Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Plant Champions Olympic Wreath Competition

Back in October, I introduced you all to the Plant Champions Olympic Wreath Competition that The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort has been working to bring to students down here in the Florida Keys in collaboration with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and BGCI.  I left you hanging with the knowledge that I would be introducing the Competition to classes sometime soon.  I can proudly report today that I have completed the introductions and have come back alive against all odds with tales to tell and pictures to share.

I didn't really know what to expect going into the introductions.  I soon found out, however, that the students were surprisingly attentive, receptive and even enthusiastic about what I had to say. Many students raised their hands to participate whenever I posed a question and gave me very little trouble.  I say "very little" because there seems to always be a student interested in finding opportunities to be funny during a presentation.  During one of my introductions, one such student made himself known.  I was giving examples of how plants are used and was talking about their use as perfume/cologne ingredients.  The student loudly interjected with "Wait, I thought perfumes and colognes were made of whale blubber."  I must have been on my game that day because I was able to return fire (good-naturedly and in the spirit of fun, of course) immediately with "There may be a few, and although I'm not going to judge you based on your choice to perfume yourself with whale fat, I'm interested to know how it's working for you."  I got quite a bit of laughs from the quick response, a bushel of street cred points and un-interrupted attention from the whole class for the rest of the presentation.

Classroom introduction to the Competition.

Helping the students identify their plants.

As you can see in the pictures above, many of the students brought in plant parts for me to help them identify or determine if they are native to the Keys.  It was a little challenging at times because some of the students had only brought in a single leaf or even part of a leaf.  Luckily, I was born with a right eye that has a built-in plant DNA analyzer wirelessly linked to the world's best plant name databases, enabling me to determine plant identity in only a few seconds, so it really wasn't an issue. After giving the introductions, the classes went ahead with the Competition and began assembling wreaths later on in the week.  I have some excellent pictures of the wreath-making and it is quite hard to choose only a few to share with you.  We will be putting together an Olympic Wreath Competition photo album on our Facebook page, which will have many more photos, at a later date - so keep an eye out for that.  In the meantime, here is a sample of pictures taken during the in-class wreath-making (photos by Patricia Joy of Key Largo School):

Students using a book to identify their plants.

Putting the wreath together.

The students all seemed to have a great time making the wreaths.

A wreath nearly complete.

Great stuff.  It's awesome to see such enthusiasm and fun while learning about our native plants and their importance to us as well as the greater natural environment, all of which is core to the mission of The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort.  Look forward to more on the Competition in the months to come!

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Plant Inventory Finished and Records Labels Arrive!

During the past month, I have been working on completing a thorough inventory of all the plants we have on the grounds.  As a museum with living collections, a botanic garden needs to not only record information about a plant upon its arrival but also continually evaluate the plant over time.  This is valuable not only because it allows us to know the current state of any of the plants in our collections, but also because we develop a history for each plant.  To give you an idea about what inventory entails, here is an example of a (completed) sheet I carry around with me to record information.  These sheets are created directly from our plant records database, BG-Base:

Once all the information is collected, I need to enter it into BG-Base, primarily into the "Plants" table of BG-Base.  Below are examples of some of the screens I work with when completing data entry:

^Location, number of plants, condition, flowering/fruiting stage and other notes go into this window of the Plants table.

^How complex the BG-Base window can get if I'm making edits across tables and performing queries, and yes, it's running on a Mac : )

BG-Base is a "relational" database, which means that there are many tables tied together so that data from one table can be displayed in fields of another.  While this is cool, it sure makes for a lot of work in terms of data entry and making sure the integrity of all the connections between tables are maintained whenever edits are made.  A large computer screen is definitely a BIG help.

On a related note, our records labels have finally arrived!  Records labels are a great help when it comes to keeping accurate track of the plants in our collections.  Each plant or mass of plants is a unique entity with all its information in our database, so it is crucial to accurately maintain this link, which is similar to the link our social security numbers provide from ourselves to information about us.  In both cases, if that link gets broken, it's bad news - the former being clearly far more serious a matter.  Our records labels include each plant's scientific Latin name, source, and accession number + qualifier - its "social security number."  This number allows me to double-check that the plant I'm looking at is the plant on my sheet I want to inventory and also acts as a key to access all the data we have for a given plant.  The labels are primarily useful to our Gardens' staff but horticulturists, botanists, serious gardeners and curious guests will all find them useful if they want to know more about a specific plant.  Here are a couple pictures of the glimmering labels (563 in total).  You can see parts of the stakes the labels are attached to in the second photo; they resemble a key chain ring attached to the top of a 6-inch metal stake.

