Last updated: December 29, 2022
After retiring from teaching English and moving to Dune Acres in 1988, Barbara Plampin had time for her passion of botany, meticulously studying the Dunes’s habitats and becoming a persistent advocate for natural land preservation and an expert botanist in her own right. Known as the preeminent “Plant Detective” in the region, for over three decades this field biologist has lent her prowess in plant identification, given engaging nature walks and workshops, and has been an invaluable helping hand to park staff.
Quote by her:
“There’s so much development, it means a great deal if there’s some natural land left.”
Quote about her:
“Barbara is one of that rare breed of plant enthusiasts who make notable discoveries and contributions to the scientific literature by virtue of their enthusiasm, field-learned expertise, and sheer doggedness.”
Barbara Eleanor Wykes was born December 1st, 1928 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For the first seven years of her life, she grew up on 166 acres of woods outside of Grand Rapids “that still had six virgin white pines on the property.” It had “a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” Although the surrounding area enchanted her, Barbara’s mother disallowed her to explore the woods on her own. “She went once a year for mushrooms, and once a year down to the swamp to pick raspberries. “And once we all went out to the beech woods and ate wintergreen berries,” Barbara remembered. She said she still wonders what secrets that property held. She then moved to a farm that her grandfather gave her parents where she once caught a glimpse of the famed landscape architect and founder of the Prairie Club of Chicago, “It wasn’t romantic, but it did have half an island, and one day, I guess I was in the rowboat, I saw Jens Jensen going there, so that was of interest.” She fondly recalls playing with horsetails, pulling them apart and putting them together.
By the time she was about 14, Barbara’s asthma had been so bad the family decided to move to New Mexico, seeking mountain air through a doctor's suggestion. She earned her bachelors and master's degrees from the University of New Mexico. Barbara came back to the Midwest sometime in the early-mid 1950’s and got her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. After receiving her doctorate, she returned to the University of New Mexico to teach English for three years. On April 26, 1960, The Albuquerque Tribune wrote of her forthcoming move to Chicago; “Barbara Wykes, instructor in English, to accept a position at the University of Chicago.” The position was assistant professor of humanities.
On December 8th, 1961, the New Albuquerque Journal reported her engagement to Geoffrey C. M. Plampin of Chicago; they were married December 21, 1961. Their lives at the University of Chicago, like generations past, would bring them to the Indiana Dunes.
Geoffrey worked for the University of Chicago and had achieved the roles of Editor of Official Publications as well as Vice Marshal before his retirement. “In those days, those days being, let's see, 1961 or so…Dune Acres was a popular place… for the University of Chicago faculty. And I remember somebody in Dune Acres saying, ‘We have enough people from the University of Chicago in Dune Acres, but you’re nice so we’ll let you come.’ So we did” [laughs].
Barbara's relationship with plants began to grow shortly after her and Geoffrey moved to Dune Acres. “When I came here, I was interested in plants, and somebody said…‘Lois Howes knows all about plants.’” Barbara took their suggestion to speak to Lois and they met. Despite Barbara admitting being a bit patronizing in their first meeting when she suggested Lois be as scientific as possible, their friendship quickly grew and blossomed. “She did all kinds of things for me,” Barbara recalled. When botanizing together, Lois would move the car so they would not have to walk as far; sometimes without Barbara’s knowledge- who thought she had been left behind! “And she gave me my first copy of Swink and Wilhelm, which is the plant bible, or was in those days.”
“Well she certainly was a mentor,” Barbara said fondly of Lois.
“Kindly, she was one of the world’s worst cooks. After she died I used to visit her husband, often on a wednesday afternoon- I’d take the dog, which was like the dog he had had, and he would talk about Lois, who he said came from a very rich family, and when they got married he was a poor boy, and his story was very interesting, so he tried to save up money so she would have all the comforts, and a maid and everything, but he was relieved to find that she did not require these things. She had a deaf dog, Gretchen, a German shepherd. Gretchen operated by hand signals, every now and then Grechen would wander off, come to my house, ‘cause when she saw me she said ‘I’ll walk,’ and I did not know the hand signals, so I would have to call Lois and say ‘your dog is at my house.’”
Barbara also remember’s Lois’s devotion:
“Well she was dedicated; she was the one who discovered Howes Prairie– she discovered in it an extremely rare plant, which she sent a specimen of to Floyd, and that’s when Floyd got interested in Howes Prairie... it’s a peculiar plant that will bloom in dry years after wet years.”
She continued, “So some years you see it, and some years you will not see it, and there’s always great anxiety about, ‘did you see [it] this year, did you see it?’”
Barbara’s involvement with plants and the Indiana Dunes accelerated after she met Emma “Bickie” Pitcher, whose charismatic nature grew her loyal “groupies,” of which Barbara self-identified. When Bickie retired to Kalamazoo, Michigan, she carefully selected individuals to carry on a field of study pertinent to their skills and interests. “She assigned me to be a botanist, and it took. Well it was already taking anyway.”
Barbara wrote of the direction she received from Ms. Pitcher after her passing in 2010, “Bickie taught me to use a dichotomous key and a meter square, and she familiarized me with local botanical literature, passing on several important plant lists, items later helpful to the present Lakeshore botanist.”
Barbara became well acquainted with the botany and ecology of the Dunes. “Well plants are conditioned, see, something finds a way to develop and grow and to take advantage of any possible niche that isn't already occupied, some seed is going to develop, find the place to grow, no matter how unfavorable… almost.”
