Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Three Years On

It's been just over three years since The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort officially opened. I can still remember receiving, in December of 2010, the impossible pre-opening "goals" from Joe (the Gardens' Director) after I made it through some of the first rounds of interviews for this position. It was a major reason I tried to withdraw my application; I knew there was no way I'd be able accomplish it all and thought, "the whole ethnobotanic garden thing is right up my alley, but this guy must be crazy thinking someone can do all that in three months!" Joe ended up reassuring me, however, that it was more of a "wish list" and that he understood some things would require a longer time scale. And so, after a very positive visit to Kona Kai for a final interview, I packed my car and headed down to the Keys.

The infamous pre-opening goal list - having worked in a Plant Records office for almost two years, I knew that I would be hard-pressed to finish the first two items alone in three months!

During the first year, Joe and I had many discussions about what we wanted the Gardens to focus on and the messages we wanted to convey. I brought what might be called an academic, technical, and practical "scientific" perspective, whereas Joe brought a more energetic, creative, and "layman's" perspective. It was interesting and frustrating conversing with Joe because he had none of the formal education in ethnobotany or experience regarding the inner workings of botanic gardens that I did, but this ended up being very helpful when it came to articulating what we wanted people to learn. Joe could provide insight into what someone without botanical knowledge would understand and find stimulating and powerful and what they probably wouldn't. The fruits of these discussions were our first batch of display labels and the first iteration of my "ethnobotanic" tour here at the Gardens, both of which focused primarily on the ways people have used and continue to use plants, which fall under the umbrellas of "traditional ethnobotany" and "economic botany." These vital practical uses of plants to humans were what originally struck Joe powerfully and made him want to share these many values of plants with others, hoping they would come to realize that we need to preserve and protect these valuable assets if we are to survive and thrive on earth for centuries to come.

The first display labels arrive!

As our discussions continued in subsequent months, our topics began to broaden. Joe now had a pretty good grasp on the many ways people use plants, but he still didn't know much about plants themselves. And so, he would often ask basic botanical questions like, "How does a plant survive?" I would explain that a plant uses photosynthesis to produce sugars and brings in water and nutrients through its roots. Then, of course, he would ask what photosynthesis is, which I would explain simply as the process of a plant using carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to produce the sugars it uses to function and also oxygen as a byproduct. This elicited a response of wonder and astonishment from Joe, which was repeated again and again over the course of several weeks when discussing such self-evident and elementary subjects for a botanist. He explained to me that although many of these aspects of plants are well-known to me and have become by now "given knowledge," these things are potentially revelations to others who have had no botanical education, and suggested that I include many of these facts in my tour.

These particular bromeliads are not useful to humans from a "utilitarian" perspective, but they do contain fascinating micro-ecosystems within each plant, as well as clusters of tiny white flowers peeking just above the water that gathers in their centers.

One day, Joe came into the office and exclaimed, "Plants are people, too!" "Oh boy..." I thought. Joe continued, "They need to eat, they need to drink, they breathe, they see light, and some plants even move when you touch them!" "Sure," I said, "but that doesn't make them people... maybe like people, but they are not humans." Although he initially showed some resistance to this distinction, especially after reading books like The Secret Life Of Plants and Plants as Persons, we eventually reached an understanding after a number of subsequent discussions and reading of other, more scientific, literature such as What A Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz. Although Joe eventually came to agree that plants are indeed not people, we both found compelling value in the perspective of perceiving plants as much more than objects; as "persons" in their own way.

Descriptions of each of these books can be found in the "Recommended Reading" section of kkbg.org.

Well into our second year, we were able to see that the focus of the Gardens and my tours, while still based on plants and people, had expanded significantly beyond the realm of "traditional" ethnobotany and into areas like plant biology, plant behavior, and philosophical botany. If it had been just me running the Gardens, it probably would have remained focused on traditional ethnobotany and would have had a more scientific orientation. If it had been just Joe, if I may take the liberty of humorous speculation, the Gardens would have likely been a place where a man apparently out of his mind pets his plants, carries on in-depth one-sided conversations with them, and makes sure they are dressed properly with pants, shirts, and sunglasses. As it happened, though, we came together to form a very unusual collaboration, much like two different species of plants that hybridize to create a new plant that retains the best qualities of each.

Pluots (plum x apricot) - one of my favorite hybrids, YUM!

