Remembering Vern Oswald
By Beth Corbin
Dr. Vern Oswald was an extraordinary person. Although he was a Chico resident and much beloved pillar of the valley botanical community, we on the Modoc Plateau had special ties to Vern and consider him an honorary core member of the Modoc Plateau Subchapter of the CNPS. He attended nearly all of our field trips (except the backpacks!), even the ones to the obscure places. Maybe he even liked the obscure ones best, since we took him to areas he was unlikely to venture to on his own (although he did a lot of venturing!). He was always generous with his knowledge, but so humble and unassuming. Whenever someone asked me about a plant, I always began with: “This is what I call” such-and-such, then looked to Vern for verification of what it really was! He never failed to come through (although he really didn’t like to identify the grasses).
His biggest project in the last decade or so was his book: Selected Plants of Northern California (expanded into adjacent Nevada in recent years, thanks to Gary Schoolcraft’s trips). Selected Plants is a combination of Vern’s published Butte County Manual and Flora of Lassen Volcanic National Park, plus any other plant he had seen or collected in his travels. He updated it every year, and printed out just a handful of copies, which are extremely valuable to those of us lucky enough to have one. I call mine my “Vern,” and never go to the field without it. He called his copy “my brain,” as in “Let me check my brain.” In recent years, he’d also developed a CD-ROM version of Selected Plants, with incredible photographs of most of the plants, both in the field and wonderful close-up scans of the flowers.
Some of our Modoc Plateau field trips we specifically planned into areas where we knew there would be plants Vern had not seen before (particularly in the Great Basin), since he was always looking for new plants (whether weed or native). That way, the species would be sure to be included in the next year’s “Vern.” We’d take him to our neat places on the CNPS trips, then he and Lowell would often come back the next week for a hay-baling trip, to collect the beautiful, work-of-art specimens that he and Lowell are known for.
Vern’s knack at going into an area where others had been, but finding interesting botanical treasures always amazed me. The best example of this was probably his discovery of Scheuchzeria palustris var. americana at Willow Lake in 1988, decades after it was thought to be extinct in California. He also had a great memory for every plant he’d ever seen. A graduate student doing research in Liliaceae once contacted me about some species that I wasn’t familiar with. As always, I checked my “Vern” and saw Vern had collections, so I referred the graduate student to him. Later I got an e-mail from the student with the title line “Vern is God,” he was impressed by Vern being able to take him in the field to the exact spot where Vern had collected an obscure plant a decade before. I wasn’t surprised!
Vern and I shared a love of vegetable gardening, and we often compared notes and progress of our crops. Since his valley garden ripened much faster than mine in the mountains, he would bring me tomatoes, huge Walla Walla onions, and delicious peaches in the early summer. I brought him eggs from my chickens (he called them “cackle berries”). Both of us from old Midwest farming stock, we appreciated the feel of good soil under our fingernails.
One of the many qualities Vern is known for was his precise pronunciation of plant names. Generally, there are three ways to pronounce names: the way most botanists do, the correct way (Vern’s way), and the Susanville way, which is how our merry Modoc Plateauers mangle those names. Oh, we would make Vern shudder! (sometimes on purpose …) Vern never agreed with The Jepson Manual’s admonition that as long as you’re understood, pronunciation doesn’t matter. It mattered to Vern. I once tried to coax him into teaching a Friends of the Chico State Herbarium workshop on pronouncing plant names, but he had no desire to formally teach again. However, shortly afterwards, he wrote a five-page paper on proper pronunciation, which he sent me and was widely distributed (including in a Chico State Herbarium newsletter).
That also illustrates another of Vern’s qualities – his productivity. Vern got more accomplished in any given time than anyone I know. His Selected Plants expanded by hundreds of plants every year, the photo CD entries increased logarithmically, and in addition he churned out dozens of “Florulae” (as Lawrence said). And each was of highest quality. Vern was the rare combination of a perfectionist who could actually finish projects, time and time again. I’ve often said I want to be just like Vern when I grow up, but that’s not possible.
Vern’s passing leaves a huge hole in the northern California botanical community, and especially for those of us on the Modoc Plateau. Our trips will not be the same, but his spirit will always be with us, every time we refer to our “Vern,” and particularly when we attempt to say those names. We miss you Vern!