Science in a Cemetery
Scientists who study agriculture can set up shop in unusual places. Like a pigpen. Or in the middle of a stream, or even in a graveyard.
That’s where Charles Bryson, a scientist at the Agricultural Research Service, found himself working. He wanted to identify a mysterious plant no one had ever seen before in Mississippi. He could only find it in a few places in and around Meridian, Mississippi. He found it along some train tracks, and he found it in some campgrounds. But he found most of it in four graveyards. And one of these graveyards—Rose Hill Cemetery—is the final resting place for several members of a royal Gypsy family!
Kelly Mitchell, the Queen of the Gypsies, was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in 1915. Her husband was buried beside her in 1942, and other family members were also laid to rest in the cemetery.
Bryson finally identified the grasslike plant as “blue sedge.” It grows in Europe and Asia. But what was it doing in Mississippi? Travelers from all over the world come to visit the Gypsy graves in Rose Hill Cemetery. Sometimes they leave remembrances, like flowers or candles or coins.
Bryson thinks some visitors may have left the sedge as a token of their respect. Or maybe seeds of the plant became trapped in the soles of their shoes or the cuffs of their pants before travelers from Europe left home—and then fell out when they reached the graveyards. And once the sedge started growing, the groundskeepers could have carried seeds from one cemetery to another on their equipment or clothing.
Why did Bryson spend so much time trying to figure out what the sedge was and where it came from? He studies invasive plants, which are plants that sometimes make themselves at home in new places and crowd out the other plants. Invasive plants in pastures can mean that livestock can’t find enough to eat. Invasive plants sometimes take over ponds and rivers. So it’s a good idea to keep an eye on newcomer plants to see if they might cause problems for the locals.
But Bryson is also a scientist. And scientists always love to solve mysteries!