Community Volunteer Highlight: Al Keuter

March 28, 2019

By Luba Kaplanskaya, Norris Center Chancellor’s Undergraduate Intern  

Al Keuter
Al working from his home office.

Al Keuter has been living in the Santa Cruz area for over 30 years, ever since he completed his degree in botany at UC Davis in 1970. After graduation,  Al found it really hard to get a job that was both fulfilling and paid. So, Al taught himself how to be an auto mechanic and build houses. After working for a while, Al was then able to get back to the thing he loved most: natural history. For the past six years, Al has been an active volunteer at the Ken Norris Center, managing the UCSC Herbarium, and leading the volunteer Herbarium Group. Al hopes to “infect the youngies with our love of science for science’s sake.”

A Love of Oaks

Al’s love of natural history starts with oaks. Oaks are truly an underappreciated tree. Oaks are the national tree of the United States, their bark was traditionally used to make wine corks, and there are over 600 species worldwide. In his study of oaks over many years, Al made over 18,000 morphological measurements of oak trees across California. His work showed that comparisons of leaf shape, size and other morphological characters can be just as useful as DNA testing in determining an oak species. Al’s story is important because he shows that you don’t need fancy equipment to conduct science - just patience and a fascination with nature. Al particularly likes to work with oak trees because he can go back to a tree from which data were collected 100 years ago and it’s still there. Oaks hybridize often and Al specializes in identifying the different subspecies of coast-live oaks. Natural history is by no means a lost art and something to do just for fun, Al’s work is proof that it can help accurately determine hybrids. Al says that herbarium specimens of oaks are “...not just a dead plant on a piece of paper. There’s history, there’s history with the collectors, it’s a fascinating process.”

The Herbarium Group

One of Al’s greatest legacies at the Norris Center has been his time volunteering and leading the

al at the table

Al and the herbarium crew, including Randy Morgan,

working in the Norris Center in 2016.

Herbarium Group over the past six years. The Herbarium group, which includes a number of dedicated community volunteers who work with undergraduate and graduate students, has taken the lead on organizing 12,000 specimens of plants currently stored at the Norris Center. Recently, the Herbarium Group took on the task of vouchering specimens for the Cotoni-Coast Dairies National Monument, making the Norris Center an important repository to showcase the biodiversity of one of California’s newest National Monuments. Without Al and the rest of the volunteers, that work would not be possible.

Overall, Al is dedicated to sharing his love with nature, plants, and science with other students. He says, “I think it’s really important that you young people retain your excitement or connection to nature in one way or another. Also that you please, please continue to be critical thinkers. Question everything.”