Monday, October 6, 2014

Duke Field Trip to the Blomquist Garden

by Erika Zambello

As a teaching assistant for Duke's "Introduction to Environmental Science and Policy" undergraduate class, I was asked to organize a field trip for students that would help reinforce course material. I knew instantly where I wanted to take them: the Blomquist Garden for Native Plants. Both close to campus and an amazing place to learn about native North Carolina ecosystems, the Blomquist Garden could illustrate concepts students had learned in the classroom, such as ecosystem function, biodiversity and conservation.

The students met me at the Doris Duke Visitor Center on a cloudy afternoon. After trooping through the Mary Duke Biddle Rose Garden and to the entrance of the Blomquist Garden, we met Blomquist curator/horticulturist Stefan Bloodworth, who would lead our tour.

Right away Stefan captured their attention as he explained that he was not interested in the "beauty" of a plant but rather the way it contributed to biodiversity. In particular, he wants the Blomquist Garden to attract and support as many insect species as possible.

Of course, that means butterflies and bees feeding on the nectar and pollen of flowers, he said, but insects in all life stages need plants to survive. Butterflies may not feed on the large oak trees of the garden, for example, but as caterpillars they absolutely love them.

When planning the Blomquist Wildlife Garden in particular, Stefan and the staff took every insect life cycle into account when selecting plants, as well as other birds, reptiles and amphibians. The Wildlife Garden features a small stream that is home to crayfish and salamanders, while the nearby flowers give food to bees and butterflies, decomposing logs host another class of insects and decomposers, and birds rest and feed in the surrounding shrubs and trees. With wildlife diversity as the goal of the garden, Duke Gardens has increased the insect species in the Wildlife Garden from fewer than 10 to more than 100!

As Stefan continued, I saw the students nodding, making connections from the garden to their own lives. They were especially interested when he focused on the importance not just of species diversity but genetic diversity as well. At the Blomquist Garden, the staff plants "straight species" as much as possible. What is a straight species? Simply put, a plant variety whose genetic makeup has been, as much as possible in our modern world, untouched by humans, either through selective breeding or cloning. Because they have reached their present form through natural processes, their seeds retain the largest amount of genetic diversity.

To find seeds for certain species at the Blomquist, staff members travel around the Triangle looking for native seeds to bring back. When they find a clump of plants, they follow a specific protocol. Instead of taking all the seeds they find back to the Gardens, they sample 25% of the plants, and from that 25%, they only take 25% of the seeds. In this way, they do not remove an entire plant clump's genetic material, only a sample. In addition, gathering seeds from local areas means the seeds themselves are best adapted to conditions here in the Triangle.

We walked from the entrance of the Blomquist Garden to the Steve Church Endangered Species Garden, where Stefan spoke of the importance of prairie habitats in fostering diversity. Unfortunately, true prairie habits are few and far between in North Carolina. In part to rectify this and in part to educate the public on the value of prairie habitats, Duke Gardens is planning to cultivate its own prairie ecosystem.

As our third and final stop, Stefan showed us the future location of the prairie, just beyond the Endangered Species Garden. It is here that staff and volunteers will plant a carefully researched list of both grasses and wildlflowers - also collected from local sources - to replicate a prairie.

After a few questions, the field trip ended. Though we had only been in the Blomquist Garden for an hour, the students told me how much they had learned. I agreed that I had learned a lot, too! Flowers and plants are beautiful, but it is so important to remember that they also play an critical biodiversity role in both their population, by harboring genetic diversity, and in their larger ecosystem, as host and food and shelter to insects and other wildlife.

Blogger and photographer Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. 

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