Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
Searching for plants in the Lage Fronten
“Noooo! That was a super plant, so cool.” “Whoops”, says the other student, removing his foot from the “cool” plant. The pair continue their search through the fields. Last Tuesday morning, the students of the Maastricht Science Programme joined their lecturer and researcher Roy Erkens at the Lage Fronten as part of their course Field Skills in Biology.
The Lage Fronten, near the Cabergerweg, is a green area with a walking trail and a huge stone wall to create a natural habitat for the wall lizard, a reptile, in the Netherlands only found in Maastricht. And there are many lizards around this morning, juveniles and their parents scampering across the rocks. Erkens, an experienced biologist who conducts fieldwork in the tropical rainforest, is an expert in investigating patterns in plant biodiversity. His students have been tasked with collecting plants, equipped with small clippers, a clipper pole for use at heights of up to six metres, a magnifying glass, a plant press, bottles of water, boots and even sunscreen.
Erkens: “It’s so nice to see that when they first come here, they think it’s just green grass and all the same. But after thirty minutes or so they’ve found so many different plants. Of course it’s an academic programme, but I think every biologist should go outside. In a lab everything is controlled. On site it’s the opposite: uncontrolled and chaotic.”
Last week, the group was analysing soil; next time the focus will be on insects. “The trick is to look at things critically”, Erkens says. “What do you see? Does the plant have a fragrance? How small are the leaves, what colour are the flowers? Does it look like any other plant you’ve seen?”
Erkens’ colleague, tutor Freek van Vegchel, picks up something green. For a layperson, it could be just about anything. “Look at the shape. See? The leaves form a rosette.” Two students, Sebastian Hertl and Benoît Freymann, had also picked up on that. Van Vegchel turns to Observant: “Do you know cleavers [also known as catchweed in English and kleefkruid in Dutch]? They’re related, because cleavers also have this rosette shape.”
Once the students have about ten species pressed between the pages of old Observant editions – “so they’re useful for that, too”, Erkens laughs – the group prepares to head off to the Natural History Museum Maastricht to finish identifying their specimens. Hertl and Freymann picked a dandelion, a paardenbloem in Dutch. “We recognise it, so that should make the identification process a bit easier, we hope.” The same goes for a pair who plucked a daisy (madeliefje). There’s one plant to avoid, Erkens warns: hogweed (berenklauw). “If you touch it and your skin is exposed to ultraviolet rays, you can end up with severe burns.”
Another fieldwork course is about the Limburg landscape. Erkens: “In the Netherlands we have about 1800 plants, and you can find 600 of them in Limburg. But Limburg is also geologically very interesting. Considering that many Dutch universities, like Leiden and Wageningen, come to Limburg on fieldtrips, it would be strange if we at Maastricht University didn’t go into the field.”