Thursday, April 5, 2012

Local Flora: Spring - exploring landscapes

Echinacea purpurea
Photo by Jason Holmes

By Kate Blakely

One of North Carolina’s own has been working hard to help preserve some of the state’s natural treasures. Ken Moore, former assistant director at the North Carolina Botanical Garden at UNC-Chapel Hill, began working in native plant conservation in the early 1970s. He has been leading walking groups around the state since then. He’ll lead teach a field trip-focused course called “Local Flora: Spring” at Duke Gardens beginning this Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and continuing for three more Saturdays.

The depth of Ken’s experience allows him to respond to each group’s questions and flavor the experience with information about their interests. For example, Ken has worked with fire as a management strategy and notes that fire is critical for the health of certain plant communities and species – from plants to birds, insects and other wildlife.

Some species are even “fire-dependent,” like the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) or the blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis). Fire helps keep prairies clear of shrubs and trees. Otherwise, many wildflowers and grasses won’t get the necessary sunlight. Fires have regularly been set by people, from Native Americans to European settlers, in order to renew a landscape area and encourage foraging by grazing animals.

The story deepens as Ken outlines the underlying geology of our state. Using Penny’s Bend as an example (a site where he frequently leads field trips), Ken notes its unusual diabase rock under the topsoil, creating an unusually high PH or sweet soil.

“That’s where you find some interesting and sometimes rare plants like the coneflower and the Dutchman’s breeches,” says Moore.

Different hikers have different interests and expertise, and they bring those interests and information on the walks.

“We really share,” Moore says of his classes. “We might have some people thinking about birds. If we see birds, we’ll talk about the birds. ... It’s mainly just to help people see, help people learn to observe.”

“Local Flora: Spring” field trips will include observations in a variety of habitats, using a key to identify plants, and noting undesirable plants. The class will meet at a different natural area each week to hike and learn about plants, animals and the natural systems that impact them. Ken will weave together various threads in the story of plants, how to identify them, and then what they tell us about the area’s soil, hydrology and history.

With this information, and a little practice, you can go anywhere and “read the landscape,” knowing something about the systems at work from the plants you find. From your back door to the wildest part of Durham County, there is an amazing story to uncover, and this may be just the beginning of your journey.

To register, or for more information, please call (919) 668-1707. The class costs $120; $95 for Gardens members. Students will receive “Tree Finder: A Manual for Identification of Trees by Their Leaves,” by May Theilgaard Watts, as part of the course. To learn more about Duke Gardens classes and public 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.

Kate Blakely is a graduate student at Duke Divinity School and a work-study assistant at Duke Gardens.

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