High School teacher Joe Beattie's biology classes are always hands-on and intensive. This year is going to be no exception. But this year, students have new tools -- plant presses built by an ecologist who was in Hastings last week to teach the students how to use them.
Field biology students found themselves dressed in waders last Thursday and in water up to their knees. They were learning about collecting wetland plants from Jason Husveth, principal ecologist for Critical Connections Ecological Services, Inc. and past president of the Native Plant Society.
Beattie asked the Native Plant Society last year for help in getting plant presses so his students could collect, press and dry plants. Husveth did more than was asked. He took the project on himself and built seven presses, which he donated to Beattie's class and then came to show the students how to use them.
At 7 a.m. last Thursday morning, the students gathered with Beattie and Husveth in the parking lot at the Hastings Lock and Dam and walked to the berm between Lake Rebecca and the Mississippi River west of the lock and dam. They all put on waders and followed Husveth into a little piece of wetlands on the edge of the berm.
Husveth explained how rare plants could occur in very small communities or "pockets" like this one. He pointed out the native arrowroot and smartweed, and the invasive cattails and purple loosestrife. He showed them the tools he used -- plastic bags and a serrated knife -- that wouldn't cut anything probably but plants. Then he collected an arrowroot plant to show them how it is best done.
"Collect as much of the plant as you can," he said. "Look at the smart weed. If you collected just the top, you wouldn't be able to see how tall the plant is."
He placed the plants in separate bags, and then had the students do some collecting. The students would also collect prairie plants at a piece of prairie on 3M grounds on Friday, and forest plants at Vermillion Falls Park on Monday.
The plants collected, the students climbed out of the water and out of the waders and watched Husveth prepare a plant for pressing. The arrowroot plants were long so he folded them in thirds.
The presses Husveth built consist of an open frame made of lath, a piece of cardboard the same size (all cut to a standard size used by collectors), blotter paper to absorb the water, a layer of newspaper, the plant, more newspaper, a sheet of blotter paper, a layer of newspaper and the top frame. Then the press is pulled together tightly to form a bundle, and a strap made of webbing. The entire press is built is secured tightly around it, to release water.
"When you cut cardboard, cut it so the open spaces go the short way," Husveth said. "That way, they'll release more water. Place the press in a well-ventilated area to avoid mold. On the second day, as the plant starts to lose water, compact the press again and tighten the strap."
Husveth said it's good idea to put identification on each press as you dry the plants, preferably inside so it doesn't get lost.
"Use a pen that won't bleed," he said. "Then put the date, where you found the plant, the genus species, associated species (those plants around the one you collected) and the habitat where it was collected. Someday you may have plants in the University of Minnesota Herbarium. I've collected thousands and placed them there."
All of the students were enjoying what they were doing, despite the early hour.
"I took the class because I knew Mr. Beattie was teaching it," said Nora Bruhn, a senior at Hastings High School. "I had him in 10th grade, and I really like his way of teaching. I like doing science. Maybe I'll do something more with it after high school."