It was a wonderful surprise for botanist Fernando Furquim as he arrived in Park County from Santiago, Brazil, late last month.
Furquim is passionate about plants. He’s in Park County working on his doctoral thesis, studying the effects of disturbances from fire and grazing on plant communities and the ecosystem. It’s heady research, and Furquim is an intensely serious scientist, but it doesn’t stop him from taking time out of his experiments to smell the flowers. Or to taste the flowers.
“I will taste them if they are reported to be edible,” Furquim said between bites at a local restaurant Monday. “Foeniculum vulgare tastes good — like anise,” he said.
Anise is sweet fennel to you and me. For Furquim, using the common names for plants is like an auto mechanic calling a fuel filter a doohickey.
Of course, he’s not going to take a bite until he has properly identified a plant. Many wildflowers in the region are inedible. Zigadenus venenosus, commonly known as death camas, or Delphinium elatum, aka larkspur will leave a bad taste in your mouth — or kill you. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports symptoms of poisoning from Larkspur include general weakness and muscle spasms, abdominal pain and nausea and can lead to respiratory distress, paralysis and death.
Furquim has a small room adjacent to his research fields. At first glance upon entering, it may appear he loves to read newspapers. They cover every flat surface not used for sleeping or eating in his temporary home. Then, you realize, tucked between every page are plant specimens he’s drying for research.
Furquim has traveled Wyoming quite a bit, considering he’s only been here a month. Everywhere he goes, he wears a Wyoming Cowboys baseball cap — a gift from his American adviser, professor Derek Scasta of the University of Wyoming. From hikes up Heart Mountain to Devil’s Tower, wherever he goes, he inspects plants. And this spring, he has been thrilled with wildflowers.
“In spring, people get a good sensation. It’s often because of flowers,” he said. “They have an emotional effect on us. Beauty makes us feel good.”
Grabbing a death camas blossom, Furquim gently squeezes to release bright yellow pollen in course ground-pepper-sized balls. You can see his passion for plants in his intense gaze.
“Plants are the main driver of animal production, including humans,” he said.
The flower is the reproductive structure of seed-bearing plants known as angiosperms. But science doesn’t sound all that romantic — it doesn’t account for memories of running through meadows of Balsamorhiza sagittata in the Beartooth Mountains or the smile of a loved one when presented with a fat fist full of Castilleja angustifolia while watching sunset on Polecat Bench. Flowers are pretty. Even on a spiny little plant like Opuntia polyacantha. (Those flora are commonly known as arrowleaf balsamroot, northwestern Indian paintbrush and pricklypear, respectively.)
Furquim points out one of the great benefits of wildflowers: “You don’t have to pay to feel good,” he said.
Furquim returns to Brazil in August to present his findings. He’ll return to Wyoming in February to continue his research, and he hopes to receive his PhD in Botany at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in 2020.
He’s developing experiments in Wyoming and Rio Grande do Sul, the state where he lives in Brazil, because they share many similarities; vegetation, economic activity such as livestock production and culture. Think cowboys and gaúchos. Global-scale studies can provide a link between evolutionary history of a region and current responses — in this case, fire and grazing.
“I’m just trying to do my part,” Furquim says with a big smile partially hidden behind an even bigger beard.
Once he graduates, he hopes to marry his hometown sweetheart, Ana Bankow, and then return to Wyoming as a professor and raise a family.
“I love Wyoming,” Furquim said.
This may be news for Bankow, but one piece of advice from a nonscientific mind for Furquim: Take a fistful of flowers when you go on bended knee. And hurry back.