Thursday, August 28, 2014

New Associate Director of The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort

As promised, in this post you'll be introduced to the new Associate Director of The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort. Her name is Emily Magnaghi and we met in December of last year, when she came down to Key Largo to take a tour with me and see what The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort was all about. At the time, she was living in Miami and working in Everglades National Park monitoring plant populations after a restoration project. We got along very well and it was great having someone come by for a tour who really knew their plants. After the tour, we kept in touch and got together a few times for day trips throughout the Keys. On one of our trips, I mentioned that we had been trying to acquire a few specimens of Pilosocereus robinii, a Florida Keys native cactus, and she happened to know one of the people up at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden who was propagating those plants for their conservation program. After a few phone calls and introductions and a proposal for our intentions of use for the cacti, we had three specimens here for the Gardens.

One of the specimens of Pilosocereus robinii (Key tree cactus) Emily helped us acquire, at home in the Gardens.

About this time, I was pretty sure my time at Kona Kai was limited, so after getting to know Emily better and seeing her enthusiasm for plants and her understanding of their importance to humans and the world as a whole, I began to think she might make a great successor to my position here at the Gardens. Once I was sure I was going to be leaving, I encouraged her to apply for my position, as I thought she'd be a great fit. After a number of interviews with Joe and Ronnie, everyone seemed to agree, and so we welcomed her as the newest addition to The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort just over a month ago, during which time I've been helping her learn all she needs to know to take the Gardens into its next stage of life, which I have no doubt will be a beautiful one. And so, it is with great pride that I now hand this blog over to Emily, whom you'll get to know a bit better by the time this post is through...

Here's Emily beside Alpinia purpurata, a beautiful ornamental ginger plant.

Thank you SO much Rick! He has been a wonderful, patient mentor to me during this past month as I have been learning all the ropes here at the Gardens. I have been fortunate to overlap with him for several weeks now which, I think it's safe to say, is making the transition easier for everyone. Rick has done such a wonderful job building the program over the past 3 1/2 years. His organizational skills are outstanding which has made finding all the files and information I need very easy. His presence and energy on the tours are always very calming yet enthusiatic. He is a good role model to strive to emulate. We will have to find a way to commemorate Rick in the Gardens! We will all truly miss Rick and wish him well on his next journey in life. I hope he will come visit us again in the future.

I know, it's a tough one...Magnaghi. Say: "mahn-YA-ghee" and be very expressive like you're really Italian. You can even use your hands to get into the role, or come by the Gardens and we can practice Italian together!

I grew up in Florida as a snow-bird, like many folks here. My summers were spent exploring National Parks elsewhere in the United States, while during the school year I was in Naples (Florida, not Italy). My path to botany was via the underwater world which I greatly enjoyed as a child. Along this path, I happened to take a botany class and this changed everything. Plants fascinated me! In the middle of winter in Michigan, here were these vibrant creatures growing in the greenhouses at the University of Michigan's Matthaei Botanical Gardens. I looked forward to that hour once a week more than anything that semester, as the plants and sunlight in the glasshouse chased the winter blues away.

After reconsidering my path of study, I decided to change course and follow the greenery. Many years later, after practicing restoration with native plants, studying plant taxonomy, pressing herbarium specimens in San Francisco and performing plant surveys for the California High Speed Train project, I find myself back home in South Florida finally enjoying the tropical diversity.

Here I am leading one of my first tour groups around the Gardens. I hope I received high marks from Rick on this one!

I am very excited about my new role at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort. Stay tuned for more information on what I hope to learn and accomplish in my role as Associate Director in my next blog post.

Emily B. Magnaghi
Associate Director

Friday, August 8, 2014


Starting in September, "The Diary of The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai" will have a new author.

I have had a wonderful 3.5+ years here at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort helping Joe, Ronnie, and the rest of the Kona Kai staff realize their dream of an ethnobotanic teaching garden here in the Florida Keys, where visitors can come and learn about the incredible importance of plants in their lives.

