Conover has studied botany for most of his adult life after beginning his academic career working with freshwater clams. As a student at the University of Dayton, he began working in plant physiology, plant ecology and ecological restoration with UD professor Donald Geiger. Over the years, Conover conducted dozens of botanical surveys in natural areas of southwest Ohio and southeastern Indiana.
His research at nearby places like Cincinnati’s Bender Mountain Nature Preserve has helped control nonnative and invasive species such as Amur honeysuckle, wintercreeper, English ivy, porcelain berry, privet and winged euonymus to encourage the return of native species.
“It takes a lot of patience. For some of these species, you need a dissecting microscope and proper books so you can figure out what it is,” he said.
UC biologist Tepe has described many plants new to science during his own international fieldwork. He said Conover is extremely adept at identification, which makes the task of surveying plants infinitely easier.
“Denis has an extraordinary knowledge of the local flora. He is much like Lucy Braun in that he has a holistic understanding of Cincinnati flora,” Tepe said.
“Most botanists recognize plants by their flowers or fruits,” he said. “But if it’s just a green, leafy shrub, it’s often invisible even to many botanists. But Denis recognizes it right away.”
Conover said even he can be fooled. To identify some grasses and sedges, which have many species that look similar, Conover turned to expert Rick Gardner, chief botanist for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for verification.
The project, which is expected to continue over the next year, has already yielded some surprises. On one outing, Conover noticed an inconspicuous green shrub. A closer look revealed it as a native species called lanceleaf buckthorn.
“I looked at Lea’s herbarium list and saw that he observed that species not too far from there nearly 200 years ago. And then I noticed that Lucy Braun, too, had an herbarium specimen she collected near Milford along the Little Miami River,” Conover said.
“It’s little things like this that are intriguing about the project.”