Paul Catling’s archives

Paul Catling

Paul Catling, Curator of the herbarium at Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm.

A profile on the relentless botanist, entomologist, naturalist and conservationist; now curator of the herbarium at Ottawa’s Central Experimental Farm.

Paul Catling remembers as a boy of four or five years in the hillsides of England being shown by his mother how to turn over rocks and rotten logs, take a look, and carefully place them back.

“It was like opening a Christmas present,” he says. “There was so much life under one rock; ants and centipedes and millipedes, pill bugs, beetles, and all these things would take off in every direction. To me, it was mind boggling, and I just had to go turn over the next rock.”

Now, Paul works for Agriculture Canada as the curator of the largest plant collection in the country, located at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa. In three large rooms are housed giant metal cabinets filled to the brim with carefully press-dried plants. Catling is one of the best-known plant and insect experts in North America.

Housed in the herbarium are roughly 1.5 million specimens of every known plant species in Canada says Catling, as well as plants from other countries that could have agricultural value or are potential weeds that they want to prevent from arriving here. Some specimens date from as far back as the 1850s, and the collection continues to grow.

The herbarium, he explains, is valuable from many standpoints. Cash crops and their relatives are a priority for study, as well as potential future crops, and the scientists there can study specimens from every year and every stage of growth dating back many years.

The archive can contribute to climate change and genetic research, because the plant fibers remain intact and still contain chemicals after hundreds of years of preservation. Climactic and genetic indicators can be analyzed to learn about the period in which they were collected. This information is very valuable, and carefully preserved below 68 degrees Fahrenheit to keep bugs off.

“Feels like a morgue, doesn’t it?” he quips.

Paul is currently working on Saskatoon Berries growing on the farm, which are similar to blueberries, yet can be grown in harsher climates and are increasing in popularity. The research he’s doing could lead to their wide use as a food source around the country and, perhaps more importantly, in other countries where an easily sustainable source of fruit could be a great commodity.

The salt and pepper look of Paul’s beard mimics the fading and deteriorating paper folders that hold some of the older plant specimens.

“Retirement,” he says when asked of his next major project. “I don’t know when, I still have a lot of things to finish.”

Like the plants within the collection, Paul holds a vast botanical knowledge likely unmatched by anyone in the country, perhaps only rivaled by his knowledge of insects. He’s determined to finish the things he’s started and even after retirement, has unfinished books on butterflies, grasshoppers and orchids in the works.

Twice within a few minutes, people dart into Paul’s office to remind him of a meeting in the afternoon or for his advice. His desk is littered with scientific journals and books, and an open article about the protection strategy for unusual plants in the Napanee region covered in red ink scribble.

Catling won an award for the best paper in the Canadian Journal of Plant Science in 2009, and another from the Canadian Botanical Association for his career as a botanist. He’s described two entirely new plant species, an orchid and a sedge.

“I didn’t discover insulin or anything like that, but I’ve won awards in my own field and that makes me very satisfied.”

“I’ve written so much stuff now that I try to remember what it is, go to my CV to find it, and I have trouble because it’s becoming too long,” he says laughing.

His publications vary from assessments of endangered insects, to the effects of feral horses on plants in Nova Scotia, to the successful re-introduction of plants and animals at a pine plantation near Ottawa. The list is hundreds of articles  and many books long.

Catling’s work goes far beyond serving the federal government and the agricultural industry. He’s also a naturalist, conservationist, teacher and boy scout leader at heart.

“The fact that I’ve led outings for nature clubs and gotten people interested, the fact that I was a boy scout leader for 10 years, I’m proud of that,” he says. “It seems ridiculous with all the things I’ve done and the books I’ve written, but I remember little things in every area as far as teaching and helping people that I’m really happy about.”

Paul served for eight years as the insect specialist on the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, and currently is a member of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, an organization he says plays an effective role in protecting Canadian landscapes without using extreme measures.

“But I did other things,” he continues, “I did some more extreme stuff to protect natural areas that were directly threatened, one way or another. Some of those things turned into battles,” Catling says, but added that he acted carefully.

“Instead of getting emotional I thought it out beforehand; it’s really a sad situation, but are we just going to complain about it or can we really change it? And if we can, what is the solution and the strategy and what are we going to offer?”

His expertise seems to be spread around widely and constantly, but Paul manages to inform and influence at every level. Much of the conservational work he does is on his own time, and when he has any free time at all he spends it outside bird watching or looking for the next good rock.

Thinking back to his boyhood memories with his mum; “I just never got away from it. I’ve been turning over rocks and filling bottles with snails every since.”

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