The product of this hybridization has been the development of the Gardens' current mission to transform people's understanding of plants through educational and restorative experiences here at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort, and vision of a world in which people partner with plants to preserve and protect our biosphere. We go about accomplishing this through 90-minute TYUP (Transforming Your Understanding of Plants) Tours here at the Gardens, as well as an education program for local students (we currently facilitate the involvement of over half of all elementary and middle school Upper Keys students in The Fairchild Challenge environmental education program). KKBG.org is our virtual botanic garden "app" that allows visitors to explore the Gardens in an interactive way, take the Gardens home with them, and share it with others. Although we're a small botanic garden, we're "planting" and "watering" hundreds of seeds of environmental awareness every year in the lives of those who visit us or take part in one of our programs. We strongly believe that the 21st Century is a pivotal time in human history, a time for many of these seeds to germinate to spark widespread partnership with plants to preserve and protect our biosphere for generations to come.

For more on our focus of "Plants as Partners," see Joe's most recent Director's Letter.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nothing Gold Can Stay

"Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay."

I often think of this poem by Robert Frost when walking around the Gardens. Everywhere there is life and beauty because the Gardens are very well kept by our staff. It is interesting to note that for a garden to be "well kept" it is almost a requirement that what is decaying or dead be removed or at least hidden. And yet, even in the best-kept gardens, there is no lack of death and decay, and cracks can be found in the facade of beauty if only one looks for them, which not many care to do. Why is it that our culture's sense of aesthetics largely excludes death and decay from what is considered "beautiful"? Perhaps it's because these sights serve as uncomfortable reminders that "nothing gold can stay."

Although I do love landscapes and gardens filled with only blooms and life, it seems like something of a lie: death doesn't really exist - the world is perpetually in a state of youthful beauty and vigor. When we look at a flower in full bloom, we are enraptured by it and our spirits soar, and may even be filled with a deep longing. Perhaps there is an unconscious reason why we love to surround ourselves with flowers in bloom - that we might convince ourselves that our life will also be only bloom, with no decay or death; that these things don't really exist.

Yet these very flowers serve as one of the most poignant examples of the transitoriness of every living thing on earth precisely because their extreme beauty gives way to almost unthinkable ugliness in such a short span of time. We would, of course, love to believe that flowers only go from bud to bloom and then bloom in perpetuity. Notice how flower bouquets are usually discarded as soon as the decay begins; we don't want to see that. I doubt most people have ever even intently looked upon a flower that has fully died!

For those who are willing to look these phenomena of decay and death straight in the eye, the hibiscus provides great opportunities for reflection. One can watch the buds develop as their beautiful colors flush into the exposed petals, which then open into full bloom for only a single glorious day. Afterwards, the flowers quickly and quietly fade and do not remain long on the plant, falling off to make way for tomorrow's beauties, which easily make you forget about the ones that came before - you will not bother looking for them underneath the leaves, where they are decaying upon the ground; a forgotten, contorted shadow of yesterday's magnificent beauty. Here is a sequence of photographs chronicling the typical life of a hibiscus flower over the course of about a week:

But if we do decide to push back the leaves of the hibiscus bushes to find the unsightly figures of yesterday's beauty, undoubtedly we will feel a corresponding tinge of revulsion perceptible within ourselves, as if our mind can't stand to face the truth of what such beauty has become, and what we ourselves will one day soon become. Indeed, each of our physical bodies is a flower. Look in the media today - youth is glorified in the same way flowers are glorified in display gardens. But what happens to those youthful "flowers" once they've passed their prime? Our culture seems to do the same as a display gardener would - keep them away from sight so as not to upset our pleasant fantasy of being forever young and beautiful. We can, however, find these flowers of yesterday if we but seek them out, beyond the movie screens and magazines. Here are only a couple examples among countless others:

Arnold Schwarzenegger, 4-time Mr. Universe and 7-time Mr. Olympia.


Ursula Andress, the original Bond girl in the first James Bond Movie - Dr. No.

Flowers teach us the way of natural physical life on earth - youth, beauty, and vigor give way to decay, ugliness, and death. Try as we might, we will all reach the same end; we will all "subside" like the flowers of spring or the leaves of autumn, as Frost observes. And yet, we find a strange principle within the human species that seems to suggest an exception to Frost's "golden" rule. While our bodies follow the same path as nature's flowers, the spirit that animates our bodies can actually become more beautiful with age until the day we die. What then is this that has the potential to proceed ever forward mockingly in the face of inevitable physical decay and death? Simply, it is love, and all the noble qualities contained therein. If we are fortunate enough, we may arrive to the point of death enlivened by this triumph of love, when our spirit can say with Paul of Tarsus "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

After our bodies die, what happens to the spirits that animate them cannot be proven for certain one way or another, but perhaps well-kept gardens full of life, vigor, and beautiful flowers are not, as postulated above, intuitively created and appreciated so much out of an unconscious attempt to remove anything hinting of our inevitable decay and death. Perhaps they come from the sprouting of a deeply-seeded knowledge and hope inside that decay and death are not meant to be our end, but rather a passage into a perpetual springtime, of which our well-kept gardens and our capacity for ever-growing love within ourselves in spite of physical decay are only signs.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, March 8, 2014

So Much To Do, So Little Time

I'm pretty sure everyone has made or heard this lament several times in their life, if not every day. Most of us have more things we want to do than we have the time and/or resources for, both in our personal lives and at work, and this is certainly the case at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort.

