Friday, February 5, 2016

Making Botany Come Alive

By Sarah Leach Smith, Visitor Services Coordinator

Lots of people like to garden, and many appreciate a beautiful garden design, but how many know exactly how plants manage water and nutrients? What makes them grow bigger flowers or juicier fruits? If you have ever wondered about these things like I have, consider joining our upcoming class series "Basic Botany and Plant Growth," starting Tuesday, February 16.

Dr. Motten, relaxing with a sea lion in the Galapagos!
I know what you're thinking - even though this sounds like a fascinating topic, it may be a bit dry, depending on the instructor. Fear not! We are proud to introduce you to Alec Motten, a professor in the Duke Biology Department. Professor Motten and I exchanged emails last week, and he gave me some insight into himself and this wonderful class. 

Tell us about your background and experience.
I earned my Ph.D. in zoology at Duke in 1982 and received undergraduate degrees in botany from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1970 and in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1976.  I've always straddled the line between traditional botanist and zoologist designations and consider myself an equal-opportunity natural historian.

My primary responsibility at Duke has been teaching undergraduates an array of courses, including introductory biology, organismal diversity, botany, ecology, and genetics and evolution. I've also taught writing for first-year students and senior biology majors. This spring will be my fourth time offering the "Basic Botany and Plant Growth" course at Duke Gardens.  My research interests are in evolutionary biology, pollination ecology and plant reproductive biology. 

For my doctoral dissertation I studied plant-pollinator interactions in the spring wildflower community of Duke Forest. I still consider March and April my favorite time to be in the woods, and I like to lead spring wildflower hikes to local natural areas. 

In my spare time, I enjoy hiking, camping and canoeing.  During travels in the U.S. and abroad I look forward to opportunities to learn the local flora and fauna and indulge my interest in wildlife and nature photography. 
Photo by Jie Huang.

What can we expect from your class, and what do you hope participants will gain from it?
Students in the class will get a whirlwind tour of basic plant biology and learn how plants are put together, how they function, grow and reproduce, and how they interact in different ways with animals. Extensive, colorful handouts will be provided to help students follow along with the many different topics we'll cover.  I'll also bring in live specimens and lots of demonstration materials for hands-on activities and student personal observations.  

Although any science class necessarily includes a certain amount of jargon, I'll keep that to a minimum and make sure to explain technical terms in language accessible to a non-specialist. My experience is that folks taking this class all have some interest in plants, often from a gardening or environmental conservation perspective, and my hope is to expand on that interest by helping students make connections with aspects of plant biology they are less familiar with. Plants are often taken for granted in our society -- they can be the unnoticed "wallpaper" of our world -- and I'd like to provide a deeper appreciation of just how amazing plant biology can be.
Photo by Bill Snead.

What are you most excited about in this class?
In a time when much of academia is caught up in either increasingly narrowly focused topics or trendy multi/inter/cross-disciplinary studies, it is refreshing to teach a rather more traditional subject and help students delve into it with fresh eyes and new curiosity.  I always look forward to this opportunity to share my enthusiasm for botany with willing, interested students in a largely informal, relaxed setting -- no quizzes or papers! And, without a set curriculum to cover for an exam, I like being able to go off on botanically oriented tangents as student interests and unexpected opportunities may lead. The students and I always learn something new!

If you are interested in learning more, please check out the class description for "Basic Botany and Plant Growth" on our website. To register, please call 919-668-1707 or email. We look forward to seeing you!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Create a Bird-Friendly Garden

By Sarah Leach Smith, Visitor Services Coordinator
Photos by Charles Twine

Joyful gardens are often more than just plants – insects, birds and other wildlife add color, energy, life and song. If you’re interested in learning more about how to attract birds to your garden, consider joining us for “I Need a Plan: Bird-Friendly Gardening." 

Lauri Lawson, a horticulturist with Niche Gardens in Chapel Hill, will teach this 2-session class, which will meet Feb. 2 and 9 from 6:30-9 p.m. Niche Gardens has been a pioneer for native plants and ideal plants for Southern gardens since 1986. Niche has a devoted local and regional following, as well as a thriving nationwide mail-order business.

Lawson has extensive experience teaching gardeners how best to grow a sustainable, low-maintenance landscape, and how to garden for birds, butterflies, pollinators and other beneficial wildlife.

“We all know about bird feeders and birdbaths, but there are many wonderful plants that are both beautiful to our eyes and attractive to a wide variety of birds,” Lawson says. “These plants can create habitat for adults and be a prime spot to raise their nestlings.”

The class will cover the basic needs of common backyard bird species and a roster of easy-to-grow plants to make them happy year round, she says. “I'm especially excited about giving bird-lovers in the class good personal attention to their specific questions and give them the knowledge needed to make their gardens an oasis for our feathered friends."
This class will happen around the same time as an excellent national event called the Great Backyard Bird Count, which encourages people to count birds in their back yards and submit the data online. The collected data will help scientists find out more about bird migration and how it is impacted by environmental changes.

We hope you will join us for “I Need a Plan: Bird-Friendly Gardening” (email or call 919-668-1707 to register), and perhaps participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count as well!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Blomquist Garden of Native Plants: A Museum in the Woods

The Blomquist Pavilion. Photo by Sue Lannon.
By Sarah Leach Smith
Visitor Services Coordinator

This post marks the first in a series highlighting the curators and plant collections of Duke Gardens. It is thanks to them that we are a world class botanic garden!

