Staff profile

Kelly Kindscher: Ethnobotanist

Kelly Kindscher has a calm about him that’s hard to find today. When I get to his office, he welcomes me in, and as I push “play” on my recorder and start to ask him questions about his childhood, he stops me and insists on learning more about me. I find myself stumbling for words; I was prepared to talk about the life and adventures of Dr. Kindscher: researcher, teacher, environmentalist, author, husband and friend. My life’s story suddenly seems elusive.

If Kelly noticed my struggle, he doesn’t show it. He pays attention and smiles, and we continue our conversation like old friends. I get the feeling, sitting in this man’s office talking about the prairie and the relationship between people and plants, that he makes everybody feel like a friend. He smiles sheepishly, giggles at my questions and shows all the signs of a person who finds the public’s interest in his story a little bit ridiculous. It’s this self-deprecating, fun-loving nature that makes our conversation fly by.

I learn that Kelly is a man of many titles: senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey, faculty member at the University of Kansas Department of Environmental Studies and author of two books about prairie plants.
When we talk about the future of his latest project, the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program, he lights up. The chance to do groundbreaking research and, at the same time, potentially provide natural benefits to a wider community is all part of what he calls “positive work”: work that creates good for people and for the environment. Part of that work is introducing a more natural, local view of healing to the masses.

“Although I’m not an herbalist or trying to push herbs,” Kelly said, “I strongly believe that if you or I have an illness, and there’s an herbal product we can take that appears not to be harmful, we should take it. If that works, great. If it doesn’t work, go to the doctor. If it’s something you need to see the doctor for to begin with — you’re gushing blood or have a huge lump on the back of your head! — go to the doctor. But if we’re thinking, ‘I’m not feeling very well,’ or ‘I’ve got a sore throat,’ or ‘I’ve got itchy skin,’ we should be using herbal products, and we should use something that’s local.”

Living off the land and appreciating nature’s gifts are nothing new to Kelly. Raised in central Kansas, he spent most of his summers on his family’s homestead near Guide Rock, Nebraska, just north of the Kansas state line. He first began to learn about plants from his father while working on the farm, and he credits those early experiences for his appreciation for land and nature. He recalls learning about wild foods from his mother and father, who taught him to pick plums, cherries and gooseberries for jellies and pies. Kelly still visits his family’s farm from time to time.

Botany classes weren’t offered at Kelly’s high school, and, though he was a good student, his training in his future field was based more on experience than academics. When it came time to pick a college, he chose the University of Kansas because he could pay in-state tuition. His decision was also affected by the fact that his sister attended Kansas State University, and he wanted to “do something a little different.”

As an undergraduate, he found himself drawn to environmental studies. He began taking courses in plant research, and his appreciation for the native prairie led to concerns about its conservation. Before returning to KU for graduate school, Kelly was the director of a community garden program in Columbia, Mo. That experience influenced him greatly and set the stage for his future research.

Back in Lawrence, he starting growing food for the local farmers’ market and took odd jobs to get by. At the same time, he began work on what would become his first book, Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide, published in 1987. His second book, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide, which grew out of his graduate work and master’s thesis, followed in 1992. He went on to earn his Ph.D. in prairie plants and prairie plant ecology. He began working at the biological survey as a graduate student, and when a permanent position opened, he was hired.

Plant research has become all-encompassing in Kelly’s life. One of his favorite hobbies, in fact, is gardening. “It’s kind of funny,” he said. “I do all this research on plants and plant communities, and I go home and enjoy growing plants.”

He also loves to travel, but, he said, “I can’t help but look at the landscape through my plant lens. Every time I travel, I’m always looking at plants and vegetation.”

Kelly’s personal interest in local plants and habitats has resulted in a bit of a disconnect between his way of life and that of many other people in the United States. I can feel his disappointment when he tells me about a incident several years ago during which part a native prairie that played a large part in his dissertation research was mowed down. A house was built in its place. “I learned a lot out there,” he said. “It pains me to see these gems lost, and I lament that I didn’t push harder to make something happen.”

It seems unlikely that somebody so familiar with this type of disappointment could be so positive, but Kelly is practical.

“You do get discouraged,” he said. “It’s painful being conscious of land and landscape and seeing people destroy them. But, philosophically, what purpose does anger serve? You’ve got to get beyond that. You just do.”
He points to many ways society ignores the environment’s well being — landscape “beautification” that destroys natural biodiversity, automobile dependency, the use of destructive fossil fuels — as fodder for enlightenment and massive change.

“I think change can happen pretty rapidly,” he said, “and it’s going to have to. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen this year or next year.”

Despite the nation’s heavy use of energy, Kelly insists that change is on the horizon.

“I don’t think people really enjoy commuting,” he said. “I don’t think they really enjoy spending hours and hours of their lives in the car. But I think things will change, and it’s hard to predict how they’ll change. I just can’t fully engage in the atrocities that are happening to the environment and the world and the atmosphere. It’s just a little hard to hold that all too close.”

Those who know Kelly are quick to tell the story of his 80-day, 690-mile walk across Kansas —sampling native plants — in 1983, which has won him some fame and notoriety. What you find about him online, though, has to do with his research and publications. These accomplishments, in his eyes, are just details.

“I believe very strongly that we need to do things beyond ourselves,” he said. “I think that’s where ultimate satisfaction is. There is this calling to serve, and maybe it’s not even humanity. Maybe it’s God. Maybe it’s life. Maybe it’s biodiversity, I don’t know. I just think that there’s something within us that makes us want to do these things.”

As our conversation nears its end, Kelly tells me with a grin that there are other stories, but they would be best told over a beer another time. He makes me promise not to embarrass him too badly. I make my way out of his office thinking this interview did more good for me than it would ever do for him, and he probably would be okay with that.

— Lindsey Siegele
Graduate assistant, communications and outreach