Think of all the things we currently do and could yet do with this botanic garden. We want to answer all the e-mails we receive the same day we get them. I need to inventory our collections regularly and take notes on flowering and fruiting events, entering all this into our botanic garden database. Plant labels need to be made and maintained. I research new plants to add to our collections then need to make time to head up to Homestead to bring back the new specimens. We take photographs for our own records and also for social media - and then we need to manage all those social media accounts. We would love to acquire more plots of land to expand our collections. I would love to be able to offer ten different tours instead of two. I already have a 90-minute tour slot each day, but demand could certainly increase to requiring two per day. It would be great to put out a blog every week instead of once every two or three. We're working on a botanic art gallery and it would be very neat to feature interactive exhibits along with those works of art. It would be of great benefit to the community if we could bring our educational environmental programs for students to all the schools here in the Keys, not just elementary and middle school students in the Upper Keys. We would love it if our Grounds Director could spend all her time focused only on caring for the collections, but as it is, about half her time is needed for other work on the property. KKBG.ORG has come into its own as a virtual ethnobotanic garden, but I would love to to make it an even more comprehensive ethnobotanical resource. It would be valuable for us to attend more community events, devote more time to fundraising, and write at least a few grant proposals each month. It sure would be neat to host seminars and workshops on ethnobotany here with experts from around the U.S. and the world, as well as a range of other special events. It would be nice to eat lunch each day as well. And on and on and on...

Just a few of the things we do.

Now think of how much an organization with one full time staff member and three part time staff members could handle well without becoming overwhelmed. At least one part-time person is needed for daily horticultural maintenance and another part-time person is required for a basic level of administration, and all of a sudden we're already down to one full time and one part time person! Needless to say, we can't do all we would like to do. In reality, though, no organization does, even if they have 100 times the staff and resources. There will always be something more that could be done, and more is never enough.

Deciding what to focus our time on given our limitations and figuring out how to go about accomplishing those things has been a challenge for me in my role as Associate Director here at the Gardens, but one I quite enjoy because I feel it's a skill that is extremely important to develop for use in all aspects of life. So how exactly does one go about making these choices about what to do given constraints on time and resources? When it comes to the Gardens, Joe and I get together a couple times a year to comprehensively evaluate what we are doing and what we might want to do. Our mission and vision statements are crucial to this process because they allow us an objective framework from which to evaluate whether or not programs are relevant to what we want to achieve as a Garden and which relevant programs are most important. Choices on my own then need to be made regarding how to go about accomplishing these goals. With practice and an internalization of the priorities of the organization as well as consideration for deadlines, I begin to make these choices almost unconsciously. Beyond that, personal preference is important, as some people prefer to start the day with the most challenging tasks so they can coast downhill after that, whereas others prefer to start off with easier-to-accomplish tasks to get into a groove before going after the more time-consuming and challenging tasks.

To make things a little more complicated, each week is usually full of unanticipated interruptions and tasks. I've found that one of the most valuable skills to develop is a flexibility from hour-to-hour and day-to-day that allows me to maintain a sort of disjointed continuity: taking on unanticipated tasks as they arise while at the same time staying focused on the several projects of central importance that need to get done, so that when I'm able to get back to the last major project I was working on, I can pick up easily where I left off. I imagine the ideal of this skill metaphorically as a constant juggling act of tennis balls (representing major mission-oriented goals to accomplish) that incorporates other tennis balls (representing smaller unanticipated tasks) into the juggling routine whenever they come up. The tennis balls are then dropped out as they are "accomplished," all while maintaining flawless juggling of the others. When you get it right, this is basically what it feels like:

Certainly, people have juggled several more balls at one time than that, but not in such an incredibly artistic and powerful way. So, even if we can afford to have only a few tennis balls in the air at a time as a botanic garden given the staff and resources we have, we can still create an unforgettable experience for our visitors and local community. It's not how much you have, but what you do with what you've got.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Why Classify Plants?

In the last post, we discussed the classification of life and how it's not as simple as it seems. Since it's so difficult and confusing, why bother classifying life at all? I hope to explore in this post some of the reasons why, specifically related to plants.