Looking back, it's amazing to see what we've accomplished. I remember some of our first projects: building a comprehensive BG-Base database for KKBG's plant collections, creating 500+ records labels and 140+ display labels for the plants, and developing the first iteration of our "Ethnobotanic Tour," which we now call our "Transforming Your Understanding of Plants Tour." The Tour has been taken by over 1,200 people from all around the world since I began leading it in March 2011. After working on establishing these foundations for the Gardens, I moved on to develop, the Gardens' virtual mobile-friendly botanic garden "app", with Joe while at the same time working with Ronnie on expanding our educational outreach to the local community by making The Fairchild Challenge (a very successful South Florida environmental education program developed at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens) available to Upper Keys teachers and students as "The Upper Keys Fairchild Challenge," which involved over 900 students (53% of all local elementary and middle school students) last year.  Since Day One, I have worked closely with our Grounds Manager, Veronika, when it came to learning more about the characteristics and needs of the plants here on the property, conducting tree trimming, discussing plant selection, and planting our precious new specimens. I also had plenty of interaction with the other staff here, too, even if it wasn't as frequent or intensive as my work with Joe, Ronnie, and Veronika. Tracey and Denise coordinated reservations for my tours, and I always saw Ileana, Maria, and Charlie around the Gardens taking care of the accommodations or their garden beds. We have also recently been blessed with another great addition to the team, Karen, who is helping Veronika out in the Gardens, and it seems like she will fit in wonderfully.

As you can see, even though I have been the "face" of the Gardens for the past few years, I've had incredible support from the rest of the staff here, without whom the Gardens' work would not have been, or continue to be, possible. On a personal as well as professional level, I have learned from each of them, and know I am a better person for it. One of my favorite parts of working at Kona Kai is that the staff here do not see each other exclusively as co-workers or colleagues, but friends and family, which I believe is no small contributing factor in what makes Kona Kai so magical; you feel like you're coming home from the moment you arrive on the property, especially as a returning guest.

Although I am departing, it is not because I see the mission and vision of the Gardens to be unimportant, as I hope you've been able to realize from all of my previous 75 blogs, which I have written from the heart. Indeed, I still consider it one of the most noble and urgent causes in today's world. What I have felt is a calling within the deepest parts of my spirit that I can no longer ignore, and unfortunately I cannot answer it while at the same time having a full-time job. In 2007, a strange unprompted curiosity came over me about contemplative monastic life, which I knew nothing about at the time. In order to learn more about it, I visited a Trappist monastery in Massachusetts while at Connecticut College, after which I knew I needed to return at some point for a longer visit and also explore other monastic orders, which I was planning on doing after finishing my internship at Holden Arboretum in 2011. One of my favorite quotes is "If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans," and as I was making plans for monastery visits, I came across the advertisement for my current position here at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort. I could not believe there was a position being offered at that particular moment in time that suited my ethnobotanical interests / education and my botanic gardens work experience so well, so I figured this might be where I was meant to be for the foreseeable future. I applied for the position and have been here since. Even though I see the work being done here as extremely important and I really couldn't have asked for a better job for several reasons, the pull towards monastic life has not ceased to leave me, and has become more and more intense, especially over the past year, during which I made two visits to the same monastery I visited in 2007. After my last visit in June, I've had a deep sense of peaceful conviction that it is time for me to make the necessary visits to the monasteries to discern whether or not life as a monk is my next vocation.

I have no doubt the "sunset" of my time here will quickly make way for a beautiful sunrise; I am confident the Gardens' work will continue to thrive, supported by all the staff I mentioned earlier, Kona Kai guests, the local community, and one other notable addition (to be introduced in the next posting) who will take my place as Associate Director of the Gardens at the beginning of September.

What follows is a slideshow I put together covering the Gardens' main themes and undertakings over the past three and a half years. Be sure to watch it in full screen mode (click on the button on the bottom-right-hand corner of the video) on a laptop or desktop (if you watch it on a mobile device, you won't get any of the sound that goes along with the video and you probably won't be able to read any of the text), and adjust the quality to one of the HD options by clicking on the "gear" button on the bottom-right of the screen after you've begun playing the video in full-screen mode. Here's to many more "fruitful" years to come for The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort!

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Choice

Humans are the main transformative force on the planet at the time; we can make of it what we wish to a large extent. If we wanted a world full of a diversity of life, we could make that a priority and bring that about. If we wanted a world largely denuded of life, we could bring that about, too. For those who do not consider morality to be objective, there is no right or wrong, only what a given culture at a given time in history deems, usually by majority, to be better or worse; one way could not be considered "wrong" and the other way "right," they would just be two ways to live with different priorities.

Two very different potential futures for our planet.

