Retired MCC instructor’s unusual honor: A plant named after him

You’ve heard of flowery resumes. But how about a resume that includes the honor of having a flowering plant named after you?

Belt

Dr. David Belt, a retired Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley biology instructor, can now claim a tropical plant as his namesake. Its official, scientific moniker: Anthurium davidbeltianum Croat.

Anthurium is a large genus of flowering plants from the arum family. The species named for Belt was discovered in Peru in 2006, on a mountain in a forest that gets a lot of rain.

Belt, now living in St. Louis (he taught at MCC from 1999 to 2015), volunteers for the Missouri Botanical Garden there. Specifically, he’s a volunteer aroid researcher working under the direction of Dr. Tom Croat — note that “Croat” also shows up in the plant’s new name.

The botanical garden boasts one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive collections of aroids, which are related to philodendrons and caladiums.

Naming a new species is the province of the person who determined that it actually is a new species, Belt explains. Over their careers, researchers may be confronted with the need to name from a few dozen to thousands of new plants.

Croat is the world authority on Araceae, a large, well-known family of flowering plants that includes the peace lily (Spathiphyllum cochlearispathum), Belt says. Croat  has collected more than 100,000 plant specimens, but fortunately for him, not all are new species requiring names.

When it comes to naming a new species of plant, there are three typical sources of inspiration:

  • The name of the collector
  • A distinguishing characteristic of the plant, such as the shape of the leaf, color of the flower or the odor emitted during reproductive season (a classic example being the common skunk cabbage, Symplocarpus foetidus, Belt says)
  • Someone associated with the process of collecting, preserving or naming the plant

That third category applies to Belt. “My function as a volunteer is to assist  Dr. Croat in describing new family Araceae species in preparation for publication” in scholarly journals, he says.

A plant by any other name …

Anthurium davidbeltianum is a land plant with medium to dark green velvety to shiny leaves and tiny flowers on a tubular structure about the size of a little finger in circumference.

“One of the striking and unusual features of this plant is the length of the spadix, or flowering structure, which can be up to 14 inches long,” Belt says. “The spadix is gray when the flowers are fully open, becoming dark purple later.”

David Belt is not the only member of the Belt family with a plant that bears his name. His distant (but famous) relative Thomas Belt was a 19th century English geologist and naturalist who wrote “The Naturalist in Nicaragua” (1874). Darwin — yes, that Darwin — called it the “best of all natural history journals which have ever been published.” Thomas Belt spent four years in Nicaragua and is the name behind Anthurium beltianum Standley &  L.O. Williams.

David Belt, too, is an ardent advocate of Nicaragua and has made many trips there since the late 1980s. In addition to being a biologist, he is an ordained United Methodist minister, now retired. In about 1987 he became chairman of a “Peace With Justice” task force, which resulted in a trip to Nicaragua. At the time the U.S. was involved with the contra war there.

“I was so taken by the immense poverty that I decided to organize and lead delegations of volunteers to work in a rural community in the war zone,” Belt says. “We gathered medical and other types of supplies and volunteered our labor in a women’s health clinic.” He also helped raise money to buy and refurbish an 11-ton Mercedes truck, which he drove there from Chicago.

After a dozen or so delegations, Belt had made a lot of friends in Nicaragua. For the last decade or so he’s been going each year to visit friends.

“I love the country and its people, and I want to try to be helpful,” he says.

But back to his leafy green namesake: Yes, it would have been great for the plant to have Nicaraguan roots, so to speak, a thought that also occurred to Croat. “But no unnamed Nicaraguan plants were available at the time,” Belt says.

A display case featuring the story of Anthurium davidbeltianum can be found on the second floor of MCC-Penn Valley’s Science-Technology building. “David has been, and continues to be, a feather in MCC’s cap,” says Nancy Harrington, chair of the science, math and engineering divisions at Penn Valley.