First, classification is an integral part of an organized and practical naming system, which Linnaeus recognized; he closely linked classification and naming. The official names for creatures prior to his work served two functions: to identify and describe. The names were in Latin (the universal "educated" language) and could be two or more words long. The first word was the generic name for the creature and the rest of the words formed a specific description. Sounds like a pretty good idea, but since you had no limit on the number of words in the specific description, you ended up with names like: Plantago foliis ovato-lanceolatus pubescentibus, spica cylindrica, scapo tereti. Understandably, Linnaeus recognized things were getting out of hand and that no one would be able to remember these ridiculously long names. He decided that each name should still be two parts, generic and specific, but that the specific name should be limited to only one word, while the lengthier descriptions should be listed elsewhere. And so, the lengthy Latin name listed above became Plantago mediaMuch better. This "binomial" (two name) system of naming is still used today, and we still use Latin since it is the classical universal scientific language; each Latin name is held in common around the world, so scientists in different countries can be on the same page when it comes to names and descriptions of life forms, which would otherwise be impossible because of language differences.

Plantago media (Photo credit: Sten Porse via Wikimedia Commons)

This binomial naming system inherently incorporates classification. Plants of the same species are able to reproduce with one another "naturally" (i.e. no human intervention) in the wild and produce viable offspring (seeds that will grow). Plants with the same generic name (aka "genus") are closely related, sharing many characteristics, but they do not reproduce with one another naturally in the wild. The next broader stage of relationship is at the "family" level, which usually includes a number of different related genera (plural of "genus") that share even broader characteristics. So, a plant not only has a name as an identity; its name is an indicator of relationships with the thousands of other plants and organisms in the web of life.

A simplified taxonomic family tree I drew to show how relationship and naming go hand in hand.

These relationships are important to know because plants that are related share similar characteristics. This one fact has a number of very useful practical implications like finding sources for medicinal compounds. If you found an especially effective medicinal compound in a rare plant, you would want to see if other more common species with this same compound exist to serve as sources for the medicine until a synthetic method for production is developed (which can take many years). It is often the case that closely related plants will produce similar compounds, so classification comes in handy here. A good example of this situation is Taxol, a powerful anticancer drug. The active compound in this drug, paclitaxel, was discovered in the bark of the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia), which was harvested from wild trees to produce the drug from 1967 to 1993, thereby killing each tree used for this purpose.  Since the tree itself did not have a large range, the cancer-fighting drug was not widely available and the Pacific yew's future was in danger. So, scientists began to look elsewhere and discovered that the compound was also found in other species of yew trees and that needles from a common cultivated species (Taxus baccata) could be harvested and used in a semi-synthetic method of drug production, which made the medicine much more widely available and saved the Pacific yew from being harvested to extinction. Hooray for taxonomy!

A branch of Taxus brevifolia, the Pacific Yew (Photo credit: Jason Hollinger via Wikimedia Commons)

Harvesting the bark for Taxol. (Photo credit: NCI via Wikimedia Commons)

The finished product. (photo credit: drugdiscovery.com)

Another example regards avoiding poisonous plants. If you grew up with poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) in the north and know it is in the family Anicardiaceae, you could save yourself a lot of miserable itching by knowing which other plants are in the same family, like poisonwood (Metopium toxiferum) here in the Keys. Another plant family to learn to identify and avoid is Urticaceae, which contains many species of plants with stinging hairs. Lest you think "stinging hairs" don't sound so bad, check out the following video, which might motivate you to learn a little botany before your next trip through the woods:

Classification also helps with conservation efforts, as it gives us an inventory of the world's plant species and tells us how related they are to one another. This information can, for example, help us prioritize which plants to conserve. While no species should be treated as expendable, classification comes in handy if we have to choose between spending our resources to preserve, say, one of the 1,200 species of orchids in the genus Dendrobium or the species Ginkgo biloba, which is not only the only species in the genus Ginkgo, it is the only genus in the family Ginkgoaceae (compared to 880 genera of orchids in the orchid family, Orchidaceae), and is even alone in its own DIVISION (to put that into perspective, another example of a plant division is "flowering plants," which includes about 250,000 species); in short, there is nothing else like it on earth. Conservation efforts don't have unlimited funds, so if we have a good classification of plants, we can try and conserve the most diversity with the limited resources available for these efforts.

A nice specimen of Ginkgo biloba. Photo credit (from Wikimedia Commons)

The very distinctive leaves of Ginkgo biloba. (Photo credit: James Field via Wikimedia Commons)

Classification also helps when it comes to developing desired traits in plants such as higher fruit yield, disease resistance, or stress tolerance through breeding. While different species in the same genus do not reproduce naturally in the wild due to a number of factors, they will often produce viable seed if pollen from one is introduced to another by a human. To make a hybrid, you would find out which plants are closely related, then select from that group the species that have the qualities you want for breeding. For instance, if you wanted an especially tasty and disease-tolerant citrus tree, you would try to find a species of citrus with great fruit yield / taste and a related species of citrus noted for its disease resistance. Thanks to classification efforts, you can find a list of all the known citrus species in the world, and from there, you can find out which ones are tastiest and which ones have the least disease problems, then try and make some magic happen. This process has recently become very important for Florida farmers with the spread of citrus canker and citrus greening disease; hybridizations are made to produce trees with the best disease resistance and fruit quality.