Awesome, right?  Our table in the office reminded me of a drug-bust table with the lines and lines of these records labels I have out to be placed.  If plant labels ever became illegal, the authorities would certainly be able to put together an impressive presentation of all the labels they find after busting our notorious botanic garden operation.  I'll have to work on my buffness, though, if I'm to play the part of the bad dude behind the table with armed guards on either side.  With hopes that plant labels maintain legal status for the foreseeable future, I will be placing these labels by their corresponding plants over the next couple weeks - another big milestone in progress for our Botanic Gardens.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Nursery Visits And Tigers In Your Neighborhood

If you could plan out an ideal location for a botanic garden, you would no doubt place it near a major conglomerate of plant nurseries.  Fortunately for us, we are just 30-45 minutes from such an area: Homestead, FL.  Although I had been told Homestead has a lot of nurseries, I had not been up to see for myself.  So last week, I decided to take a trip up with Veronika, our grounds manager, to get to know the area a bit better.  I also hoped to better grasp the offerings of some of the nurseries we had been purchasing from in the past, which would come in handy as we continue to enhance our ethnobotanical collections with new plants.  We accomplished what we set out to do and more; it was a great trip.  Meeting many of the individuals who run the nurseries and grow the plants was an especially big plus and helps us to build important relationships with growers.  Veronika has been to Homestead a number of times to pick up plants, so it was great to have her along to guide me through the maze of nurseries in the area.  You can get an idea of the coverage of nurseries in the area (esp. northern Homestead) from the dark green colors (from lots of plants and shade cloth) in the Google Maps image below:

As Veronika put it, Homestead is an area where you find "nursery on top of nursery on top of nursery."  It is indeed quite overwhelming.  Fortunately, as can be seen from the image, streets in the majority of Homestead nursery territory are conveniently laid out in a grid-like orientation.  The streets are numbered to correspond with how far north, south, east or west you are, so you can get general bearings pretty easily, although having a GPS unit along for the ride was a great help.  In this area, giving directions using landmarks can be quite ineffective due to the area's homogeneity and lack of topography: "So you'll take a left on this road and you'll go a few miles 'til you see this big nursery on your right....hm, no, no wait....ok so there will be this group of tall palm trees....uh, well.....it's just after this big field with, uh....aw heck....do you guys have a GPS??"

Each nursery has its own character, size and specialty.  We visited an extremely large operation selling orchids and bromeliads by the crate with a minimum purchase of $250 and a feeling more of a factory than a nursery.  On the other end of the spectrum lies a nursery we visited that specializes in succulents and cacti, seeming to only have one employee, the owner, on not much more than an acre of land where service is about as personalized as you can get.  Along the way we found plenty of places in between, most of which employed very cordial staff who were more than happy to show us around or offer us a golf cart to tour the property ourselves.  Even though golf carts provide a very effective method of transportation around nurseries, it was strange for me to see them buzzing in and out of the nursery rows, having spent lots of time in golf carts where they "belong" (on golf courses), where I both played and worked for a number of my younger years.  They were out of their native habitat, ecologically speaking, and I felt, well....maybe kind of like how you'd feel if you were to see tigers roaming around your neighborhood...minus the whole fear-of-being-eaten part.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fairchild Challenge coming to the Keys via Kona Kai BG

Educating the next generation about the importance of plants and our natural environment to the well-being of humanity is crucial.  Through our interactions with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, FL, we learned of the Fairchild Challenge and its devotion to this type of work (more information on the Challenge can be found here).  Although the program impacts tens of thousands of students in South Florida and throughout the world, it has not yet made successful inroads to schools in the Florida Keys.  When we discovered this, we thought it would be great to find a way to make this happen, so we became a Fairchild Challenge 'satellite partner.'  After some research and discussion, we found a perfect project to start with: the 2011/2012 Plant Champions Olympic Wreath Global Competition, the result of a collaboration between Fairchild and Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI).  Essentially, teachers work with students to create wreaths inspired by the Olympics made out of plants characteristic of our region (preferably natives).  Students also write an essay explaining their plant choices, including a conservation message applicable to one of the plants.  Pictures are taken of students wearing the finished wreaths; the wreaths and essays are then judged by a panel at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai, with the top 5 winning pictures/essays from Keys schools sent off to London to be displayed at the 2012 Olympic Games - pretty cool!  Instead of going into all the details in this post, you can find more information on BGCI's website.  Here are a couple nice examples BGCI gives of plant wreaths:

After seeing these wreaths, I felt inspired to spend some serious time making one myself.  For inspiration, I delved deep into Olympic wreath history, explored and wrestled with wreath philosophy, schooled myself on the artistic principles and thought of some of the greatest artists in history, and agonized over plant choices for my wreath.  After several sleepless nights and hours of work, I finally finished my masterpiece:

I decided on the native Hamelia patens (firebush) as the sole plant in my wreath, drawing my artistic influence from 16th century abstract minimalism.  Given this, it is understandable that it might be a little tough to recognize and appreciate the sheer beauty and complexity of this masterpiece, but for those who can recognize and appreciate it, before you get all upset, I want to assuage your fears: I will NOT be including my wreath as an entry to take all of the awards in this competition away from everybody else.  As an ethnobotanist and amateur artist/philosopher, I clearly have many unfair advantages, and I know deep down it just wouldn't be right.

