Inside Iowa State
April 2, 1999
Bamboo specialist finds a home in Iowa
by Arianna McKinney, News Service intern
For Lynn Clark, bamboo is much more than a basic food group for Panda bears.
In fact, Clark, an associate professor of botany, will tell you that bamboo is not just prevalent in China. It also thrives in the Western Hemisphere.
There are more than 500 American bamboo species, ranging from tall, woody stemmed ones to smaller fern-like bamboos. The list of American bamboo varieties continues to grow, thanks to Clark, who is trying to find time to chronicle new varieties of bamboo that she has encountered during her field work.
"The bamboo diversity [in the Americas] is almost as great, if not greater, than what you find in Asia," Clark noted.
To increase awareness of bamboos, Clark recently co-wrote American Bamboos, a book that explores bamboo biodiversity in the Western Hemisphere. The book features hundreds of color photos, many taken by Clark.
In addition to her work with bamboo, Clark teaches biology, biodiversity and graduate courses. She coordinates a field botany course and directs the Ada Hayden Herbarium, a collection of about 425,000 specimens of dried plants.
Despite her many responsibilities, Clark remains focused on bamboos. Samples of bamboo species are scattered around her office and home, and she collects bamboo items, including baskets, cups, canes, earrings, a vest made of bamboo beads and musical instruments.
Clark's passion for bamboo was fostered at a young age. When she was 16 and showing an interest in plants, her father, a forensic analyst for the FBI, introduced her to Thomas Soderstrom, a bamboo expert with the Smithsonian Institution. Soderstrom encouraged Clark's father to bring her in as a volunteer and, that summer, Clark began working with Soderstrom.
"I immediately got sucked into the bamboo world," Clark said. "I never really looked back."
Soderstrom also is the reason Clark came to Iowa State. He recommended she do her doctoral work in Ames with Richard Pohl, an expert in tropical grasses. For several years, she worked as Pohl's assistant, making her first trip to Latin America with him in 1980 to study plants in Costa Rica and Honduras. When Pohl retired, Clark filled his position and remained at ISU.
Through Soderstrom, Clark also met three other bamboo enthusiasts with whom she frequently collaborates and co- authored American Bamboos. Her co-authors are Emmet Judziewicz, an assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Ximena Londoņo, a research associate at the Instituto Vallecaucano de Investigaciones Cientificas in Cali, Colombia; and Margaret Stern, a research assistant at the Institute of Economic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, N.Y.
Since Soderstrom's death in 1987, his four disciples have continued to educate people about the abundance and variety of American bamboo.
Clark said that what separates bamboo from other plants is a special type of cell in the internal structure of the leaf. This cell likely is an adaptation to use photosynthesis in the shaded forest habitat of bamboos.
In order to describe different bamboos and how groups of bamboos are related to each other, Clark dissects the plants and examines them under a microscope. She also examines molecular data, including DNA, and develops bamboo "family trees."
Most bamboo species in the Western Hemisphere are native to Central and South America. One American bamboo, Guadua, has been used for structural supports in building construction. Because of bamboo's flexibility, buildings using bamboo withstood the Jan. 25, 1999, earthquake in Valle del Cauca, Colombia, better than those made only of concrete. And, since bamboo is lighter, those bamboo-supported structures that did collapse posed less threat of injury to the people inside.
Clark's field work primarily focuses on Chusquea, an extremely diverse genus of bamboo common in the mountains from Mexico to Chile. Chusquea includes about 200 species and constitutes about 40 percent of American bamboos. For nearly 20 years, Clark has spent two to four months each year doing field work in Latin America, primarily in Colombia and Brazil, collecting samples of Chusquea and other bamboos.
Clark herself has named about 60 new species of bamboo and knows of 70 more species that are not yet named and described.
"We know they're there. We've got material on them," Clark said. "I just haven't had time to sit down and give them names."
Clark is taking this year off from field study in hopes of catching up.
"It's fun when we're down there in the field and we stumble on another new one," Clark said, "but it's gotten to the point that we say, 'Oh, no, not another one.'"
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