Kathryn Kennedy: Saving the planet, one plant at a time | St. Louis Public Radio

Kathryn Kennedy: Saving the planet, one plant at a time

Aug 27, 2012

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 27, 2012 - When Kathryn Lee Johnson, a Catholic, married David Earl Kennedy, a Methodist, in 1972, theirs was the first ecumenical wedding in Lincoln, Neb. It was the talk of the town. The wedding even drew “a little bit of press.”

It was generally believed at the time, Kathryn Kennedy said, that marriage outside of one’s faith was “fraught with peril.” 

The marriage has lasted 40 years, but much of Kennedy's career as a botanist has been devoted to battling another threat.

For the past 12 years, Kennedy has been the president and executive director of the St. Louis-based Center for Plant Conservation, the lead organization in a network of 38 botanical institutions throughout the U.S., whose sole mission is to prevent “the extinction of America’s imperiled, native flora.”  

“I work with 38 institutions that have the most dedicated scientists in the world who are not going to let these plants die on their watch,” Kennedy declared. “They are going to save the world.”

Mother Nature's gifts

Kennedy leads the only coordinated program for preserving plants in the nation. It's “the best national plant conservation effort in any country in the world,” said Peter H. Raven, president emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden. “(And Kathryn) is a devoted, hands-on conservationist who knows nothing will be saved if you don’t go out in the field and collect it.”

It was founded in 1984 by two Harvard University grad students and housed at the school’s Arnold Arboretum. When the center ran out of space there, Raven invited a move to St. Louis. 

“He likes to say he stole the program from Harvard,” Kennedy said.

It was an important steal. 

There are about 20,000 species of plants native to the U.S.; conservationists are keeping a watchful eye on an estimated one in five of these plants. Kennedy says about 200 are already known to have been lost. 

The soft-spoken scientist recoiled at the suggestion that perhaps we could possibly afford to lose a few plants.

“That,” she said, emphasizing each word, “would be horrible. 

“Why would we turn our backs on what Mother Nature has given us? We would be bankrupting our future. The loss of one species can negatively impact as many as 20 (species)," Kennedy said. “The human mind could never conceive or dream up the metabolic compounds found in plants.”

The center’s website neatly summarizes plant contributions to the world: food, fiber, flavor, fragrance, flowers, fuel, medicine and inspiration.

Inspiration has not allayed experts’ fears that illnesses like cancer and AIDS may never be cured if certain plants become extinct. Researchers estimate that hundreds of plants once used to produce more than 50 percent of the world’s prescription drugs are at risk of disappearing.

The center is doing its part to prevent such catastrophic scenarios.

In addition to maintaining the National Collection of Endangered Plants, a hedge against the extinction of 750 plants identified as being at risk, Kennedy and her staff of seven oversee scientific investigations and experiments, provide collection guidelines to affiliates, and monitor more than 2,000 sites in nature. The center has contributed materials to nearly 200 regional and national restoration projects.

A perfect union

During her first visit to Hawaii in 1970, Joni Mitchell wrote and recorded "Big Yellow Taxi," with the memorable lyric: “They paved Paradise and put up a parking lot.”

She was right. 

“We are a very active nation who uses our landscape,” Kennedy said.  “Because of our very desirable standard of living, we have lost habitats -- not out of viciousness but lack of knowledge.”

Hawaii is among the four states hit heaviest by plant loss; the other three are Florida, Texas and California. 

“The center is a very important organization,” said Naomi Fraga, a conservation botanist at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in California, one of the center’s affiliates. “It spearheaded a lot of messages that we use; it allows us to share our passion, and it helps us take home ideas of how we can better conserve plants in our areas. 

“There is only so much we can do individually; there is strength in networks,” Fraga added. “Kathryn is very interested in reaching out to other scientists and is genuinely dedicated to her work. (Our) environment is a cause that is dear to her heart.”

Kennedy, 61, has had a lifetime of practice for her current job, calling it “a perfect union of science, passion for plants and people.”

She has a doctorate in systematics and evolution from the University of Texas at Austin, a master's in plant ecology from New Mexico State University and a bachelor’s in animal ecology from the University of Nebraska.

Prior to coming to the center, Kennedy spent 20 years working in plant conservation in Austin. She was the recovery botanist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for nearly 10 years, worked for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in rare-plant recovery planning and monitoring and was one of the first employees at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

“I worked with Lady Bird every day for two years,” Kennedy recalled proudly. “She was a humanist and so effective by valuing everyone.” 

A black thumb

Kennedy is not “a garden person.” 

“I’m a field biologist and ecologist,” she said.  “I have no background in horticulture or garden design. I have no idea how to save someone’s begonia; I have a black thumb.”

Nevertheless, in 2008 she received one of the highest awards from the Garden Club of America, the Frances K. Hutchinson Medal. It was strictly for her conservation efforts.

Kennedy grew fond of the plants she never learned to grow during her early childhood on an Iowa farm, and later, after the family moved to Lincoln, Neb., on summer-long camping trips to Canada, Mexico and the states in between.

“My father would hitch the Winnebago to our Ford station wagon and we always took the back roads,” Kennedy said. “He told my sister and me ‘get your nose out of that book and look at this country!’ We saw every historical marker.”

Her mother, who rescued rabbits from highway mowers and once gave a piglet artificial respiration, kept watch over the wildlife along the way.

“My brothers were deadeye lizard-catchers,” Kennedy said. “Mother had a rule: if it wasn’t poisonous, we could keep it for 24 hours.”

Kennedy is the second oldest of seven: the others are Penny, Ralph Donald Jr., Chris, Heidi, Kim and Jennifer. Her mother, Ruth Smith Johnson, still lives in Lincoln. Her father, who was an agriculture teacher and later a marketing expert for the USDA, died four years ago. Both were politically active.

When her father ran for public power commissioner, he would campaign by handing out cards while proclaiming, “Hi, I’m Ralph Johnson; I’m a card-carrying liberal.” He won.

Kennedy now lives in St. Louis’ Compton Heights neighborhood in a 1908 home they are “way too slowly restoring.” She lives with her husband, who is a photographer, and their son, Benjamin, a senior studying aviation at Parks College. Both are often pressed into volunteer service at the center.

“I’ve had a very privileged life,” Kennedy said. “It’s a gift to be able to do plant conservation in St. Louis. Plants are cool and my staff is fabulous.” 

The final frontier

Kennedy misses stepping gingerly among habitats of imperiled flora. Her job now is to direct the efforts that ensure the habitats survive. 

“We’ve about reached the limit of our resources; the last frontier is our native plants,” Kennedy said. “We’ve tapped our forests and our water supply and we are facing amazing challenges in the next 20-30 years.”

Conservationists are playing catch-up.

“We took a quantum leap in the '70s,” Kennedy said, “but that hasn’t been long enough for us to reverse the damages. Threats of global climate change are going to increase the magnitude of other threats, and species will need to adapt or move, or they will become extinct.”

Nevertheless, Kennedy says, the jury’s still out. Progress will require an act of national will.

“Some things are getting better. Overall, it’s getting worse,” Kennedy said. “But I have a great sense of hope. The window has not closed to save and restore these species. (It will depend on) what we do in the next decade.”