Not exactly what you want to see on the grocery store shelves.

I hope this post has given you a better idea about some of the practical uses and benefits of plant classification in areas like drug discovery and development, food security, conservation, and the avoidance of painful and/or poisonous plants, which I hope will motivate you to take a closer look at those curious Latin names on our plant labels during your next visit!

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Classifying Life

Humans, by nature, seem to like order: distinct entities with names that fit neatly together in relationships that make sense, like in filing cabinets and family trees. It makes sense that if humans classify everything in their own lives, they would want to do something similar with the life that surrounds them. We are a "botanic garden" and that very name involves a classification of life ("plants"). When you explore a botanic garden, you find that initial classification broken down further into more specific groups (family, genus, species) that are often indicated on display labels in front of individual plants. So how did this classification come about and how exactly does one go about classifying life, starting at the most general level?

I suspect if we were asked to organize and classify living creatures, most of us would do what was done prior to the 18th century: divide all life up first into "vegetative life" and "animal life" based on mobility and how organisms look overall. Vegetative life would include creatures like plants, algae, and fungi, while animal life would include mammals, humans, birds, fish, reptiles, insects, etc.

So where do we put this guy?  #classificationconundrums (Seriously, this is real: photo from keralitesblog.blogspot.ro)

This first division of life into Vegetative and Animal was used by Carl Linnaeus in the early 1700s when he set out to create a comprehensive classification and naming system for life on earth. One might say the classification of life first became a science at this time. He developed a hierarchical system for classification in which Vegetative and Animal were "kingdoms" with subcategories that started out general and became more and more specific (i.e. phylum, class, order, family, genus, species). His system was based mostly on reproductive characteristics, which were more reliable and accurate than using overall physical appearance and mobility as main considerations.

Carl Linnaeus' landmark work on the classification of life, Systema Naturae.

Linnaeus did a lot for the science of classification (known as "taxonomy"), but a huge amount of life, which for the most part cannot be seen with the naked eye, went unclassified in his work, even though Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discovered microorganisms in the mid- to late-1600s with the help of the advanced (at the time) microscopes he developed. Finally in 1866, a man named Ernst Haeckel took these creatures into consideration by classifying life first into three kingdoms as either Plants, Animals, or Protists (single-celled organisms and simple multicellular organisms that did not seem to fit well as either a Plant or an Animal). This was another step in the right direction, but there was still much to learn about these tiniest of life forms, which were to make a disproportionately large splash in taxonomy.

Amoebas are single-celled organisms that wound up classified as protists...you can understand the dilemma of trying to decide how to classify this sort of creature.

In the 1800s, taxonomists began to arrange life into "family trees" to reflect relationships, based on the view that all life shares a single ancestor and differentiated over time into separate species, which was not really something considered prior to 1859, when Darwin's "Origin of Species" was published.

Here's an early "tree of life" done by Haeckel. Note the three main divisions of life.

When creating these "trees," the first division of life reflected the earliest presumed differentiations, which were usually determined to be the most fundamental differences. As we mentioned earlier, the most fundamental differences in life were thought to be between plants and animals (and later, protists), but in the late 20th century, classification systems experienced dramatic restructuring based on cellular and genetic analysis of life, which was previously impossible due to technological limitations. Scientists began realizing that the differences between plants and animals were much less fundamental than originally thought, relative to other life forms on earth. Plants and animals are actually quite similar on the fundamental levels of cell makeup and genetic structure / coding:

Taxonomists today think that the difference between life with cells having DNA in a nucleus and membrane-bound organelles (specialized structures found in cells of plants, animals, and fungi) and life with free-floating DNA and no membrane-bound organelles are the most fundamental meaningful differences in life, also thought to have occurred very far back in time. We call these two forms of life prokaryotic life and eukaryotic life. Because of this, notable taxonomists like Carl Woese now think that the first division of life should be made into domains like Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya, which would be a level above kingdoms (plants, animals, protists, fungi, etc.), which were previously considered to be the most general classifications of life.

A diagram of Woese's three-domain classification, showing how plants, animals, and fungi are actually "close relatives" when compared to some of the other life found on earth, most of which is not readily visible.