Earth as a planet racing through space doesn't have the capacity to care which way we choose; it doesn't need us to "save" it because it has and will continue to go through cycles of more life and less life, indifferently continuing in its orbit until it is eventually engulfed in a dying sun. Besides humans, other species of life on the earth don't have (as far as we know) the capacity on an individual level to consciously care if there is more or less diversity or life; they are driven by instinct and completely preoccupied with survival (food, reproduction) and reactions to immediate stimuli. As humans we are uniquely able to learn what the earth was like in the past and care about what the world will be like in the future. We have the capacity to consider the earth from a global perspective and understand the factors that contribute to more life or less, as well as the power to take conscious actions to bring about planned outcomes based on what kind of future we choose for the planet.

"The Thinker" by Auguste Rodin (Taken by dalbera on Flickr)

There are plenty of people out there who aren't interested in plants (yet) and who apparently don't care much about the natural environment or its future (yet). I can still remember when one of my friends in college said he never really liked being outdoors and how much of a shock that was to me. Unlike my friend, I love spending time in natural spaces like gardens and parks, which I see as havens and retreats, but there are plenty of others who would rather use that space to develop houses, factories, shops, and expansive lawns. If a "silent spring" were indeed to happen, with all birds vanishing, I think there would be quite a few people who wouldn't notice or care. Perhaps they'd remark one day that they hadn't seen or heard a bird in a while, then just shrug their shoulders and carry on.

Our children would then see a world without birds as the norm, with stories of a world filled with thousands of kinds of colorful winged singing creatures seeming much like how stories of the dinosaurs are to us. The same could be said for plants. Even if the world were nearly completely void of plants, something akin to Luke Skywalker's home planet of Tatooine, and everything humans need is synthesized, those born into that world wouldn't miss plants because they never knew them. Perhaps there would not even be an interest in having them around at all - there would be much more interest in the technological advances that have been made. If anyone did happen to be interested in plants, there would be plenty of maintenance-free artificial trees, shrubs, flowering plants, and grasses for people to have installed. Nature would be regarded as primitive, dangerous, and chaotic; something not to be desired back. Besides, if people ever wanted to immerse themselves in "nature," they'd have virtual reality experiences available to simulate activities such as hiking or mountain biking through any type of landscape, and that would be considered close enough to, or perhaps even better than, the real thing. It's not too absurd to think the world could become a nature-less technologically advanced dystopia similar to what some authors and film makers imagine...

From 'Equilibrium'.

From Spielberg's 'A.I.'

Machine City from 'The Matrix'.

Although I studied ethnobotany in the strict sense of the term in college and appreciate greatly the benefits plants provide people, I think a rationale for protecting and conserving nature based completely on utilitarian arguments is imperfect. For one, I think that, largely thanks to the building blocks plants have given us, we will be able to synthesize all that we need without their help (we're already synthesizing beef in laboratories!). Secondly, there are a lot of creatures out there that have no direct use for us, and so are "expendable" using utilitarian logic. Acknowledging those two points, I think the ultimate rationale for protecting and conserving nature is beauty. Even if miniature seahorses and orchids provide me with nothing tangibly useful in my life, I still want very much to have them around for many generations to come so that others could marvel at their beauty as I have, and these creatures could continue to function in ecosystems, which I also consider to be beautiful because of their complexity and function.

Negligible utilitarian value for humans, priceless beauty and ecological value.

As another example, why would it be tragic if all Bach compositions (or those of your favorite music producer) and all their renditions were destroyed? After all, everyone born henceforth would never know them and so they wouldn't miss them. However, those who had been alive to experience them would find it tragic that there would be people who would never be able to experience the unique, powerful, and emotional beauty of that music, and would consider the world has suffered a great loss, not because the music had been useful in a utilitarian sense but because it had been beautiful.

Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach's Cello Suite No.1 Prelude

While I certainly want you to learn how plants have been and continue to be useful to us as humans, and so come to a greater appreciation for them, I want much more to spark curiosity and wonder in your mind and spirit for the incredible incarnations of life on earth, of which plants are a large part. I want to help you hone your senses of observation to see all the little and big miracles that surround us until you are constantly going around with "oh wow! oh wow!" in your mind and realize that the value of each living creature is not based principally in what products it could offer for our use, but in its own magnificent and beautiful nature that would be tragic if the world were without. Then when you understand that each of these creatures needs healthy ecosystems to survive and thrive, you'll wonder what you can do to ensure the health of those ecosystems (a subject for another post), and so ensure a life-filled planet for generations to come.

