Monday, February 28, 2011

Tour the Duke Herbarium

Passiflora specimen, courtesy of Duke Herbarium

By Kathleen M. Pryer

Just what makes an oak an oak or a pine a pine? Until recently, it was based upon what we could see about a plant. For centuries, botanists and plant collectors have searched for plants in remote and isolated jungles, in urban waste lots and along railroad tracks, in order to document the diversity and distribution of the earth's flora.

The dried plant specimens are stored and studied in herbaria, which can be thought of as a library of plant life. As we lose natural habitats across the world, herbaria provide a record of plant life, and they serve as a repository of precious genetic information. Herbaria hold the tools for our understanding of the plant world.

Each herbarium specimen is key to understanding plant relationships, geographic distributions and economic usefulness. More recently, genetic and molecular studies using herbarium specimens have allowed us to see plants at an entirely different level. This refinement in our understanding of how plants may be related is a dramatic story in the botanical world.

Some early herbaria were established in Europe in the early 1600s, a time of great exploration. New plants were being found at such a rate that botanical gardens could not keep pace by growing living examples of every new species found. Representatives of many known (and even undescribed) species of plants can be found in herbaria today, carefully mounted on sheets of archival quality paper, labeled with important collection information about them, and stored on shelves in cabinets in climate-controlled rooms.

All in all, the quiet herbarium holds a fascinating story. At the Duke University Herbarium you can see 800,000 diverse specimens of algae, fungi, lichens, mosses and vascular plants. These include samples of rare passionflowers discovered in the 1970s by Duke scientists working in Costa Rica, grasses from the 1890s Biltmore Estate, and Amborella, a small shrub found only on the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific.

Duke Gardens is offering a tour of the Duke Herbarium on March 4 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. You will have the opportunity to see the collection, hear from a botanist who studies and manages it and learn about the amazing work being done across the globe. For information or to register, please call 668-1707 or e-mail

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Kathleen M. Pryer is director of the Duke Herbarium and an associate professor of biology at Duke. This column first ran in the Durham Herald-Sun on Feb. 19.

For more Duke Gardens classes and special events, please see this previous post.
Adiantum specimen, courtesy of Duke Herbarium

Monday, February 7, 2011

Garden design: where to start?

By Lauren Sims
Photo by William Cullina

This spring, many of us will head to a local nursery or garden center and select a few new plants for our yards. Perhaps you are looking for a couple of containers to sit on the front porch, or maybe some brightly colored annuals to line the path to the door. This seems simple enough, right? But for a lot of people, “designing” a garden space is a completely different and more daunting endeavor.

“I think design is intimidating for most people,” says William Cullina, a gardening author and director of horticulture at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. “There’s a sense that there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way to do it, and if you do it wrong it’s out there in your front yard and everybody is going to see it and you’ll be embarrassed.”

But Cullina is quick to point out that garden design does not have to be intimidating, and there is no such thing as right and wrong.

“In a sense, design is all about perception, right? It’s our perception of beauty.”

Some homeowners like the idea of a garden space that blends in with the natural landscape surrounding it, or one that suggests a landscape that they wish surrounded them, says Cullina, who counseled many Triangle gardeners back when he was nursery manager at Chapel Hill’s Niche Gardens. Others prefer a more abrupt design that sets the garden apart from its surroundings. Choose what you like, he says; no one aesthetic is better or worse than another.

One key to designing a garden space is to take the time to think abstractly, Cullina says. Right now, before that spring trip to the garden center, is the perfect time to play around with new ideas. Daydream about what you would like for and from your garden. Sketch out some ideas. Take digital photos of plants, or cut them out of a seed catalog, then lay them out and shuffle them around to see if and where you like them. And if you don’t like what you see, just grab a new piece of paper or snap a few more photos and experiment some more. No harm done.

The most important part of garden design is to enjoy yourself, says Cullina.

“Everybody has an opinion about what’s beautiful and everybody thinks that their opinion is the best one,” he says. “So I think you have to take it all with a grain of salt and have fun with it.”

You can learn more from Cullina when he visits Duke Gardens for two special events this month. On Feb. 12, from 9 a.m. to noon, he’ll lead a workshop called “Beyond the Surface: Soil Demystified.” Then from 3 to 5 p.m., he’ll present a talk titled “The Botany of Design.” For more information, please call 668-1707 or e-mail To see Duke Gardens’ full roster of discovery programs, please go to

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Lauren Sims is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens. This column first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on Feb. 5, 2011.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Training new docents. Join us!

Duke Gardens is pleased to announce the dates for this year's docent training. We are expanding programming in children’s education and hope to train 7 or 8 new children's docents. We would also like to offer more trolley and walking tours in our adult tour program.

Docent trainees must attend each of the three trainings listed below. The deadline to sign up is Feb. 16.

Dates: February 21, 23 and 25

Time: 9 a.m. to noon

Please contact Chuck Hemric if you would like to sign up or are seeking more information. You can also read more on our website about our volunteer opportunities in education, as well as other volunteer opportunities.

Thanks for your interest!