Dr. William Reese: Gone But Not Forgotten
Updated: Oct 31, 2022
My first introduction to Louisiana native plants was through a class taught by Dr. William (Bill) Reese in 1977. I was new to Lafayette and relatively new to Louisiana, having moved to New Orleans in 1973 from my home town of Jackson Mississippi. I loved the large live oak trees in City Park near our house, and wandered the gardens there frequently. When I enrolled in USL (now UL Lafayette) to study Horticulture, I decided on an elective senior level Biology class called Louisiana Native Flora. It was a bit outside the scope of my traditional horticulture classes like greenhouse plant production and landscape materials, but I thought about those live oaks and was curious to learn more. Dr. Reese was probably the most laid back, good natured and interesting teacher I ever had. His knowledge and love of plants showed in everything he taught. In class, he lectured, drew pictures of plants and we took notes and drew pictures in our notebooks, listening to the stories that went along with the taxonomy of the plant. His stories set the scene for a particular plant to grow; the damp organic soils, moist warm air, the dappled sun through the tall canopy of a mixed hardwood forest, and then the understory plant community below, from the small trees to the shrubs, the herbaceous layer of ferns and perennials, and then to his favorite, the mosses. He was a bryologist who was widely published during his lifetime. He earned a Ph.D. in Botany from Florida State University in 1957. Upon graduation, he accepted an appointment as Assistant Professor of Biology at USL. He remained here for 30 years, advancing to Associate Professor (1962) and Professor (1966). Upon his retirement in 1987 the University appointed him Edwin L. Stephens Honor Professor Emeritus, an appointment he held until his death in 2002.
The best part of his class was our field trips around Lafayette. We took all afternoon and descended into tracts of woods, often along the Vermilion River, most of them now paved over to provide parking for Target and Whole Foods and subdivisions. My favorite field trip was to the USL property called the Horse Farm, now Moncus Park. They did have horses there at that time. So we identified the pasture plants and wound our way into the forest surrounding the ravine. It was a wonderland of large trees and diverse habitat rare to encounter in the middle of a small city. Large specimens of Cherrybark oak (Quercus pagoda), Live oak (Q. virginiana), Bur oak, (Q. macrocarpa), Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), a grove of Paw paw trees (Asimina triloba) to name only a few. The diversity of the understory was equally as diverse and we all ended up on our hands and knees observing first hand and up close the beauty and wonder of mosses!
Today, the forested ravine supports many of those majestic trees we saw back in the 70’s although some have been lost in storms. The understory has been overtaken by invasive species, including 3 species of Ligustrum (Ligustrum sinensis, L. lucidum, L. japonicum), Chinese tallow tree (Triadica sebifera), and Ardisia (Ardisia crenulata and A. japonica), to name a few. ANPP volunteers with Larry Allain conducted a survey of plants in the ravine in spring of 2021 to assist Mark Hernandez, grounds manager, identify invasive species for removal. Work on their removal is ongoing. ANPP is leading two walks through Moncus Park grounds this month. Every time I visit the ravine at Moncus Park, I remember Bill Reese and how he passed that spark, that deep interest in native plants to everyone in his classes, and to me.
Written by Dona Weifenbach