June 2021
Plant Whisperer
Master Gardener Sue Smith shares her lifelong wonder at the natural world

On a recent Wild Woman weekend, where a beloved artist friend invited a collection of friends from different parts of her life to come together, celebrate and support each other, I met Sue Smith, a petite, energetic gal who, though in her 60s, was the only one of us to capably set up her little tent and sleep on the ground. (The rest of us had campers or couches.)

Sue Smith at home

Sue is a field botanist, has camped and backpacked all her adult life, and has no plans to stop anytime soon. I asked her about her life, and thoroughly enjoyed hearing about her fascinating journey, guided by her love of plants.

Growing up in Central Nebraska near the Platte River, Sue attended a one-room school and spent much time out of doors. She points to two things in her early years that strongly informed her life: one was the experience of running through the natural short-grass prairie and the feel of it under her bare feet (are you picturing that Garth Williams illustration from Little House on the Prairie?) and the other when her parents gave her a packet of radish seeds when she was five and feeling the wonder of seeing something grow from almost nothing.

As the biggest influence in her life Sue cites her great aunt Carrie, a biology professor, strong and independent, who loved the outdoors and was an exceptional birder. Carrie didn’t drive and never traveled, though she had many Viewmaster disks of the national parks and loved sharing them with young Sue. “I heard this longing in her voice that she didn’t go there, and I said, ‘I’m not going to live my life and not do it!’ She gave me the incentive to do something broader.”

Wind poppy

Applying her analytical, organized mind, Sue went into computer science and worked in Silicon Valley in its heyday, becoming one of the first women to work for Ebay in the early years. Through these years she and her family camped and hiked all through the West, and she took up photographing wildflowers. When she and her husband moved to Prescott in 2006, she immediately joined the Master Gardener program, a group of serious-minded gardeners who do a surprising amount of volunteer work all around our community. The program starts in January, with a commitment of four hours each Wednesday, and runs till graduation in May, after which the new gardeners undertake 100 hours of volunteer time in their first year, plus participation in continuing education work.

Sue joined a group of gardeners working on a project, thinking she would focus on her photography work. But when the leader of the group stepped down in 2007, she found herself in a leadership role that led to the group starting work on the Native and Naturalized Plant Database for Yavapai County.

Using her considerable IT skills, Sue programmed the interface and the backend database. Many, many master gardeners have put in countless hours on this ongoing project to identify and monitor the roughly 2,000 native plants in Yavapai County. To date, the database is about half-completed. (To view the database online, google “Yavapaiplants.”)


This project was the beginning of everything Sue has done plantwise since. She loved the work with plants, but wanted more interaction with botanists. She and her husband began joining plant-research groups. This work included learning to identify and collect plants, as well as “reading” plots, where a frame is placed on the ground and various protocols are followed in observing what is growing in that plot and how the plants are thriving and interacting with each other.

She began working with the Grand Canyon Trust, and ultimately earned a Masters degree from Utah State University doing research on native grasses in Bears Ears National Monument. The land she worked on was part of an allotment belonging to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. It was meant for grazing, but the tribe couldn’t use it that way at the time, and so were in danger of losing the allotment. Sue was glad to be able to bring all those interests together, helping both the Grand Canyon Trust and the Ute tribe.

Sue has been a volunteer at the Highlands Center for Natural History since she moved to Prescott, and on the Discovery Garden committee since 2008. This part of the Highlands Center is designed to teach people about the uniqueness of our Central Highlands area. “There’s everything in the books, and then there’s Prescott,” she says.

Desert larkspur

In the different parts of the Discovery Garden, including natural areas and home landscaping, you can find native and regionally adapted plants that will thrive in your yard with minimal watering. The Discovery Garden is also entirely accessible, so everyone can enjoy it, including those using wheelchairs. Sue has adopted the grasslands and home-landscaping areas as her focus.

There are many ways to get involved with local plants in our area. Check with the Native Plant Society, Highlands Center, the Natural History Institute or Prescott Master Gardeners to learn more.

Sue gets passionate about how important it is for people to get outside, especially children. “If children can appreciate the natural world, they will make good choices for our future.” During this difficult time, a regular dose of the outdoors is balm for the soul.

Abby Brill is Associate Editor of 5enses. Photos by Sue Smith, portrait by Abby.

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