In 1984, the park service hired the keen eyes of Barbara and Bickie for a special project to help find rare plants that were referenced in old botanical literature. “These were pre-GPS days,” Barbara recalled. They were tasked with finding Talinum rugospermum, “Fame flower,” a peculiar succulent-like plant whose vibrant fuschia blooms open only from around 3-6pm. After having no success in the location they believed to find it, Barbara and Bickie forgot about the curious Fame flower. The following August, the pair became overjoyed when they stumbled across its slender leaves on the opposite side of railroad tracks from where they had looked before. Barbara Plampin and Emma Pitcher are distinguished as the official “finders” of this rare species.
Barbara has been involved with Shirley Heinze Land Trust since its infancy. In August of 1991 with about 40 acres in their possession, Barbara spoke of Shirley Heinze’s vital role in protecting the ecology region, “not only are we preserving land, we’re trying to prevent sand mining.” Today Shirley Heinze protects a variety of quality habitats across four counties and comprising over 2,600 acres. Barbara spoke on her involvement in assessing potential sites, “Well I used to go and help inspect the land that we were proposing to buy or land that we had bought, make plant lists or add to plant lists.”
An article in the Vidette-Messenger of Porter County helps illustrate her work; “What I hope to find are refugia,” Barbara told the reporter, referring to pockets of quality plants that have maintained a presence in an otherwise degraded natural area. “These are inconspicuous plants that people don’t normally notice, but send botanists into ecstasies.” Human trash was a common find, “We’ve removed some tires… We’ve said that our logo should contain bed springs because most property we get we have to remove bed springs from.” Barbara reiterated the land trust’s importance, “There’s so much development, it means a great deal if there’s some natural land left.” In honor of her work, the Shirley Heinze Land Trust has dedicated a rich floodplain habitat along the Little Calumet River as the “Wykes-Plampin Nature Preserve.”
On March 25, 1994, Barbara as well as Charlotte Read, Kay Franklin, and Irene Herlocker-Meyer celebrated “Women of Dunes” for a program at the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center on the achievements of Dorothy Buell, Bess Sheehan, Emma Pitcher, and other strong women of the region. Barbara has given presentations and led hikes around the dunes since her and Geoffrey moved to them permanently in 1988. “I had a great time.” She described a shift in the focus of her programs, “I used to talk about what Indians and pioneers used the plants for… and then I got interested in how the plants work. Why they are in the particular places they are, how they affect their pollinators, and how they spread their seeds and so on. So then I got to talking about that kind of thing.” Barbara is very pleased with the program she gave in the summer of 2019, “I gave it when I was 89, my last one, I’m proud of that.”
Her husband Geoffrey, passed away in 2004. Ten years later she received the Paul Douglas Award from the Save the Dunes Council, who had this to say on her accomplishments:
“Ms. Plampin is a tireless advocate for natural land preservation throughout northwest Indiana. She is also cherished as a gifted educator eager to share her knowledge with others. Barbara is one of that rare breed of plant enthusiasts who make notable discoveries and contributions to the scientific literature by virtue of their enthusiasm, field-learned expertise, and sheer doggedness. If the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore or the Indiana Department of Natural Resources wants to find a rare plant species, they will probably ask Barbara Plampin for her help. And she usually finds what she’s looking for.”
Some of Barbara’s favorite native plants include trout lily, wood lily, meadow beauty; the non-carex sedge, Cyperus squarrosus, bearded flatsedge, whose seeds look like the basket for a hot air balloon when viewed under a microscope.. Her greatest pleasure comes from stumbling upon unusual species, “I like rare plants quite frankly. I like to find something off-beat.” Barbara mentions upcoming “trouble” for the Calumet Bike Trail with the expansion of the South Shore Railroad through their double-track project, land of which she extensively surveyed for and found rare plants.
Barbara admires the native conifers, and spoke of the special white cedars of Cowles Bog that grow close to her home- the last existing stand of its kind in Indiana. She recalled a story related to her that she attributes to their decline in the region, “The depression caused people to cut white cedars for heat. And then I am told that once near Clark and Pine were cut for Christmas trees. And there was a story about people buying two seats on the train to Chicago, one seat was for the passenger and one was for the christmas tree.” Barbara looks positively to the future, having noticed members of her own community become more understanding of the purpose and goals of restoration.
In a Dune Acres Historical Commision interview from 1995, Barbara commented on places in the region she’d still want to see:
“There are records from early visitors that describe places that I haven’t been able to see. There were a group of botanists, a regular crew almost, that got off one South Shore stop or another, and of course they couldn’t get much farther than they could walk, but they left the most tantalizing records of one kind or another. They mention more bogs, or so-called bogs, and I know where two of them were. It just makes me sick that they were drained… But most of all, I’d like to have seen the Dunes before any European settlers arrived or before timbering and draining started. At that time, Northern Indiana has been described as a ‘land of slow moving streams.’ I’d like to have seen it then.”
Today Barbara still lives in the Indiana Dunes region, surrounded with the flora, fauna, and community she loves so much.
July 16, 1995; The Vidette-Messenger of Porter County, Valparaiso, IN
• By Nora Rinehammer ; “A place to call home” ; Page 29
December 8th, 1961; the New Albuquerque Journal, Albuquerque, NM
• “Miss Wykes, Geoffrey Plampin Reveal December Nuptial Plans” Page 18
April 26, 1960; The Albuquerque Tribune; Albuquerque, NM
• “U Government Head Named” Page 9
August 20, 1991; Vidette Messenger of Porter County, Valparaiso, IN
• “By Nora Rinehammer ; “Go take a hike!” Page 9
March 24, 1994; The South Bend tribune, South Bend, IN
• “Program on ‘Women of Dunes’” Page 13
The content for this article was written by Joseph Gruzalski, a researcher with Indiana Dunes National Park. Funds were made possible by a National Park Foundation grant.