Ok ok, for serious now - since class participation in the Competition is up to individual teachers, we collaborated with Bobbi Burson, a teacher at Key Largo Middle School who has a passion for educating her students about the importance of plants and nature in general, to bring together a group of teachers interested in participating.  Several teachers responded with interest, and after our initial organizational meeting in which we discussed details of the Competition and how it can be integrated into various curricula, we are all set to begin.  When teachers are ready to begin work in their classes, I will travel to the middle school to introduce the Competition to each class to get them psyched up and excited about it, which I have heard might be a little challenging, especially when it comes to the guys in each class...it might be analogous to getting girls excited about doing a project about sports cars and weapons (a generalization, but you know what I mean).  Submissions will be made to Kona Kai by participating classes no later than January 20, 2012, so look forward to a post early next year with some great pictures of what the students come up with.

Rick 'Wreath' Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Photos From New Camera, Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival

Starting this past Thursday, I've been dedicating a tour per day 'til Sunday the 25th to registrants of the Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival, which means six tours (including the two for guests) in four days!  The tour is listed as one of many activities of interest to naturalists in a schedule that involves numerous walks, talks and tours taking place throughout the Keys.  Needless to say, I've stocked up on Gatorade and all those hours in the gym are paying off as I near the half-way mark of this mini-marathon of tours.  Ok, so it's not THAT bad, and in fact, it is quite enjoyable for me to be able to educate so many people about the importance and value of plants.  Specially for the Festival, I spent some time brushing up on avianbotany, a little-known field akin to ethnobotany that hasn't really...taken off (cue half-hearted laughter).  In all seriousness though, I did some research on our collections and tried to find out any connections our plants might have with birds and other wildlife so that I could present them to anyone registering for the tour through the Festival.  I was able to come to a greater appreciation about how not only humans, but all animals, depend on plant life for their survival.  Birds and squirrels use plants as a source of food and nest material, insects use plants as homes and for food, and lizards use plants for cover and apparently for enjoyment as props for parkour runs, as they are always bounding acrobatically across the landscape.

The Botanic Gardens recently made the exciting purchase of a new digital camera that has more features and takes higher quality images than our point-and-shoot, so I thought I'd show off some of the sights this week's tour participants are seeing in our gardens through this new lens.  My skill as a photographer needs quite a bit of work before I can produce some truly high-quality photos that will hopefully allow me to effectively capture and present the beauty and complexity of plants, but everyone's got to start somewhere!

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) was used in this bird's nest and has now begun to grow down the silver buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus var. sericeus) in which it was built.

Ants (bottom-right corner) have made a home in the trunk of an old gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba).

A brown anole atop a leaf of one of our pineapple (Ananas sp.) plants keeps watch or, more likely, scopes out his/her next parkour sequence.

Bromeliad inflorescences (left) and the unmistakable flowers of the royal poinciana (Delonix regia).

So ends another picture-perfect day at Kona Kai...

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Wedding Recap, Project Updates and Cork

Finally back at Kona Kai and getting settled in after a great time in Ohio.  The wedding was excellent and much to my relief, the music seemed to be a big hit with everyone.  Admittedly I was a little nervous before starting, but once things got going, I found it easy to get to work making sure everyone had an unforgettable night.  As promised, I have a couple preliminary pictures for you; the ones from the photographers won't be available for another four weeks or so and I didn't want to disappoint on the tantalizing end of my previous post...

First a picture of my setup, which was pretty basic: a laptop with a mixer hooked up via USB, a couple disco balls, two QSC K10 speakers with a KSUB to the right of the table providing the thump, and of course a tree in my corner.  The speakers don't look like much, but they sure can fill a hall really well when it's time to get your dance on.  Annnd here's a shot of the Ethnobotanist-DJ in action, singing/rocking out with the dance floor:

Almost as excited as I get about plants and ethnobotany, but not quite.  So if you see me start air-guitaring in front of a plant I've never seen bloom before, you'll know why.  Ok, getting back to the Gardens...we're finally finishing up the immense project of connecting the Resort to the new Keys sewer system.  Even though it's taken a little longer than expected, we have been fortunate in encountering no major botanical crises along the way and the grounds including nearly all of the plants appear miraculously untouched.  Credit to Veronika and Joe for this, as I'm sure they were driving contractors a little nuts with panicked botanical warnings like "Mind the Bambusa vulgaris 'Wamin Striata'!" and "I better not see a scratch on that Hyophorbe verschaffeltii!" and "Ah!! Don't step on the Cycas panzhihuaensis!" etc.  If you'd like to see a glimpse of what the project involved over the past few weeks, take a look at the "Installing sewer lines at Kona Kai - August 2011" photo album, posted on our Facebook wall.