Bacteria and Archaea do not reproduce sexually and are both single-celled prokaryotes, but they have enough significant differences in very fundamental areas (membrane structure and genetic structure, makeup, and coding) to warrant splitting into two domains. Prokaryotic life is believed to have begun on earth from 3.5 to 2.7 billion years ago, developing in the earth's early inhospitable conditions. Since the conditions of early earth are hypothesized to have been quite extreme, it is likely that organisms much like today's Archaea, which live in extreme environments such as underwater hydrothermal vents, oil deposits, and volcanic hot springs, were first to exist. Bacteria are also ancient; Cyanobacteria are the first life forms we have evidence for in the fossil record. It is the only prokaryote that uses photosynthesis to produce food and it forms the basis of most of the aquatic food chain along with algae. While it is generally agreed that prokaryotic life was the first life on earth, it is not certain if Bacteria or Archaea came first.

Archaea form the basis of deep sea hydrothermal vents, using the chemical compounds from the vents for energy.

Cyanobacteria can also tolerate some extreme conditions; they are responsible for the psychedelic colors (except the blue) of the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

Eukaryotes appeared 2.1 to 1.6 billion years ago and may have developed when certain prokaryotic cells were "eaten" by others and rather than being digested, were put to use by the cell. These became the membrane-bound organelles like chloroplasts and mitochondria found in eukaryotic cells. Somewhere along the line, single-celled eukaryotes began to work together as groups to make multicellular organisms, eventually becoming many of the easily visible organisms we are most familiar with. It's amazing to think that "I" am actually trillions of specialized cells working together. It's not until we progress very far up the "tree of life" that we encounter humans, who are out on the tip of a far branch as relative newcomers to the planet and only a single species among thousands. Here's a beautiful diagram called the Hillis Plot, which is basically a modern "tree of life" in circle form, with humanity's position indicated in the upper-left-hand corner:

It's incredible to think that only a single species among so many thousands has had such a disproportionate impact on the planet...

...and in such a small span of time: in the "hour" of the earth's existence, humans have been around for 0.1 seconds.

I hope you've gained an appreciation of just how difficult it is to classify life, and we've only been considering the most general categories, which should be the easiest! Now just imagine making the thousands of further distinctions and categorizations in the "tree of life" on the levels of phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species that you see in the Hillis Plot... I can assure you it doesn't get easier. Classification and naming of life is certainly not cut and dry, and as much as we humans dislike disorder and chaos, life seems to resist the organized classification we would like to make for it. All that I've brought up in this post is really only the tip of the iceberg and there's good reason to believe the classification of life we currently have will look quite different a hundred years from now. Indeed, taxonomists are starting to transition from the idea of life and its history as a "tree," seeing it now more as a chronological "web" for reasons such as horizontal gene transfer.

Who knew life could be so complicated and that those two apparently innocuous questions posed in the first paragraph would require such an explanation... Go grab some ice for your brain, as I'm sure it's pretty sore after reading this post!

Sometime later, after you've recovered, I hope to discuss the classification of plants in particular and why it's so important, now that we've seen where they fit into the larger framework of natural life.

Rick Hederstrom (domain: Eukarya, kingdom: Animalia, phylum: Chordata, class: Mammalia, order: Primates, family: Hominidae, genus: Homo, species: sapiens)
Associate Director

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Horticultural "Hassles"

Most botanic gardens pride themselves on collections that are not only interesting, but aesthetically beautiful as well. This emphasis on beauty is a higher priority for gardens whose main focus is display and horticultural excellence (e.g. Longwood Gardens) than for gardens focusing on research and conservation (e.g. Montgomery Botanical Center), which may have limited public exposure. Botanical gardens with education as the highest priority usually fall somewhere in the middle because they want to have interesting specimens whether or not they are especially "showy," but at the same time, aesthetic beauty makes the gardens much more attractive to the public. This is the case at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort, as we do want our focus to be on developing a collection of the most interesting ethnobotanical specimens that can grow in our climate to serve our educational mission, but at the same time the Gardens is on the grounds of a small high-end resort, which of course needs to look as amazing as possible for as much of the year as possible.

Ethnobotanical and elegant.

Fortunately, we have an excellent Grounds Director in Veronika Milar, who makes sure things are always as picture-perfect as possible when you walk into the Gardens, but we still encounter many of the same issues that gardeners throughout southern Florida and the rest of the world deal with on a regular basis. People seem to think there's some sort of magic that horticulturists and their crews at botanic gardens have to keep everything looking so good, but it really boils down to knowing your plants, the tools of the trade, the characteristics of the local environment, and the organisms that interact with your plants. After learning this information, horticultural success is almost directly proportional to the amount of work put into a garden based upon observations of the collections. Aesthetic beauty is also greatly enhanced with expression of the horticulturist's artistic side.

You can find Veronika hard at work in any of our garden areas; here she is trimming back ixora by the parking lot.