Such a future can become a reality if we choose it. I personally would rather have a world filled with as many miraculously beautiful incarnations of life as possible, even if that requires what at first seem like sacrifices on my part. If we made the choice to exploit the natural world to the point of denudation so that we could have more money and more "things," how ironic would it be if we'd give all that money and those possessions to once more live amongst the beauty that was sacrificed in the name of what was mistakenly valued as profit and thought to be progress. May we ever more fully know the priceless, irreplaceable beauty that surrounds us and live diligently to protect and nurture it.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Cannabis (Marijuana) Uses

After my last post, Joe thought it might be interesting to expand more on the non-psychedelic uses of Cannabis (marijuana) in particular, so here goes!

Currently, the highest-profile use for Cannabis is medicine ("medical marijuana"). Cannabis contains about 460 compounds, including over 80 cannabinoids. No anti-cancer properties have been documented with certainty, but placebo-controlled clinical trials indicate efficacy of marijuana in treating Tourette's, Lou Gehrig's disease, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, muscle spasticity, glaucoma, and anorexia. Another promising use is the treatment of chronic pain, against which marijuana works about as well as opioids (e.g. morphine and oxycodone) with fewer side effects. Marijuana's effectiveness against acute pain, however, is not significant.

A botanical illustration of Cannabis sativa.

The most notable hypothesized side-effect of extended regular marijuana use is the possibility of an increased risk of psychoses such as schizophrenia, especially for people who begin using the plant at a young age. While there seems to be a significant correlation between people who have used marijuana regularly in the past and schizophrenia, it is difficult for scientists to determine if marijuana causes the psychosis or if some underlying genetic pre-disposition towards psychosis is also a pre-disposition to marijuana use, hence the correlation. Much more research will need to be conducted to determine if there are in fact any long-term side effects of use.

Short-term side effects, which include lengthening of reaction time and impairment of attention, assessment of risks, concentration, and short-term memory, are much easier to prove. These effects can be present up to 24 hours after marijuana use, often with the user unaware of continued impairment several hours after use. The use of many methods of transportation and other machinery would therefore not be advisable for someone using marijuana for treatment.

Marijuana is not as addictive as other drugs like caffeine, tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, or heroin, but individuals can suffer from Cannabis Use Disorder, defined in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a dependence on the plant experienced by about 9% of users.

A medical marijuana shop in Denver, CO (photo by O'Dea at WikiCommons).

Beyond medicinal use, Cannabis is employed extensively for material use under the name of "hemp," referring to the soft and durable fibers extracted from Cannabis sativa stems, which are most commonly used because they are the tallest (~18 ft.). Plants used for fiber production are usually bred to have low THC content so authorities can tell it's not being grown for drug use. Hemp cultivation has been dated back to over 10,000 years ago in China, where early uses included clothing, shoes, paper, and rope. Rope, sail canvas (the name "canvas" is derived from the name "Cannabis"), and oakum (ship caulking) have been the main uses of the plant since the 1400s for Europeans, who needed extensive sources for their ever-expanding navies and commercial ship fleets. Rope made from hemp is strong but needs to be tarred because it holds moisture and rots relatively easily without a protective coating. Hemp rope was eventually largely replaced by abaca (aka Manila hemp), which is a fiber derived from a species of banana (Musa textilis) and does not require tarring because it doesn't easily rot.

The United States made extensive use of hemp during World War II for uniforms, rope, and canvas  because our Asian abaca sources were cut off by the Japanese. Here is a video produced by the United States in 1942 called "Hemp for Victory" detailing the need and uses for hemp, as well as how to grow, harvest, and process the crop:

As is shown in the video, because Cannabis grows so densely, it can be used by farmers as a rotation crop to help choke out weeds on cultivated land. This is especially useful to organic farmers, who need to find ways to kill weeds without synthetic herbicides. Dense plantings of hemp can also be used in phytoremediation - the use of plants to clean undesirable compounds from the soil including heavy metals such as lead, nickel, and cadmium. While this capability is good for phytoremediation, it is a property that significantly hinders its use for other applications.

Even though Japan has some of the most severe penalties for marijuana possession (5 years imprisonment), they make exceptions for growers to produce enough hemp for robes for Buddhist monks and hemp belts for the highest ranking Sumo wrestlers known as yokozuna, who traditionally wear them during ritual cleansings of sumo rings. Hemp is stronger than cotton, but although fabric for clothing can be made from hemp alone, it is most commonly blended with cotton at about a 1:1 ratio for softness.

A yokozuna wearing a heavy (25-35 lbs) hemp belt during a ritual cleansing of a sumo ring (photo from Kannaway Magazine).