In other news, we received our second batch of 50 display labels from Nameplate & Panel Technology, who do a great job when it comes to producing display labels for plants.  Their materials and printing combined with Ronnie's graphic design expertise have created some of the best display labels I've seen at any botanical institution.  You might say I'm biased so I challenge - no, I double-dare you to come see for yourself this winter.  Yes, a double-dare is legally binding, so if you are reading this, I'll be expecting to see your smiling face here at Kona Kai in the next several months - I promise you won't be disappointed.  Veronika and I will be placing these labels in the coming weeks, so look forward to learning much more during your stay!

Joe, our Gardens Director, sent me a link to a great ethnobotanical story about why natural cork is still the best topper for wine bottles to keep wine tasting great over the years.  It's neat to explore the reasons why, despite our technological advances, products made from plants are many times still the very best quality products one can buy and this article is a good example of that.  Although it's not mentioned in the article, most of our natural cork is sustainably harvested bark from Quercus suber, the cork oak.  If you have some time, surf the Web to find more information about this plant and the production/usefulness of its cork and I know you'll find some great 'gee-whiz' facts that you'll want to share, so feel free to post any you find especially interesting as a comment below!  It also seems like the plant would enjoy our climate, so I'll be keeping it in mind if we ever have a spot open up...Kona Kai Resort, Gallery, Botanic Gardens & Wine Co.???

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Friday, August 12, 2011

Labels, Weddings And, Of Course, Ethnobotany

Hi all - starting Monday, I'll be heading back to Ohio for a couple weeks for my sister's wedding, which is very exciting.  Even more so because the gentleman she is marrying is one of my best friends, and I am also honored to be the DJ of the reception.  You're probably thinking, "an ethnobotanist-DJ...a strange but potentially explosive combination."  I know right?  There may be several ethnobotanists in the world and countless DJs, but I just may be the very first and only ethnobotanist-DJ in the entire history of the universe.  I'll give you some time to push up your jaw, which has no doubt dropped significantly after the previous statement.  Ok?  Good.  Obviously, I have made sure that only ethnobotanically interesting flowers will be used in the ceremony/reception, all of which will of course have appropriate labels (yes, even the bride's bouquet will contain a large-sized ethnobotanical label) and if anyone thinks they are going to sneak in with a flower in their hair unlabeled, they are mistaken, as I will have a labeling machine on-site to take care of that.  In addition, I have remixed each song in my set to include some botanical reference, as you can probably guess ethnobotany is not a major theme in love songs or dance music.....yet.

In other news, I thought I'd leave you with a few updates on some exciting progress here at the Gardens to tide you over until I return:

We have ordered 50 more labels (20 of which are the large ethnobotanical labels) for the grounds, so there will soon be lots more for guests and visitors to learn as they enjoy the gardens.

We are also just about ready to order small records labels (aluminum labels that include the accession number + qualifier, scientific name, and source) for each of the plants on the grounds as well.  These labels are like dog tags for plants, which serve to identify them as a specific individual or mass of individuals planted together, and they are more hidden from public view than display labels.  This is because these tags help staff at gardens keep track of their plants and the accession number + qualifier provides the key to unlocking all the information associated with that specific planting in our database, which is a use more internal than public.  So that you can get an idea of what I'm talking about, here is an example of a slightly more detailed records label used at The Holden Arboretum, where I previously worked in the Plant Records office:

Plans are also underway for gradually making the gardens in our center courtyard area native-themed, so I've been researching ethnobotanically interesting native plants that would do well in these areas.  I have found a number of plants that would be great to have, but the challenge is proving to be tracking them down.  If you visit this winter, hopefully you'll be seeing some of the first fruits of that labor.

To make up for the lack of exciting pictures in this post, perhaps I'll include a picture of the ethnobotanist-DJ in action in the first post I make after returning...

Until then!

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Tour Through Our Gardens, But Not A Garden Tour

Over the past several months, among other things, I've been spending time honing the tour of our Gardens that we offer to guests and the public three times each week.  I described in an earlier post about how I was encouraged by the enthusiastic responses from those who agreed to a tour.  I'm very happy to say that responses and feedback from tour participants continue to be extremely positive.  No doubt one of the major reasons for this is because I've especially been working on my technique when it comes to pointing out bromeliad flowers, so that it's pretty much flawless by now.  Here's a rare look at the technique in action during a tour, though a photo doesn't do it justice:

Now you might say, "Rick, no offense meant to you at all because I know just how ridiculously awesome you are (aw shucks : P ) but people on the tour might just be saying that they loved it, especially if they're talking directly to you...I mean they're not just going to tell you straight up that it was boring."  Good point, friend.  I acknowledge that feedback given directly to me may or may not be genuine, but after almost every tour Tracey and Denise, who work at the front desk, are able to corroborate.  Now even if you might be skeptical about that, the most objective evidence of enjoyment I can offer is that I will sometimes reach the hour and a half we have allotted for the tour without covering everything, so I'll inform them of the time and ask if they'd like to keep going, and unless they have activities scheduled, the answer has always been an enthusiastic "yes."  Keep in mind, too, that this is precious vacation time and I am competing with some pretty impressive offerings, such as relaxing on the beach, cooling off in the pool, swimming with dolphins, going snorkeling/diving/fishing, yodeling on the pier (or is that just me?), etc.  The fact that these folks end up being happy to spend more than an hour and a half of that precious time with me on our tour is quite wonderful to see and a concrete affirmation that people are really getting a lot out of it.  Both the front desk and I have collected quotes from our tour participants, so you can get an idea of what people are saying:

"I've stayed at Kona Kai in the past and the Gardens and Tour are why we'll be staying here in the future."
"Well beyond any of our expectations."
"I'll never look at plants the same way again."
"My wife had to drag me along but now I'm really glad she did."
"This was a major highlight of our vacation."

If I had any negative feedback, I would present it, but honestly I don't.  And while the original tour focused almost exclusively on ethnobotany and economic botany, it has evolved to incorporate a number of other areas including history of the Keys and the Resort property, botany at microscopic levels, chemistry, ecology, spirituality, ethics, conservation, biodiversity and global environmental issues.  After the tour, we not only hope that participants will leave with a dramatically new perspective on plants, but also how intricately and actively connected they are with the rest of the world, humans in particular.  That being said, this is much more than what one might call a "garden" tour and I think I've found a better name for it that is much more intriguing and descriptive: a "plants-and-people-but-also-much-more-including-history-chemistry-ethics-conservation-connection-spirituality-biodiversity-environmental-issues-etc.,-and-you'll-learn-so-much-and-be-really-glad-you-took-the-time-because-it-is-ridiculously-mind-blowingly-amazing" tour.....well, maybe I'll see if I can cut out a word or two.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Momentous Occasion

Earlier this week we had a momentous occasion with the harvesting of a ripe pineapple from our Pineapple Welcome Garden located immediately to your right as you walk across Kona Kai's entrance footbridge.  Given that it takes about twenty months from planting for a pineapple crown (the top "leafy" part of a pineapple) to grow and produce a ripe fruit, it is an occurrence worthy of celebration: a parade, piñatas, lengthy speeches, a ribbon cutting, cakes with candles, face-painting, fireworks, and clowns making pineapple-shaped balloons are all things I will be considering for the next time a pineapple ripens.

These days, we (or at least I) take for granted that I can walk into almost any supermarket in the U.S. and take home a pineapple to enjoy.  In the recent past, however, the pineapple was a great delicacy.  It was discovered growing in the Caribbean by the Spanish in 1493 and Columbus brought one of the fruits back to Spain.  Because of pineapple's delicious and sugary taste as well as the difficulty in transporting the fruit from the Caribbean to Europe without it rotting, it became a gift highly prized in Europe, even by the monarchs.  As colonists established in the New World, the pineapple retained its prestige on our shores because it was still very difficult and expensive to acquire a pineapple from the Caribbean for a dinner party in most parts of what is now the United States.  The pineapple was the center and star of dinner party spreads and would cause the utmost delight in guests, who came to regard a host able to procure a pineapple for the event as someone of great class and hospitality because of the great lengths and expense he/she incurred to acquire such a treat for his/her guests.

When I learned about this, I imagined if I were to travel back to my hometown in Ohio and invite friends and family over for dinner today.  Eager to show off my hospitality, only after much to-do at the dinner, I would unveil a perfectly ripe pineapple I had acquired for my guests from here in the Caribbean, confidently expecting it to be the highlight of their lives.  Even after looking proudly back and forth from my guests to the pineapple with a big smile on my face and the occasional prompting ("welllll???") waiting for the profusion of excitement and gratitude to come forth, song and dancing to begin, etc., all I would probably get is shoulder shrugs and maybe: "a pineapple? ok...."  Alas.  Perhaps a couple hundred years ago I would have been a host of highest regard and the talk of the town because of my ties to tropical America, but modern-day transportation has made pineapple just another common grocery store item, along with many other exotic fruits that used to hold positions of great honor at dinners and parties.

Even though you can find pineapples at the grocery store, the fruits you find there are picked when they are mostly green; they ripen off the plant.  Our pineapples here at Kona Kai, however, are only picked from the plant when they are golden-yellow all over.  The taste is amazing and even richer and sweeter than pineapples from the grocer!  We prepare all the fruits that grow here in our gardens for our guests to enjoy after they ripen on the plant, and the pineapple was no exception.  Here are a few pictures of the preparation:

Ripe for the picking.