Ileana is one of Kona Kai's expert housekeepers, but she also spends time in the gardens helping Veronika out.

Veronika next to one of her most recent artistic masterpieces at Kona Kai - the Aquascape Garden, which she completed last summer.

But lest you think it's all about knowledge, pruning, and art, you might be surprised to know that in our peaceful setting, war is being waged for control of the Gardens on many fronts, with a variety of weapons and strategies implemented by all involved. If they had their way, all sorts of plant pests would be devouring our plants, making them quite unsightly and even taking their very lives. Obviously, it wouldn't be a good idea to offer up our collections as an all-you-can-eat buffet for these creatures. Fortunately, most plants have developed some chemical or physical defenses on their own to fight pests and diseases, but sometimes these defenses aren't sufficient to preserve their aesthetic integrity or their lives, especially when it comes to pests and diseases they've never encountered before. Horticulturists (expert gardeners) are the reinforcements plants often need to not only survive attacks by these enemies, but be overwhelmingly victorious. A notable pest that we, along with much of the rest of southern Florida, have been dealing with recently is the spiraling whitefly:

As you can see, it makes quite a mess out of the leaves, but it doesn't end there - the little white flies exude a sticky sweet secretion that falls on whatever is below the trees and becomes infected with sooty mold, covering the understory with a delightful sticky blackness. Just as we were making some encouraging headway against this critter, another hardier foe, the croton scale, stepped in to take its place:

Lovely! The sooty mold seems to enjoy the secretions of this pest, too!

Not all of our pests are tiny - iguanas have become our main macroscopic herbivorous foe. Having exploded in population over the past several years, they find various flowers (hibiscus, orchids, etc.) and leaves quite tasty and can devour much of a plants vital photosynthetic and reproductive parts if we do not deter them. As thanks for allowing them to browse our beautiful plants, the iguanas kindly deposit their digested remains throughout the Gardens, often raining them down from tree branches. Needless to say, we are constantly cleaning up after these uninvited guests.

Don't even think about it!

Sometimes, it's the enemy you cannot see that is the most dangerous and hardest to fight. Several years ago, lethal yellowing (a microscopic phytoplasma) was spreading rapidly from palm to palm via leafhopper insects, killing the palms in only a matter of weeks, despite a variety of attempted human interventions. While there was much effort to contain the spread of the disease, there was also a great effort to develop a preventative antibiotic, which when injected into the trunks of palms, protected them from the phytoplasma. This ended up being very effective at stopping the spread of the disease, and fortunately, it hasn't been seen again in the area for a number of years.

Photo of lethal yellowing symptoms in coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) by N. A. Harrison, University of Florida.

Site of the antibiotic injection into the trunk of one of our coconut palms.

Fungus is also a particularly troublesome foe. Whenever we have a particularly rainy period, fungi grow particularly well, and we keep close watch over our cacti, orchids, and other plants that may be particularly susceptible to fungus, such as rosy periwinkle. Unfortunately, there's not much one can do to save a plant after it's been infected by a fungus, but there are some preventative means we can take, like planting susceptible plants in substrate with very good drainage and applying fungicide if things get desperate. Despite all our best efforts, sometimes the enemy wins out in the end, as has been the case with our rosy periwinkles:

Beyond pests and diseases, we also need to be conscious of environmental factors that affect plant health, such as soil conditions, nutrition, temperature, sunlight, and water. Botanic gardens such as our own often acquire plants native to a variety of areas around the world, so it is sometimes difficult to get a plant to grow in an area that is not perfectly suited to its preferences in these areas. This is where knowing your plants and their needs is invaluable.

This would be a puzzling condition if you didn't know that ixora turn chlorotic in basic soils (which we have in the Keys). Any time we see this, we add a fertilizer that increases soil acidity (similar to rhododendron care).

Natural disasters are another variable for horticulturists. We just so happen to be in a pretty high-risk area for natural disasters, namely hurricanes. In contrast to many of the other challenges horticulturists face that we have discussed, there is little one can do in the face of an impending natural disaster. While wind damage will often have the highest impact on the collections, flood damage is also a possibility; not many plants are too happy about having their roots submerged in salt water.

Wilma gave the Keys their most recent walloping.

If a plant ends up suffering or dying because of one of these factors or simply dies because it reaches the end of its lifespan, I keep notes of all this information for each particular plant in the Gardens' BG-Base plant database. There are often quite a few plants to replace any given year, so to prepare for these inevitable occasions, I keep a list of interesting ethnobotanical specimens we'd like to see in the collections should we have an opening.

