany curator for the Royal BC Museum hints at the perilous side of plant collecting.

"I'm always carrying bear spray, a plant extractor which may look to you like a large screwdriver, a GPS locator and a field notebook," Marr told On the Island associate producer Sterling Eyford.

The bear-spray canister, along with other tools of the trade including an old-fashioned plant press, are on display in a current pocket exhibit on plant collecting at the Royal BC Museum, entitled "Pressing Matters." 

The Royal BC Museum's "Pressing Matters" exhibit displays tools of the plant-collecting trade, including a traditional plant press, GPS locator and bear spray. (Royal BC Museum)

Marr said one ursine encounter while collecting plants in the backcountry caught him off guard.

"I first saw the bear when it was taking a bath, way down in the basin. It was splashing around.

"It turned out is was a mother grizzly and its cub."

The sow scrambled up the slope toward him, but the encounter "ended well."

The exhibit features a less well-known peril of the herbaceous kind which thrives in Victoria. Poison hemlock, scientifically named Conium maculatum, was first identified in Victoria in 1914.

Poison hemlock grows abundantly around Victoria. "I would like everyone in the Victoria area to recognize this plant," says Ken Marr. (Jerry Kirkhart/Flickr)

"This is an invasive species and I just really wanted to highlight it, because it is abundant in Victoria," Marr said. "If anyone ingests this plant they could actually die. It's a very serious poison.

"I would like everyone in the Victoria area to recognize this plant." 

Poison hemlock resembles parsley, or cow parsley, with purple splotches on the stem.

'Don't eat this one'

"No other plant in the Victoria area will have those purple splotches," Marr said.

"The confusing thing is, plants related to this are also lots of our culinary herbs. A lot of our plants that we cook with that are safe are related to this one," he said. "Don't eat this one."

The current exhibit features just a handful of the 215,000 species in the Royal BC Museum botanical collection.

The carefully dried and preserved specimens in the collection date as far back as the mid-1800s, but Marr said the value of plant collecting is not a thing of the past.

Poison hemlock plants have been collected around Victoria since 1914. (Royal BC Museum)

"There are more and more requests from our collection," Marr said. "They include graduate students asking for tissue samples of particular plants in the collection that are too inaccessible to reach in the places where they grow.

"This is a really important resource," he said. "These collections are continually being used.

"Even old collections, specimens dozens of decades old can still yield useful DNA for various types of analysis," Marr said.