Hemp seeds are quite nutritious, and while they are currently most commonly used in animal and bird feed, they have great potential for human nutrition. The seeds contain plenty of omega-3's and omega-6's and also have a "complete" protein profile, meaning that they contain all the nutritionally significant amino acids, including the nine essential amino acids that human bodies cannot produce. The seeds can be eaten raw or used in a variety of ways, including baking, hemp milk, cereals, tofu, nut butter, and ice cream. Hemp seeds can also be processed into biodiesel.

A small selection of hemp food products (photo from

Hemp is often an ingredient in biodegradable plastics, and has been an ingredient in composite automobile panels by major car manufacturers since 2002. The harder inner parts of older Cannabis stems can be used as a wood replacement for certain house construction applications.

Although hemp was used to make early paper in China, it is not too practical a commercial option because of the processing involved, resulting in costs that add up to about six times those involved in making paper from wood pulp. A couple major reasons for this are that hemp can be harvested only once per year and only about 25% of any given hemp stalk can be used for the paper, as opposed to nearly 100% from harvested trees.

As you can see, Cannabis is quite a useful plant for more than just "getting high," though it does have its limitations, some of which will require more study to determine the plant's commercial viability. You'll likely see it in more and more products as time goes on if regulations on the plant continue to ease.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Monday, June 2, 2014

Psychoactive Plants

Have you recreationally used psychoactive drugs this week? Chances are you have: common legal plant-derived psychoactive substances include caffeine and alcohol. Psychoactives (compounds that act on our central nervous system, especially the brain) are also found in prescription drugs like antidepressants, stimulants, mood stabilizers, sedatives, addiction treatments, and painkillers, many of whose ingredients have been sourced from plants.

Can we add an asterisk to "Just Say No"??? (Photo by Julius Schorzman)

Plants produce many psychoactive compounds that are / can be extremely useful to humans but there are many people who don't feel comfortable discussing their use. It seems like "psychoactive drug/substance" isn't perceived too widely in a positive light, but I think that's probably due to a lack of knowledge on the topic. If someone were to come up to me and ask, "Do you use any psychoactive drugs/substances?" it doesn't seem like "Yes" or "Absolutely!" would be an appropriate response. It seems like a potentially incriminating question, probably rooted in the anti-drug education I can remember from my elementary school years. When you're brought up with statements like "substance abuse," "Drugs are bad," "Dare to resist drugs," and "Just say 'No' to drugs," you are bound to see anything termed "drug" or "substance" in a negative light and have a knee-jerk reaction against it.

"Psychoactive" and its subcategory "psychedelic" also seem to be loaded terms with all sorts of negative connotations, which could have their genesis in some folks' negative attitude towards culture in the '60s and '70s, association of the terms with abuse or overdose, the fact that the word contains the pejorative "psycho," or knowledge of only addictive psychoactive substances or psychedelics that cause predominantly negative experiences. Our American culture has largely been bent on prevention or tight control of use of psychedelic substances, including Cannibis (aka marijuana), though its effects are quite mild. Marijuana is the most commonly use psychedelic in the world and also has a number of important material uses (usually under the name "hemp").

A good example of a marijuana smoker stereotype.

As we know from medicine, powerful plant compounds can be and have been used to treat serious diseases. In order for this to happen, the dosage is critical, and even a slight deviation from the recommended amount could have serious consequences. There is a risk:benefit correlation here, and the same is true for many psychoactive / psychedelic substances, which can be easily misused without proper education. First, one needs to understand the effects certain plants have, and also be able to correctly identify plants. There are certain plants that almost always produce horrifying experiences that someone would never want to repeat, let alone have in the first place (e.g. those caused by plants in the genera Atropa, Datura, and Brugmansia) but there are also plants that have usually positive and even indescribably amazing experiences (e.g. Ayahuasca) when properly prepared and in the right dosage (many have suffered harm when these conditions were not met). In my mind, some of the greatest knowledge held by indigenous peoples throughout the world relates to the preparation and use of psychoactive plants in the areas of therapy, spirituality, and appreciation of the natural world and the connections between all living things. Even though these people are often seen as poorer and less advanced than societies in developed countries, they possess riches and wisdom of which most people do not know or understand.

