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5:14 PM Fri, Nov. 16th

Highlands Center classes study plants, grasses

Courtesy/Jim Morgan
Bees play a crucial role in pollination, which is an important step in the reproduction of flowering seed plants, including many fruits and vegetables.

Courtesy/Jim Morgan Bees play a crucial role in pollination, which is an important step in the reproduction of flowering seed plants, including many fruits and vegetables.

PRESCOTT - For many of us, the intricate, complex world of flowering plants and how they reproduce in the wild often goes unnoticed.

However, recognizing the importance of the successful propagation of flowers is key to understanding how living things, including animals and humans, prosper.

In mid-August, the Highlands Center for Natural History, 1375 S. Walker Road, will offer a new short class entitled "Sex in the Wild: Co-Evolution of Plants and their Pollinators," taught by local botanist Faith Roelofs.

From 9 a.m. to noon on Aug. 16 at the center, Roelofs - who has a bachelor's degree in botany from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and a master's in the same field from the University of Hawaii - will briefly discuss the origin and function of flowers.

She will then give program participants the opportunity to dissect flowers and learn about their basic reproductive structures - ones that attract butterflies, bees, moths, hummingbirds, beetles and bugs to spread pollen.

"We have to have insects, even though their larval stages may eat up a bunch of our prized roses," said Roelofs, who has had ties to the Highlands Center since 1990. "Those are the early live stages of insects, which will then pollinate other things as they become adults."

Tuition for the three-hour class is $25 for Highlands Center members and $30 for non-members.

Cindy Scott, the center's outreach coordinator, said this kind of Saturday class is a "new experiment" for the complex.

"We're hoping that it's something the public would like," she said. "We're testing the waters. If we get good response to it, then it could be a continuous Saturday-type of program that we could offer different subjects on.

"Roelofs' class will investigate the many genetic adaptations that plants have to collect pollen and produce seeds, as well as attract pollinators, to keep nature's delicate balance intact.

"I'm not focusing much on our edible crops, but more from an aesthetic point of view," said Roelofs, who also teaches butterfly gardening. "This class will focus on our native plants out at the Highlands Center and others in the Central Arizona Highlands mostly."

Insects and birds play interesting roles in plants' reproduction and they, too, have unique adaptations for pollinating many flowering plants that humans eat.

Industrial crops such as corn, wheat and anything else in the grass family require wind pollination to grow - but not fruits and vegetables.

"We have much of our food because of insect pollination," Roelofs said. "Our fruit trees require insect pollination. Things like beans, peas, tomatoes do, too. Almost everything in your vegetable garden requires it."

During the class, individuals will take a closer look at pollen grains under a microscope.

They will then run through photographs of a growing season in which various different local plants bloom and transfer pollen from one plant to another.

The photos show everything from juniper evergreen trees and other conifers that spread billions of pollen grains through the air in the early spring, to early spring perennials that attract flies, bees and hummingbirds.

The red yucca, for example, is one prominent plant in the highlands that sends up huge flowering spikes that hummingbirds love.

"It's a typical bird- and butterfly-type of flower with a long floral tube and red color," Roelofs said.

From there, class participants will walk around the Highlands Center campus on the Prescott National Forest near Lynx Lake to see annual flowering plants that rise up after the summer monsoon rains and bloom quickly before cool and dry conditions settle in during the fall.

They also will investigate these plants' strategies for pollination.

"With the rain, we should be seeing some of the annuals popping up to reproduce very quickly," Roelofs said.

In September, another local botanist, Cheryl Casey, will conduct a similar educational class, called "The Surprise of Grasses," at the center.

From 9 a.m. to noon on Sept. 20,

Casey - who has a bachelor's degree in botany and a master's degree in forestry from Northern Arizona University - will share with participants how to tell different grasses apart through their physical characteristics.

Casey said grasses, including grains such as wheat, rye, corn, rice, sugar cane and barley, supply most of the calories that humans live on across the globe.

"Every native landscape has grasses except maybe the coldest ones," said Casey, the former director of horticulture at The Arboretum at Flagstaff. "It's the third-largest family of plants in the world, and they're fairly recent in evolution. They have flowers, they're wind pollinated and they're highly successful as plants."

She also will show which grasses thrive in Arizona, such as blue, black and sideoats grama, as well as those that are exotic and invasive.

"I'm mostly going to be talking about identification, because they're really difficult to identify," Casey said. "Grasses all look kind of the same, so it takes a real discerning eye. Differences can be subtle."

Casey will share a little bit about how grasses and their seeds provide food for pronghorn and insects.

"Grasses are the fundamental base of the food chain for all of the grazing that's been going on here for 200 years," Roelofs said.

Tuition for this class is also $25 for Highlands Center members and $30 for non-members.

Pre-registration for both events is required. For more information, call Scott at 776-9550 or log on to the Internet at www.highlandscenter.org.

Contact the reporter at dcook@prescottaz.com