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Inventory of HC plants lands him conservation award nomination

Thompson found rare lady’s slipper orchid in HC

August 4, 2008
The Daily Freeman Journal

An Ames man has been nominated for a state conservation award for his work in inventory native plants, including a vast amount of work here in Hamilton County.

Jimmie D. Thompson of Ames has found hundreds of previously unrecorded plant species in central Iowa, and he's never had a day of formal training in botany. His inventory of plant life in Hamilton County made Hamilton third in the state for total species. Thompson's colleagues have honored the work of this self-taught plant enthusiast by nominating him for a prestigious statewide conservation award.

Thompson was nominated by Deborah Lewis, curator of the Ada Hayden Herbarium at Iowa State University; John Pearson, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) botanist; Bill Norris, Western New Mexico University botany professor; and Lynn Alex from the State Archaeologist's office. They praised Thompson's tireless work on plant and archaeological inventories that aid conservation efforts.

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Jimmie Thompson

Thompson grew up in various Iowa locales, including Hamilton and Story counties. His family includes his wife, Nancy; son Brian of Ames; and daughter Kristen Halsted of Aurora, Mo. Thompson worked at the Ames post office for 32 years and retired in 1997.

"After I retired I had to have something to do, had to be outside doing things," Thompson said. Ever since his childhood of hunting and collecting things in the wild, he had loved nature. Thompson began by exploring the flora around his home in rural Ames.

About 10 years ago, Thompson walked into the Ada Hayden Herbarium and asked Deb Lewis for help identifying a plant he had collected. Before he knew it, Thompson had joined the Herbarium's ongoing inventory of plant life in Ames. Project leaders gave him a list of target species they hadn't found yet. Once Thompson converted the Latin scientific names to common names, the rest was no problem.

"Forty or fifty plants they'd never found, I knew where they were," he said. "So I started collecting for them." When the Ames Flora project concluded, Thompson had found 200 undiscovered species in Ames.

"Then I had to find something else to do, and Hamilton County was close, so I decided to conquer Hamilton County," Thompson said. He spent the next four years wandering the woods, prairies and wetlands of Hamilton County, finding and documenting 1,001 species total. Among them was the rare showy lady's slipper orchid (cypripedium regina), which is on the IDNR's endangered list.

Thompson started exploring Boone County in 2005. He's found 1,082 species, making Boone County the state leader for total species, and he isn't done yet. In Ledges State Park, he found 22 species new to Iowa and 13 on the DNR's endangered list. Thompson records the location of such plants for a statewide database, which helps preserve the threatened species. He has now collected more than 3,000 specimens for the Herbarium.

Thompson shares his knowledge and passion with others, taking interested companions with him into the field. He pays for his own gas and supplies for his volunteer plant searches. A typical day of plant inventory for Thompson lasts about eight hours, followed by more hours at home drying and pressing the specimens he finds-and he usually finds a lot.

"I'm good at seeing new species and recognizing that a plant's different," Thompson said. "When I know something is unusual or new, I collect it and have (the Herbarium staff) identify it. I've found several species new to the state."

He's found more than 50 new species, according to Norris-including one new to science. Norris wrote in his letter, "He has perhaps contributed more to our knowledge of plant distributions and diversity patterns in Iowa than anyone in the past 50 years."

Thompson has had no formal training in botany, but has taught himself and learned enough from other experts to write scientific papers on his findings. His "An Inventory of Vascular Flora of Hamilton County, Iowa" is in press for the Journal of the Iowa Academy of Science, and he has more in the works.

Thompson helps monitor and control invasive plant species, and he has participated in prairie restoration projects. His work locating rare plants has made him an asset to conservation efforts.

"Jimmie's efforts have resulted in unsurpassed information for improved management of natural areas in central Iowa," Lewis wrote, "and in our knowledge of the distribution of Iowa's threatened and endangered plant species."

Pearson, an IDNR botanist, said, "I have been in awe of Jimmie's tireless efforts for many years-all as a volunteer-to seek out the special natural habitats remaining in our much-altered Iowa landscape."

Thompson also has a reputation among Iowa archaeologists. He has found 250 American Indian artifact sites (200 never before recorded), including burial mounds. He notifies the State Archaeologist's office of these sites so they can be protected from development.

For Thompson, the drive to delve into nature runs deep.

"I've got to be outside. I can't be in the house over two days in a row," he said. "And it's so fascinating finding new species."

The other nominees for the 2008 Hagie Heritage Award are Erwin Klaas of Ames, Roslea Johnson of Des Moines and Roland Bernau of Algona. The recipient will be announced later this summer



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