Mateo, a Matsigenka shaman (far left) prepares Ayahuasca with ethnobotanist Glenn Shepard (far right) in the Peruvian rainforest. (Photo by Manuel Lizarralde)

The plants are mixed together in a pot in the correct proportions and boiled for several hours. (Photo by Manuel Lizarralde)

Much of this wisdom has to do with powerful properties of plants, especially psychedelics. Even when properly prepared, a certain type of experience cannot be guaranteed for a particular plant or combination of plants. Major variables include the dosage, the internal constitution of a person (attitudes, fears, struggles, worldview), preparation for the experience, and the context of the experience, including the physical setting. That being said, there are often general effects that can be expected from certain plants and preparations, as described in the previous paragraph. Here is a link to a Wikipedia article that contains a couple good attempts to describe what can occur when humans use psychedelics. See especially the "Dynamics" and "Levels" sections: I don't know how anyone would not be interested in the psychoactive / psychedelic properties of plants after reading through experience descriptions such as those.

"Encontro" by Alexandre Segregio depicting part of an Ayahuasca experience, which I chose because it was the best artistic representation I could find to reflect the Ayahuasca experience as a whole as I experienced it. Even though the body remains in the forest, the "spirit" travels beyond this world to other dimensions and what are also apparently other planets / galaxies / universes.

The sad part is that many people in our culture will only ever look to psychoactive plants for a recreational "high" and most people who have had experiences will have only experienced Levels 1 or perhaps 2 (e.g. marijuana). Fewer individuals would find or make use of the means to reach Levels 3 or 4 (e.g. mushrooms), still often an experience of only superficial entertainment. An incredibly profound Level 5 experience is safely accessible only with certain less-than-well-known tropical plants (e.g. those in Ayahuasca) with the correct preparation, with the right attitude and in the right context. If one is able to make those stars align, the experience is largely ineffable, as the Wikipedia article rightly states, and seems to transcend any other experience one has ever had.

Many psychedelic substances are illegal throughout the world because of the potential for abuse and the possibility of further experimentation leading to addicting drugs like cocaine or heroin (morphine). I think it is important, however, that we not "throw the baby out with the bath water," especially when it comes to Ayahuasca, which is an incomparable experience on its own but also has such great power to transform individuals' lives and alter their perception of the universe and the world in which we live in extremely profound ways. Cannibis is certainly another plant that warrants our consideration due to its many uses and potential uses beyond a recreational "high," and this is currently the hot topic of debate in the world of psychoactive plants. Perhaps it will open up a more widespread conversation and exploration into this most fascinating realm of ethnobotany in the near future.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Thursday, May 15, 2014

2013-2014 Upper Keys Fairchild Challenge End-of-Year Awards Ceremony

It's hard to believe another school year has come and gone. We recently concluded The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort's 2013-2014 Upper Keys Fairchild Challenge with a bang at our end-of-year awards ceremony, which was a rewarding night for the 250+ students, teachers, and parents who crowded into Key Largo's Murray E. Nelson Center to receive their certificates, awards, and more. In all, over 900 students, 50 teachers, and 6 Upper Keys schools participated in the program this year!

We presented awards to students who participated in the winning submissions for each challenge, recognizing over 400 students in total, and also to the schools which earned the most points overall. Key Largo Elementary and Middle School were each awarded $750 to use toward future environmental programs for placing 1st in their divisions, while Plantation Key Elementary School and Treasure Village Montessori Middle School both received $500 awards for placing 2nd in their divisions. Additionally, 10 teachers were recognized as Environmental Role Models for their environmental dedication during the school year.

Highlights of the Awards Ceremony included two live performances. Dressed as native Keys creatures, the Key Largo Middle School Band opened the Ceremony with "Hangin' at the Hardwood Hammock." Later on, 3rd and 4th grade students from Ocean Studies Charter School treated the audience to a choral performance titled "You've God a Friend, Land & Sea."

We just started a YouTube channel, so now instead of having to pick and choose photos due to space considerations, we can just make a slideshow movie and show them all! Here's one that Joe made of this year's Upper Keys Fairchild Challenge Awards Ceremony:

If you'd like to learn more about the Upper Keys Fairchild Challenge program, visit, click on "Explore" and then "The Fairchild Challenge." Results, news, photos, and challenge details are available for each school year.

We're honored to be in a position as a botanic garden to play a part in educating the next generation of world citizens about the importance of plants and the environment to humans and the earth's future, and The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort is looking forward to once again facilitating The Fairchild Challenge in the Upper Keys for the 2014-2015 school year.

Rick Hederstrom, Associate Director
Joe Harris, Director

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

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). 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