Olive Thomson – Shooting Star

By Cindy Crosby

The perfect antidote to discouragement about the state of the environment is a glimpse of the very full life of Olive Thomson, an 87-year-old environmental advocate, who has had a lifelong commitment to the preservation of native plants.

Olive grew up in a rural area south of Madison, Wisconsin, where she spent many days rambling among the wildflowers of a neighboring farm. In the mid-1920s, newly-paved Highway 59 improved access to the area from Chicago and “a wealthy man bought the farm, divided it into lots for homes, sold the land and destroyed everything.” Olive says, “This was the beginning of my interest in conservation.” After marrying botanist John Thomson, Jr. in 1937, Olive’s interest in the natural world increased. (John today is recognized as the world’s most knowledgeable Arctic lichenologist.) The couple bought 20 acres west of Madison, where they still live. Olive began studying about mosses and ferns. Later, the whole family was involved in collecting lichens and other botanical specimens for John’s classes at the University of Wisconsin.

More than thirty years ago, Olive met Lorrie Otto, widely acknowledged as the heart and soul of the natural landscape movement. “We were both trying to foster the native plants along Wisconsin highways, and I found out we only lived seventy miles from each other,” says Olive. “We’ve been friends ever since.” In addition to planting a small arboretum and numerous gardens on their property, fifteen years ago the Thomsons established almost an acre of direct-seeded prairie, containing fifty species of native plants.

“Most of the seeds I used were gathered in nearby prairies,” Olive says. Her prairie spot lacks early spring specimens, “but I have good stands of summer flowers,” she says. She has had success with wild quinine plants, (Parthenium integrifolium), grown from local seed sources, big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), and compass plants (Silphium laciniatum). The deer often make inroads, especially munching on white wild indigo (Baptisia leucantha or alba) and Silphium. In her woodland area, Olive has discovered three or four large twayblade orchids (Liparis liliifolia), which are unusual in the area. The prairie is regularly burned to eliminate non-prairie plants and to stimulate the sprouting of seeds.

Olive is known for editing and updating Norman Carter Fassett’s Spring Flora of Wisconsin: A Manual of Plants Growing without Cultivation and Flowering Before June 15 (University of Wisconsin Press), widely used in Wisconsin college taxonomy classes, naturalists and wildflower enthusiasts. For the fourth edition (1976), Olive added keys and descriptions, which doubled the size of the book. Thomson receives no royalties. “I think I got 50 cents an hour for working on it,” she reflects, laughing. Olive does not know of plans to update the volume and believes that her involvement is likely finished.

Starting about 1968, Olive became a member and later chaired the Dane County Environmental Council in Madison. The council’s “Spruce-up Campaign” won awards for guiding community clean-up efforts. In 1976, the council received an award for Prairie Heritage Trail, a nine-mile stretch of Highway 78, dedicated to permanently protecting of prairie species on the right-of-way. In 1993, the Environmental Council created a brochure, “A Landscape Worth Considering – Landscaping with Native Plants.” This was seen at the Byron Nature Preserve in Illinois by Wild Ones member Donna VanBuecken, who asked for permission to adapt it; Wild Ones has used this brochure for seven years, printing more than 30,000 copies. The brochure is available for download: Landscape Worth Considering.

In 1987, the Thomsons partnered with The Nature Conservancy and the National Audubon Society, creating the Thomson Memorial Prairie in honor of one of their five children, Dr. Douglas Thomson, who had died tragically. The prairie remnant encompasses 323 acres southwest of Blue Mounds, Wisconsin. Sixty-eight species of plants flourish there, including the rare pomme de prairie (Psoralea esculenta)and green milkweed (Ascelepias viridiflora). It provides habitat for more than thirty-four species of birds.

It is action on the grassroots level like this that encourages others to preserve native plants. “Olive inspires us with the knowledge that one individual can make a vast positive difference for her environment, her community, and the people she works with,” said Mindy Habecker, (Dane County UW-Extension, Natural Resource/Community Development Educator). “She does this by taking the knowledge, values, and love she holds and skillfully using this within community organizations and local government to tangibly get things done – and make long-term differences.”

In her long commitment to the preservation of native plants, Olive has received numerous awards. Olive describes her greatest award like this: “My life has been fun! I’ve done what I’ve enjoyed. It’s very gratifying now to know how many organizations and people are into the things I was pioneering.”

Cindy Crosby is a full-time freelance writer and author of two books about nature and faith: Waiting for Morning and By Willoway Brook. She is a member of the Greater DuPage (IL) Wild Ones Chapter. Reach her at phrelanzer@aol.com.