By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

With roots that "go to China," wildflowers are able to survive on the harsh rocky outcrops in the limestone badlands that serve as a backdrop to iconic Castle Rock.

Some flowers cling precariously to otherwise barren rocky hillsides that instead offer refuge and a bit of shade to the smattering of snakes that inhabit the area.

"They are programmed to do that," botanist Howard Reynolds said of how otherwise fragile wildflowers are able to survive in such a harsh environment. "Their roots go to China."

While that might be a bit of an exaggeration, Reynolds, professor emeritus of botany from Fort Hays State University, said the flowers have a deep root system.

"They've just adapted," said Joe Thomasson, Reynolds' successor at FHSU. "They just evolved and adapted."

In some cases, he said, wildflower seeds simply will wait for ideal conditions, such and temperature and moisture.

"Then things will be just right, and then they will just explode," Thomasson said.

And that's the way it's been this spring in some areas, thanks to the cool temperatures and ideal moisture.

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Reynolds is a walking encyclopedia of all things botanical, although he admits to a bout of forgetfulness now and again.

But, for a man going on the "56th anniversary of his 39th birthday," his sharp wit and attention to detail, using both common and scientific names for plant species, it's hard to discern any memory loss.

"Me and Jack Benny," he said, "39 and holding."

He will make you do the math, but admits to being 95.

He also admits to dealing with knee problems, forcing him to use a cane.

"Then I put my cane down and then wonder where I put my cane," he said of his memory lapses.

Reynolds retired as a professor of botany in 1982, after teaching there for 25 years. Thomasson is taking partial retirement, spending more time outdoors, fishing and hunting.

Thomasson regaled the walleye fishing at Lake Wilson of recent days, telling of three people with six rods and walleye on five of them.

"There was a period of time when, if you fell overboard, you would have been eaten by walleye," he said.

Reynolds said he is uncertain who might be next in line at FHSU, and he fears it might go to someone whose interests lie solely with genetics.

"They wouldn't recognize a plant out in the field if they saw it," he said. "They'd have to test the DNA to tell what it is. There's very few of us old world taxonomists left out in the field. We're a dying breed."

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The wildflowers, he said, have adapted to life on the limestone shelf of northwest Kansas, notably in Gove County where Castle Rock -- along with Monument Rocks, one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas -- is located.

"They will grow in soil, too," Reynolds said of the flowers, "but they're particularly adapted to the area. If they grow in deep soil, the grass will outperform them."

Some of the flowers, pretty to the sight, can be deadly.

Such is the case of prince's plume, yellow spiked flowers that dot the landscape. They are considered selenium accumulators, plants that draw up selenium from the soil.

Generally, livestock don't eat the selenium-intensive plants when forage is abundant. But in rare cases, they do and can suffer from selenium poisoning.

Many of the wildflowers in the Castle Rock area are smaller than areas to the east, including the Hays area, and fewer in number.

"We're in the mixed grass prairie," Reynolds said, an area of higher rainfall. "Out there, they're on the short grass prairie."