Basically, after considering all these things, I see two ways of looking at garden maintenance: 1) It's a never-ending hassle you can never win at, full of things that go "wrong" that you have to "deal with" or 2) It's an endless number of interesting challenges that keep you on your toes, always learning and experimenting, having fun puzzling things out and trying different solutions. I personally feel the latter perspective is much truer to the spirit of gardening: it's supposed to be stimulating rather than stressful. Nature is death constantly giving way to new life; why should we expect anything else in our gardens? So the next time you see another pest in your garden or another plant succumbing to some unknown ailment, don't get upset/angry/frustrated, but rather get excited about learning more about the natural world and developing creative solutions to try out. Worst-case scenario if a plant dies is you have the opportunity to shape the garden anew and an excuse to go shopping for new and different plants!

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The 2013-2014 Upper Keys Fairchild Challenge Is Underway!

This year is the 2nd Anniversary of The Fairchild Challenge here in the Upper Florida Keys, as facilitated by The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort in Key Largo. We had an amazing inaugural year last year, and we knew we would have our work cut out for us to make 2013-2014 just as successful.

We kicked things off in August at the Gardens' Small Meeting Center with our Teacher Information Meeting, which serves to introduce teachers and administrators to the program, specifically for the coming year. We had a good turnout of fourteen teachers and administrators representing all of the participating schools in the Upper Keys: The Academy at Ocean Reef, Key Largo School, Ocean Studies Charter School, Plantation Key School, and Treasure Village Montessori. A number of the teachers in attendance are what we call "lead teachers" for their schools; they have an especially good understanding of the program and help teachers at their own schools with any questions they might have about incorporating the Challenge into their curricula, as well as coordinate the submission of entries to The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort for judging.

KKBG's 2013-2014 T.I.M.

At the meeting, we revealed this coming year's challenges as well as some notable improvements to the program, including a web interface for access to most of the pertinent information for The Fairchild Challenge in the Upper Keys. A big part of that was creating Fairchild Challenge booklets tailored specifically for the program in the Upper Keys, removing information that only applies to the program in Miami-Dade County, modifying certain challenges to fit our smaller scale, and adding photos of Upper Keys students and teachers participating in the Challenge from last year, etc. We decided to only make the booklets available electronically this year, so I dedicated a section of the Gardens' website to include the booklets, entry forms, evaluation sheets, resource guides, and challenge results available for download. Here's a screenshot from the Elementary School section of the site:

After the meeting, teachers had a few weeks to spread the word at their schools about The Fairchild Challenge and e-mail me their schools' choices of challenges they would like to participate in. We didn't really know what to expect; whether we would get less or more participation than last year. As the e-mails came in, however, we quickly realized it was going to be a big year. Last year, we had 27 teachers and over 400 students participate in 9 challenges...this year we have 53 teachers and perhaps 500-700 students participating in 15 challenges!

We've had a great start already with a number of interesting challenges, including "Parade of Incredible Insects," a challenge in which elementary school students were asked to make a mask of an insect out of natural and/or recycled materials and describe ways their chosen insect interacts with plants. Although we might often think of plants being able to do just fine on their own, the fact is that they rely heavily on insects to serve as pollinators and even protectors. The students created some amazing masks; here are a few photos of some students at work on the masks, the judging session that took place to determine the winners, and a small collage of a number of the winning masks:

K-1st Grade students at work on a lady bug in Ms. Veronica Gutierrez's class at The Academy at Ocean Reef.

The Small Meeting Center at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort all set up for judging!

Judges (from L to R) Nola Acker (Assistant Vice President at First State Bank), Biron Valier (Islamorada resident - he brought his own mask), and Holly Raschein (our district's State Representative)

A few of the winners!

As you might guess, the results can be close with so many amazing submissions! And that applies to both students and teachers; one of the fun innovations for this year's Fairchild Challenge was the inclusion of an educator challenge, in which the teachers submit entries they have done themselves. We thought it would be fun to celebrate the 2nd Anniversary of The Fairchild Challenge here in the Upper Keys by asking educators to create a design to commemorate the occasion. The first place entry is by Mr. William de Paula, whose design includes a conch shell as the centerpiece (found both in Kona Kai's logo and the waters surrounding the Florida Keys), two notable tropical plants in our Gardens (the tropical water lily and heliconia), and seven words that concisely convey the mission of The Fairchild Challenge:

We're very thankful to be off to such a great start and are looking forward to the many challenges still to come and the awards ceremony that will top it all off. The students, teachers, parents, and judges involved in the program are having a great time, all the while enhancing their understanding and appreciation for the natural environment on the local and global level, and that's what we're all about here at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort. If that's what you're about, too, and you'd like to become involved in supporting The Fairchild Challenge here in the Upper Keys as a donor, judge, and/or advocate, send me an e-mail at rick@konakairesort.com. The seeds we plant today shape our world tomorrow.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director