In the woods behind Kenai Peninsula College there are more than 100 species of vascular plants.
"That's not including the fungus," Boyd Shaffer said. "That number would scare you."
Recently, Shaffer, who has taught at KPC for 33 years, guided an expedition of seven nature enthusiasts through the woods behind the college, along Slikok Creek and down to the Kenai River.
The walk was part of the Kenai Watershed Forum's summer program. Through August, the Kenai Watershed Forum is offering free walks to the public guided by local scientific experts.
Shaffer has identified every species of plant that grows around the Kenai flood plain. He said it is not unusual for him to visit Slikok Creek on a daily basis.
"The trail is beautiful," he said.
Shaffer admitted he is still fascinated by the plant life found around the school. He is concerned that much of the vegetation is being damaged by fishers trying to access the Kenai River.
This summer, Alaska State Parks finished installing a metal walkway that gives fishers an alternative to walking along the bank. Shaffer said that the addition has done a lot of good, but it is apparent that some people are still shortcutting through the foliage. Shaffer believes such destruction will continue until fishers are given a straight shot to the water.
"We need to give them a good easy trip," he said.
Shaffer also said he would like to see restrooms installed to keep fishers from polluting the area with refuse.
"There are never enough facilities," he said. "It's a stinking mess."
One of the earliest recorded botanists was Pliny the Elder. Shaffer explained that in the first century, the Roman naturalist contributed greatly to the Earth sciences. Pliny believed that God had provided man with all the plants needed to cure any ailment. The challenge was to successfully match the illness with the medicine. According to Pliny, the secret was that plants resembled the body part they were able to cure. He was convinced that pulmonary lichen would cure diseased lungs. It does not.
There are many medicinal herbs that grow in mass along the Kenai River. In the 1950s, powdered germanium root was the only known cure for bleeding ulcers, Shaffer said. Scientists today are attempting to create an antibiotic from lichen. Open cuts sustained in the wild should have bernet pressed against them to stop blood flow. The balm of Gilead has the same healing power, he noted.
But Shaffer cautioned that not all the flora in the area is safe. Along with herbs that aid in good health and survival, there are plants behind KPC that contain deadly poison. The toxic fruit can be difficult to recognize and often times are deceptively timid looking.
"Mothers who go out picking berries with their children need to be aware of what is going into the basket," Shaffer said.
One poisonous berry that Shaffer warned of is the baneberry. The white berry looks like a black-eyed pea and ripens to a scarlet red. Eating six will put a grown man into a coma.
Monkshood is the most lethal plant in the world, according to Shaffer. The violet flower contains the toxin acenite. Hunters, after coating their arrowheads in the poison, are able to kill a whale with a single stab.
"Leave it alone," Shaffer warned.
Shaffer said he likes to use his knowledge of area flora to assist residents. On Thursday, he shared a story with the group about helping a veterinarian determine what was poisoning his horses.
"He knew it was something his animals were eating, but he didn't know what," Shaffer said.
Shaffer visited the veterinarian's pasture and found a field full of horsetail. The plant is a hollow reed that grows tufts of wiry hair. It can grow to be 35 feet tall and produces coal when crushed up. The plant contains silica, a hard glassy mineral. Horsetail is good for polishing metal - a tip for campers with dirty pots - but it is nonedible.
"Horsetail strips the body of all its vitamin B," Shaffer said. "The animals were shaking so bad I'm surprised they could stand up."
Shaffer said he was able to diagnose the problem early enough to save the animals' lives, but added that the horses' addiction to the weed was so progressed they remained corralled for the rest of their days.
The horse tale was one of Shaffer' many stories on the delicate balance of life in the forest. He said there is an equilibrium maintained by Mother Nature and that all things, even spruce bark beetles, play a helpful and critical role.
Boyd Shaffer works with the Kenai Peninsula Botanical Society overseeing the group and editing its newsletter.
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