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SLU Botanist Shares Knowledge Around the World and on Campus

Peter Bernhardt, Ph.D.'s, illustrated emails from his research travels bring alive exotic locales for colleagues and the next generation of botanists.

During the regular academic year, you will often find Bernhardt in the classroom sharing insights with students or continuing his collaborative research in SLU’s Bernhardt/Meier lab.

Along with education professor Retha Meier, Ph.D., Bernhardt works with colleagues as close to home as the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis and as far away as the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, New South Wales, and the Kunming Institute in China studying floral ecology, pollination, breeding systems and threatened species.

Field Work in China

During the summer of 2017, Bernhardt traveled to Yunnan, China, to continue a long-term project funded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences given to the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB). He began research in Yunnan in 2015.

Bernhardt notes that Yunnan is the most ethnically diverse of all Chinese states with as many as 24 minority groups showing variations in agriculture, food preparation, medicinal plants, woodcraft and ornamental plant preferences.

“The point we are trying to make is that diversity can be intense within relatively old, well settled parts of the world.”

His KIB research associate, Dr. Zong-Xin Ren, was Bernhardt’s post-doctoral student at SLU in 2012-2013. They are studying how closely related species avoid hybridizing with each other – a process known as interspecific isolation – and the Himalayan regions in Yunnan offer unusually rich opportunities for research.

“Working at sites in Lijiang and Shangri-la counties in Yunnan at 3,000 to 3,300 meters above sea level offers us important insights for a very important reason,” Bernhardt said. “This is a center of diversity of many wildflowers. It is common to find populations of closely related species mixing in wet meadows, roadside verges and in yak fields. In June, for example, I can visit a wet meadow in Lijiang and find three primrose species (Primula) all blooming together within a few meters of each other. When several closely related species occupy the same habitat at the same time we refer to it as a species flock.”

Bernhardt adds that there are many questions to be explored. What keeps these plant species separate? Do they have different pollinators or do different flowers dab pollen on different parts of the same bumblebee's back? Do they recognize and reject the wrong pollen when accidents happen?

“Currently, we are concentrating on primroses, native geraniums, certain orchids and louseworts (Pedicularis) as we can look at populations with over a hundred flowering stems at certain sites,” Bernhardt said. “We are finding that there isn't one adaptation to avoid hybridization. One plant species may employ three or four mechanisms.”

Graduate Student Involvement

An additional gratification of the project is working with the students who are becoming the next generation of researchers, including Ren, to carry the work forward.

“Much of the work is done with graduate students (masters and doctoral) at the KIB,” Bernhardt says. “Sometimes I teach them techniques from our lab but as Ren had a year with us (at SLU) he provides them with much of the hard training.”

“My Ph.D. student, Alan Moss, is also working at three field sites owned by the KIB in Lijiang. He is studying whole pollination networks. Specifically, what plants are pollinated by the eight native bumblebee species? These insects are extremely important to flowers at this elevation because it is so cold. Insects are cold-blooded and many smaller bees do not function at this elevation. Bumblebees are very different. They can thermo-regulate by vibrating their wing muscles, producing heat by friction. They are insulated under dense layers of hair.”

Images Tell a Story

It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words and Bernhardt has applied the use of interesting photos of the plant life, people and places where he is doing research.

Some of those photos serve as a tool to enhance the importance of plant identification in his Ethnobotany and Biology of Plants and Fungi (General Botany) classes at SLU this spring.

Bernhardt says the photos he sends to Ethnobotany students are not used in in classroom lectures but are sent in email to all class members to contrast with appropriate lectures. The textbook he uses concentrates on examples from the islands of the southern Pacific and tropical Latin America. His photos, however, broaden the students’ knowledge of how people apply different plant species to solve the same problems.

“The photos I send add a temperate Asian view but are also a big surprise for students whose parents came from China,” Bernhardt said.

Photos had an added dimension during Bernhardt’s Summer 2017 research travels as he shared witty and informative anecdotes about the interesting places and events he encountered with SLU colleagues back home. It had been a rather untypical academic year when a fire in Macelwane Hall caused damage to offices, classrooms and labs and resulted in relocation to a building on the south campus while the restoration of the building was underway and the “notes” from abroad spread a little cheer.

“Precise identification of plant species used by cultures is essential or inventories are meaningless,” Bernhardt said. “Identifying plants to species can tell you something about the history of the culture and the species. In August 2017 we were guests of a village of Bai people, an ethnic group in Yunnan who cooked for us and let us tour their food gardens. Like many people in Yunnan, the Bai like their food spicy hot and blend species to add heat and pungency to blander dishes. What we think of as flavorings, such as chilies, the Chinese may also add to their long pharmacopeias of traditional medicines.”

Conversations and Cultural Exchange

Bernhardt’s trips aren’t all about the research. In addition to field studies, conferences and scholarly discussion, there is also time for casual conversation and cultural exchange around the table, including a meal at the Lijiang field station prepared by Bernhardt, which met with enjoyment and a little puzzlement.

“With some matzo meal and kasha I had packed in my luggage, I prepared chicken soup with matzo balls,” Bernhardt said. “The staff and students greedily ate the soup, chicken, vegetables and noodles but they found matzo balls a bit perplexing as Chinese dumplings are filled dumplings.

"The balls were eaten after they realized they could dip them in traditional condiment bowls containing soy sauce, Sichuan pepper, chilies and salty tofu. The pilaf of buckwheat (kasha) was a flop even though buckwheat is an important part of the diet for ethnic groups in this region. They want their buckwheat milled into flour and then turned into noodles, breads and cakes.”

And when the semester ends and summer 2018 begins, the question will be “Where in the world is Peter Bernhardt?” Whether it’s a return to Yunnan or another global location or at home continuing his research on orchids, wildflowers and bees, one thing is certain. Students at SLU and scientists here and around the world will benefit from his discoveries.

Learn more about Peter Bernhardt, Ph.D.