Perfect color.

Pineapple poolside.

After the last picture was published on Kona Kai's Facebook wall, I was contacted by several five-star restaurants with job offers because of my clearly exemplary preparation and presentation skills, but breathe easy, I have turned them all down.

Because of the pineapple's historical importance discussed above, it has become a symbol of a warm welcome and great hospitality, which is why we have chosen it to be the first plant you see as you come through the gateway to our resort.  Perhaps eventually we'll have a pineapple calendar on our website so you can plan your vacation to coincide with a ripe pineapple and then spend the day by the pool imagining it's 1494 and you're the envy of kings as you leisurely sample the tastiest, most in-demand and impossibly hard to acquire fruit in the world.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

P.S.  A reminder - you can now follow this blog on Twitter.

Friday, July 1, 2011

2011 APGA Conference in Philadelphia

Last week Joe, Ronnie and I headed to Philadelphia, PA for the annual American Public Gardens Association (APGA) Conference.  It was my first time attending an APGA Conference and also my first time in Philadelphia.  With over 600 registrants from institutions all over the U.S., there were plenty of people to meet and network with.  There were also plenty of presentations to attend in multiple fields including: Education, Leadership & Innovation, Marketing & Guest Experience, Horticulture, Volunteer Programs and Donors & Members.  In addition to presentations, there were also a number of optional tours of gardens in Greater Philadelphia.  The theme of the conference was "More" and for me, it lived up to the theme as there was MORE than enough of interest to choose from to fill up each day.  If anything, the theme was too good as there seemed to be no end to the usage of that one word and puns that could be played with it in the weeks leading up to the Conference (see previous sentence).  Indeed, it was almost MORE than I could handle!  The conference not only served as a great introduction to many aspects of public gardens but provided the opportunity to go more in-depth into areas of particular interest.  Below is an example of one of the round-table presentations:

I attended sessions about collections interpretation, augmented reality, marketing, surviving financially in tough economic times, providing visitors with excellent service, implementing a landscape consulting program, managing a volunteer program and sustaining collections in the face of adversity and change.  I particularly appreciated the opportunity to learn more about areas in which I have not had extensive experience, as the management of a botanic garden requires knowledge in a number of diverse disciplines.  In addition to attending presentations, Joe, Ronnie and I toured Bartram's Garden and Chanticleer, the latter being an especially exceptional garden in my opinion.  While there, we were fortunate enough to see one of the most spectacular flowering plants in full bloom - the rare hot-air-balloon-flower plant:

The Exhibits Hall at the Conference was a highlight for me; it allowed us to see some of the latest products/services being offered, try out these products first-hand and meet the people behind the products.  We have been looking into making our collections information available to our guests on their mobile devices, so we were especially interested in booths by Guide by Cell, GuideOne and BG-Map, each of which has something to offer in this arena.  ESRI also had an exciting program called the Public Garden Data Model on display, which bridges the gap between ESRI's mapping software and BG-Base, providing a much-desired connection between the two.  A parade of clearly lost festively-clad musicians accidentally found its way into the Exhibit Hall and livened up the atmosphere before being redirected to the annual Festively-clad Parading Musicians Conference, which was next door:

Overall, it was an excellent experience that has given us many ideas, valuable networking and helpful advice as we continue to lay the groundwork for the Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai during its first official year.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director
(Photo Credits - APGA)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The 4th Quarter

Over the past five months I have been down here in the Keys, it has rained for a total of about ten hours, bringing only a couple of inches of rain.  I'd like to call up Lloró, Colombia, which receives about 43 FEET of rain per year and ask if they might kindly pass on one percent of that rain to the Keys during our dry season.  Spread that 5 inches of rain out over six months and we're golden.  43 feet is just an average amount of rainfall for that Colombian region, too.  A town close to Lloró called Tutunendo has received over 86 FEET of rain during its wettest year.  Tutunendo, that is eight stories worth of water falling on your gardens.  Share the wealth!  : P

It amazes me how many of the plants we have here at Kona Kai can do so well despite the severe lack of water during what is aptly called the "dry" season, the last part of which I like to call the "4th Quarter" for the plants, when they really have to give it their all to not only survive but look good as well.  We do irrigate the grounds to help them make it through, but not heavily.  As I discussed in my previous post, it is to our advantage to choose plants that have evolved to deal with annual drought periods.  For example, some plants, such as our pineapple plants (Ananas sp. - photo on left), along with many succulents, have an alternative way to photosynthesize (a plant's way of making food), which allows them to divide photosynthesis into two parts, one taking place at night and the other during the day; this is called CAM photosynthesis.  CAM plants can open their stomata (pores for gas exchange) at night to fix carbon dioxide and close them during the day, thereby significantly reducing water loss over the more common method of photosynthesis (C3 photosynthesis), which requires stomata to be open during the day.  Plants that use the C3 method can lose over 95% of the water they bring in through their roots to transpiration out of stomata, thereby giving CAM plants a big advantage in dry environments.  Elephant bush (Portulacaria afra - photo on right), of which we have two plants, can even switch between these types of photosynthesis depending on the conditions; now that's pretty smart!