Curator Stefan Bloodworth. Photo by Cecelia Xie.
When walking through the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, many people find themselves thinking a common thought: "I feel like I’m in the middle of the woods!"

The Blomquist Garden is one of four unique gardens in Duke Gardens. Its curator, Stefan Bloodworth, is glad that people feel like they are in the middle of the woods rather than the middle of the city of Durham. As with each distinct area within Duke Gardens, this garden has a unique history and mission. 

The Blomquist Garden was dedicated in 1968 in memory of professor Hugo L. Blomquist, the first chair of Duke University’s Department of Botany. At that time, the garden was an extensive fern collection to honor professor Blomquist’s extensive knowledge of native ferns. The collection was about one-quarter of the size of the present-day garden.

Bloodworth’s tenure as curator of the Blomquist began in 2002. By that time, the garden had expanded beyond ferns to include other types of plants native to the southeastern United States. The collections were well established, but Bloodworth was excited to put his spin on things. His background was in forest ecology, landscape design and carpentry.

McNabb Family Bridge and Stream. Photo by Rick Fisher.
Since his arrival, Bloodworth has worked to advance and evolve the Blomquist Garden in several ways. One of his first goals was to incorporate signature hardscapes that would complement and enhance the existing landscape elements. When planning for these projects, Bloodworth is deeply thoughtful with his aesthetic. From the material type and origin to the structural design, everything has to have a reason for being used.

One recent project is the McNabb Family Bridge and Stream. The integration of the wood and metal in the bridge serves both a functional and aesthetic purpose, tying together nature and man-made materials. The wood was locally sourced  southern reclaimed sinker cypress, and the metalwork, integrating sculptural accents inspired by native species, was created by a local artisan.
Close-up of metalwork on the McNabb Family Bridge. Photo by Bob Ayers.
“Everything has a purpose. There are stories everywhere, in every element of the design,” Bloodworth says. 

This same philosophy encompasses the horticultural goals that Bloodworth has for the Blomquist. “Just like every landscape architecture design decision you make has a story behind it, so does every planting decision that you make.”

Bloodworth wants the garden to communicate the idea of “conservation horticulture” to its visitors. He takes into account ecosystem science and wildlife habitat design when creating new spaces. His aim is to create a “museum in the woods” to help visitors understand that they are in a botanical garden with unique and special collections, and he uses educational signs to interpret the space and help people appreciate what they are seeing and experiencing.

A male red-bellied woodpecker in the Blomquist. Photo by Stefan Bloodworth.
One of the “exhibits” in Bloodworth’s museum is the Steve Church Endangered Species Garden. Created in 2004, this collection of plants aims to educate people about the importance of conserving rare species. Most of the species in the collection have a sponsoring organization or a custodial partner, such as a fish and wildlife agency or a botanical garden, which is responsible for monitoring and actively conserving these plants in the wild. The sponsoring organizations will also take action as needed to promote the protection of the species’ natural habitats and ex-situ conservation. Visitors can learn about these organizations from interpretive signs in the Endangered Species Garden. Smartphone accessible QR codes included on the signs link visitors with in-depth information about each species, including the names of the groups charged with their care.

Bloodworth believes that with its more than 300,000 visitors each year, Duke Gardens has a unique opportunity to teach people about the importance of plant conservation and connect visitors with the organizations working to protect these disappearing species. More information about plant conservation and sponsoring organizations can be found on the Center for Plant Conservation website.

Starry rosinweed. Photo by Sue Lannon.
The Blomquist Garden of Native Plants is a special space any time of the year. Because of the garden's unique collections and wildlife, dogs and bicycles and not allowed. We hope you'll take a stroll through this “museum in the woods” on your next visit to Duke Gardens!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Winter Delights in the Kathleen Smith Moss Garden

 Lily seed pods

Acer palmatum 'Emperor 1'
By Flora O'Brien
Duke Gardens Volunteer

It's mid-December in the Kathleen Smith Moss Garden, where I spend many enjoyable hours as a horticulture volunteer. The joyous distractions of summer have passed, leaving a calm and verdant richness. The underlying architecture of the garden becomes more evident. It is a time to walk slowly and notice small things.

Budding tree peony.

The Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Emperor 1’) is particularly beautiful.The tree holds its leaves later than many other trees, then sheds them in a flurry of crimson, and they end up in a spectacular array around its feet.

Daphne odora ready to pop! Photo by Sarah Leach Smith.

The lily seed pods (Lilium sp.; photo at top), the buds and blossoms on the tree peonies and Fuji cherry (Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’) have begun to appear, and the Daphne odora has set its buds.

Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha)

Look at the small grove of paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) surrounding the beautiful American cherry wood bench. The  leaves have fallen, revealing a mass of nodding satiny flower buds.

Closer inspection will reward you with ferns, the berries of sacred lily, and of course the subtle shapes and colors of the lush blanket of mosses.

Close-up of paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha). Photo by Sue Lannon.

Located between the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden and the traditional Japanese-style arched bridge (see map here), this space is a surprise to be discovered, a cherished jewel within the larger Culberson Asiatic Arboretum.

Now the garden seems to rest, awaiting the evolution of winter. But wonders await those who would spend a quiet moment in this quiet space.

All photos by Flora O'Brien, except where noted.