Nicolin Gray has a hobby that bloomed into a career.
After retiring as a Whitworth College botany professor in 1980 - the year Mount St. Helens erupted - her interest in wildflowers has continued to grow.
She helped form the local chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society, and joined Eastern Washington University botanist Ken Swedberg to offer a one-day wildflower identification course in 1981.
“The room was so full of people, we knew we had to do something bigger,” she said.
Since then, the chapter’s distinguished native plant specialists have offered a six-session wildflower course each spring through Spokane Community Colleges.
“It’s for people who want to learn how to become acquainted with plants by noting their colors, counting their parts and how they are attached and using a magnifying glass to make identification.”
Native plants are second nature to Gray.
“I can remember as a preschooler how I was attracted to a big vacant lot across the street from our house in Seattle,” she said. “I would roam there and be delighted to find little wild roses.”
She started her first garden at the age of 5, planting poppy seeds her grandmother had imported from Denmark.
But her career as a botanist was sealed in 1941 during a nine-week summer field class in the Canadian Rockies with University of Washington botanist C. Leo Hitchcock.
“Our group camped the entire summer, traveling around the mountains before there were any paved roads,” she said.
Hitchcock - or “Hitchy,” as the students called him - used these forays as research for his five authoritative volumes, “Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest,” published in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The course formed bonds between the students and the native plants. In 1991, the group had a 50-year reunion. Of the 29 students who did the field trip, 19 returned for the reunion.
“Hitchy was known as a slave driver,” Gray said. “At the end of the trip, we had a final exam in a canyon outside of Missoula where he laid out 500 species of plants. It’s a good thing the wind wasn’t blowing. We had to identify each one by genus, species, common name and family.”
Hitchy’s discipline of choice was a spot exam. “If anyone was caught drinking, smoking or neglecting to leave a campsite cleaner than we found it, he would give the whole group a pop quiz, right on the spot,” she said.
The group hiked hundreds of miles to find specimens in various habitats.
“Twenty miles was our longest day,” Gray said. “We collected plants all the way. I carried a big Vancouver telephone directory for my flower press.
“I remember some nights being soaked to the skin after sleeping in those canvas tents and sleeping bags during downpours. But we learned to live in wet clothes. The sun always came out eventually.”
Wildflowers didn’t capture all the attention. Bears were a regular nuisance in camp. But an orphaned mink adopted by one of the women on the trip caused the biggest stir.
“As it got older, the mink would roam out of camp to hunt at night,” Gray said. “Once it returned with a live squirming fish and decided to take it into Hitchy’s sleeping bag.
“Hitchy woke with a screech and that caused the mink to cut loose with its scent glands.”
Several students spent an uncomfortable night working to get the stink out of the professor’s bedding.
“Hitchy was clearly shaken,” Gray said. “He even forgot to give a pop quiz.”
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