Many bromeliads are also able to do without water for some time because of their water storage techniques.  Water is stored at the bases of their overlapping leaves and, in some species, in specialized "tanks" designed to hold water for use during dry periods (photo below on left).  Bromeliads also have microscopic structures covering their leaves called trichomes, which are cells designed to reflect sunlight, absorb moisture and limit moisture loss.  Trichome density varies from species to species and the presence of many trichomes results in the grayish color frequently seen on air plants (Tillandsia - photo below on right).

One of the ways in which succulents combat drought is by storing water within their leaves.  Below is a photo of a succulent, desert cabbage (Kalanchoe thyrsiflora), in our Gardens.  Many plants, including succulents, have root systems that are shallow rather than deep to rapidly absorb water after short periods of rainfall typical in drier climates/seasons.

Despite all these modifications, plants adapted to dry conditions can be pushed to their limits, but the plants here at Kona Kai are still doing very well considering the lack of rain.  Even though the grounds at Kona Kai are as great a place as any plant could wish to be, they still have to play hard, especially in this dry 4th quarter, if they want to stay on the team.  If you find yourself at the Resort near the end of the dry season, don't be surprised to be startled out of your hammock by what seems to be Bobby Knight on a motivational tirade (without the profanity of course): "Sweat it out!  Come on, this is the last stretch!  Finish line's in sight!  It's the fourth quarter, baby!  You're Eric Dickerson, not LeBron James...Mr. 4th Quarter, not 75 Cents!  You gotta keep goin' - rain's coming soon!  This is what you've been training for your whole life!  Now show these guests what kind of photosynthetically efficient, water-conserving, drought-tolerant monster you are!"  Pay no mind, it's just me - an impassioned botanical coach inspiring his team of plants to sweet summertime victory.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Picking Our Team

Remember trying out for a club or sports team and then waiting to find out to see if you made the team?  Well right now I feel like I'm on the other side as the coach, as I am figuring out which plants we want to select for inclusion in our Gardens when the opportunity presents itself.  Meanwhile, the plants no doubt wait in anxious anticipation of a decision.  Coaches have to be sure they select the best talent available but also a diversity of talent so that their team is strong in as many areas as possible.  Understandably, there's a pretty big group of plants vying for a spot on Kona Kai's team; it's tough to beat the beautiful waterfront views, quiet atmosphere, tropical temperatures and, of course,  the very best TLC from our grounds manager, Veronika.  Sadly, there will be many plants that will not make the cut - I can be extremely selective, choosing only the finest from the fields, nursery fields, that is.

My first criterion for selection is: the plant needs to be able to not only tolerate, but do well in our climate and environment with minimal care.  Secondly, the plant needs to be ethnobotanically interesting.  If a plant meets both of those criteria, it goes on a list.  From this list, Florida natives, especially those that are endangered, get priority in my book.  This is because planting natives makes sense in terms of having plants that are best-adapted to our environment and giving visitors as much of a Florida Keys experience as possible, while also enhancing native wildlife value in our collections by providing flowers for native pollinators and fruits for native birds and other wildlife.  Selecting endangered species helps in ex-situ conservation (conservation outside of natural habitat) of these plants.  There are, however, very interesting plants native to other regions of the world that do well in our climate, and I won't exclude them simply because they are not Keys natives.  To get to the next stage of selection, it also doesn't hurt to have attractive features, such as flowers or fruits.

After the plants are all given priority based on the above criteria, I then ask:  What are the most ethnobotanically interesting plants?  What niches, both ethnobotanical and horticultural, do we already have filled and which do we want to fill?  Which plant will work best in a site we have open, given the soil type, amount of exposure to sunlight, etc.?  A few plants will likely remain as good candidates for a specific opening after all criteria have been considered and questions asked.  A decision is then made by Joe, Veronika and I as to which plant we select, after which we hold an official "Kona Kai Draft" event, welcome the chosen plants to the stage with much cheering and applause from the audience, then outfit them with Kona Kai hats and jerseys while a veritable fireworks display issues forth from the flash bulbs of the multitudinous press.  Now you're probably thinking, "Wow!  Ethnobotany sure is underrated...I had no idea it was so exciting and glamourous!" and you're absolutely right.

I'll leave you with a couple photos of our latest superstar, a fine specimen of Jacquinia keyensis (joewood), which is a small native tree that has been planted by our waterfront.  It has beautiful flowers and its poisonous fruits have been added to bodies of water by indigenous peoples to catch fish.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Friday, May 27, 2011

Say Cheese!!

