A monthly look at the people behind plant science at the Missouri Botanical Garden
Dr. Jan Salick
Senior Curator of Ethnobotany, William L. Brown Center
As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Jan Salick couldn’t decide on a major, so she took a temporary leave to figure it out while traveling the world.
She wanted to experience something vastly different from the Midwest, where she had grown up. Salick started with Europe, but found it too similar to American culture. She rode a motorcycle to India, which, despite being “cool,” was still a British colony and not distinct enough. She then traveled to Malaysia and, finally, Indonesia. “I thought, ‘This is different,'” Salick explains. “‘I like this.'”
“I’ve been able to do amazing things my whole life. I want to tell other women – you can do it. Don’t hold back. It’s out there. The whole wide world is out there.”
-Dr. Jan Salick
She was hooked. Salick acquired her degree in biology and returned to Indonesia through a former Peace Corps program—funded by the Smithsonian Institute—that placed scientists around the world. Since then, she’s spent her career as an enthnobotanist, someone who studies how people use plants, traveling the world and studying both plants and cultures. “I’ve been able to do amazing things my whole life. I want to tell other women – you can do it. Don’t hold back. It’s out there. The whole wide world is out there.”
Salick traveled to South America for her PhD from Cornell University and again during her post-doctoral position at the New York Botanical Garden. Her kids spent much of their early years in the Amazon. She later conducted research in Mesoamerica and South Africa and spent time working as a professor at Ohio University before coming to the Missouri Botanical Garden 18 years ago.
The Garden afforded Salick the perfect opportunity: researching plants and people wherever she wanted.
She chose the Himalayas and spent 15 years traveling between St. Louis and Tibet. She started her studies focused on indigenous people, but quickly broadened her research to include climate change due to its significant impact on both plants and people in the region.
“Climate change is affecting all aspects of [Tibetans’] lives.”
-Dr. Jan Salick
Plants, including ones used for medicinal purposes, are growing higher up on mountains as a result of warming temperatures. Tibetans can grow crops they couldn’t previously, but those crops are encountering more insects and diseases. Climate change has also had an impact on Tibetan culture. Tibetans today seldom wear the traditional yak robes popular among previous generations because they are too hot. Their core spiritual beliefs are even being threatened; Tibetans believe their gods live at the very top of the mountains, and with the snow melting, they worry the gods will leave.
According to Salick, climate change—which still drives most of her research efforts—is a pressing issue for all. “We have to prove this. We have to show this; we have to collect data that is incontrovertible.”
With mountain climbs growing more challenging for her, Salick has recently trained younger scientists to carry on her Himalayan research and now concentrates her own climate change research on Cape Cod, an area experiencing one of the highest sea level rises in the world due to climate change. Scientists have been studying this phenomenon for some time, but Salick is the first to examine climate change in the region through the lens of flowering plants—observing when plants flower and comparing the data to a comprehensive study from the 19th century.
“I can see huge differences since the middle 1800s,” Salick explains. “As temperatures have increased, flowering changes.” She’s found that plants are blooming earlier in the spring, later in the fall, and generally blooming for longer periods of time.
Salick is also continuing her work with indigenous people, including two American Indian tribes, the Wampanoag and Narragansett—the groups who first met the Pilgrims and taught them to farm. She is participating in the Narragansett Food Sovereignty Initiative, using various grants to help the tribe restore their traditional farming practices. The tribe recently received a piece of original Narragansett farmland given to colonists in 1670 and are starting to restore it.
In her work with the Wampanoag tribe, Salick is collecting traditional Indian names for places in Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and translating them. She has translated 250 names so far, but has many more to go. The Wampanoag names are typically related to how the land was used. She is comparing that information to a land use map from 1850 and examining what it’s used for now. “It’s a fascinating way to study history, ecology and indigenous knowledge and compare it to what’s happening today.”
Salick’s experiences with the Garden have been unique even beyond the places she has travelled and the people and plants she has studied. Of all the places she has worked, she find the Garden has the most international depth. “If you go to Tokyo, every botanist in Tokyo is going to know the Missouri Botanical Garden. Every botanist in Paris going to know the Missouri Botanical Garden, every botanist in London knows the Missouri Botanical Garden. We have an incredible international reputation.”
That reputation helped Salick conduct research in China, where it can be difficult to work without established contacts. Even in places where the Garden does not maintain a direct contact, Garden researchers can typically rely on one of its partner organizations. “That broad international network is a tremendous resource.”
Public Information Specialist