Finding Patterns in Plant Ecology

Guest post by Morgan from Abbott Botanical Assessments

Plant blindness is a common affliction found among members of the public and scientific community alike. This ranges from not recognizing differences between monocots and dicots to not understanding that plants are exclusive to certain ecosystems. Humans are hard-wired to see patterns, but today that usually means reading and understanding traffic signals to navigating social media and the internet. This is vital to our survival now, but it wasn’t always this way. Botanists and other natural science professionals are trained to “read” the environment around them to collect and interpret data. However, this skill isn’t exclusive to these groups. Many indigenous cultures continue to teach their children and grandchildren to read the environment around them to carry cultural and historical knowledge across generations. It is a skill that isn’t commonly practiced and aspects of our knowledge of the natural world is being lost.

When I’m hiking by myself, I hike slowly and observe the plants around me. What patterns do I see relative to the area that I’m in? If I am hiking in a canyon in Utah County, I will probably see bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum), Boxelder (Acer negundo), Blue Virgin’s Bower (Clematis occidentalis), cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), and other common plants. I may see more invasive/weedy plants like Burdock (Arctium minus) or Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) along stream beds if I’m in a highly trafficked area. Take into consideration the following when exploring a new area: What plants are you not expecting to see in this specific ecosystem? What plants indicate historical disturbance? Who has access to this area; horses, vehicles, people? 

A good plant to look for when exploring a new area is rabbitbrush. This is sagebrush (Artemisia tridentada, left) and this is rubber rabbitbrush (right).

Rubber Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa) is ubiquitous–it is found across Utah in different habitats and loves water and disturbance. Due to these characteristics, you will find it along roadsides, in washes, on trail systems and near archaeological sites. When you come across it in the field, consider where the rabbitbrush is located and how it interacts with its environment: How did it get to that spot? What plants are around it? Where could this plant’s water source be?

Asking these questions in the field can lead to interesting discoveries. I stumbled across a rock writing panel in Utah County because I saw a small stand of rabbitbrush separated from another population nearby. It was a wonderful surprise! So while you are investigating your newfound love of plants, don’t forget that archaeological sites are also spiritually and culturally significant to local indigenous peoples. They can also be active religious sites. Please be respectful and don’t collect plants or their parts without permission.

Are you interested in cultivating your botanizing skills, wanting to learn about local plants in your yard, or are wanting me to come assist you in a project? Don’t be shy! Please reach out to me via my website ( or my email ( Feel free to like our Facebook and Instagram pages to keep up-to-date with current projects, plant photos, and tours near you! I’d also encourage individuals or groups to contact me so I can  learn more about how people traditionally use plants in their area and their cultural importance.