Or...if you're staying with us here at Kona Kai, "Say Keys!!" works even better and no doubt makes your smile a little bigger and brighter with the reminder that you are really, truly, actually here, in our little slice of paradise.

Photographic documentation of plant collections is a very nice asset for a botanic garden.  These pictures not only serve as memories, but as horticultural and botanical resources as well, providing a visual history of the gardens and documentation of their development.  For specific plants, along with inventory (taking measurements of the plants and evaluating their condition), photographs allow others to see exactly what the evaluator saw and make their own observations and judgments of the condition of a plant.  In addition, notes like, "serrated leaves, small red flowers and oblong purple fruit" don't provide too much detail, so pictures provide a great supplement to descriptions, especially when one does not know all the correct botanical terminology to adequately and accurately describe the plant.  Below is an example of flowers from Phoenix roebelenii (pygmy date palm) that might be hard to adequately describe:

Pictures are also useful when it comes to diseases, pests, or nutrient deficiency.  If one does not have an extensive knowledge of these subjects, it is difficult to make guesses during inventory as to what might be wrong with a plant.  It's not very helpful to have generic notes that say, "yellow spots on leaves" or "some type of bug infestation."  Pictures are useful in that they provide a ready reference for follow-up in the office with either print or electronic resources to help determine exactly what the condition is and the appropriate remedial action to take.  Here's an example of a condition on a frond of Thrinax morrisii (Key thatch palm) that might be difficult to accurately guess the cause of and/or describe in words:

Another benefit of photographic documentation is convenience.  Perhaps you need to double-check the identity of one of your plants but it only flowers/fruits once a year for a short period of time.  If you know which parts of the plant are important to photograph and what notes to take along with them (i.e. notes on dimensions, flower and fruit characteristics, etc.), you can evaluate the identity of a plant from the office at any time of the year.  This is especially helpful, too, since many plants cannot be found with both flowers and mature fruit available to analyze at the same time.  I was lucky enough to catch some of our female Zamia integrifolia (coontie) coning:

Photographs can be used to track the growth of individual plants when taken at regular intervals, depending upon the growth rate of the plant.  It's almost like having a collection of pictures of yourself from when you were a baby all the way to your current age.  These pictures are a nice supplement to measurements taken during inventory.  Having only your height and weight each year of your life certainly leaves out a lot of details that pictures are able to capture, and I feel the same way about plants; height, canopy spread and diameter measurements only paint a very generic picture of a given plant.  We've begun tracking the growth of shoots of our breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) with photographs after it died back to the ground during a cold snap this past winter:

It is imperative that an organized cataloguing system is developed for the plant pictures.  BG-Base helps us with this by providing a way for pictures to be associated with specific records in the Gardens' database.  I also make sure that each picture is labeled with the date it was taken, scientific name of the plant and its accession number.  Without knowing this information, the pictures lose value.  It would be much like having an art gallery with little or nothing known for certain about each work.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.  Often words are not sufficient to adequately describe everything of note about a plant and it is more helpful, efficient and accurate to take pictures in addition to describing and measuring the plant.  A well-documented and organized collection of photographs provides an important objective perspective of the collections and also make our records more interesting and valuable.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Socializing At Kona Kai Now More Formal, Informative And Interesting

I don't know about you, but when I am in attendance at an event where I know almost no one, it helps if each person has a name tag with not only their name, but also where they are from and perhaps one other line with something like their profession.  This is nice because it eliminates having to ask the same questions at every introduction, which gets old quick.  Name tags would also become even more helpful if everyone you were meeting couldn't communicate with you at all; indeed, it would be essential to have a tag or someone to introduce you to learn anything about them.  Plants are like this.  You meet a plant you don't know, so you very politely introduce yourself, then to break the awkward silence in which you vainly expected some response, you proceed to tell it all about yourself, without so much as a hint of reciprocal sharing from the plant, which apparently has no idea of proper social protocol.  Admittedly, even I, as a botanist, have difficulty in getting plants to respond to questions I might have for them.  So, in an effort to ameliorate interaction with our silent photosynthetic friends, we have conducted research on about 50 of the plants on the grounds and produced display labels with interesting information about each plant.

Initially, Joe, Ronnie, and I worked to develop ideas for suitable label formats and categories of information to display on each label.   We decided on multiple label sizes depending upon how much information we have and want to display for a given plant.  After developing a preliminary list of plants we thought might be good candidates to receive a label, I set about researching each plant to verify information we already have, finding information we lacked, as well as hopefully discovering plenty of other interesting facts along the way.  The first step in this process is finding quality, reliable sources for information about each plant, which is always a challenge initially but once you know where to look and who you can trust, research becomes easier.

After the information was obtained and organized, Ronnie worked to develop beautiful templates for our labels, which we then ordered and have now placed throughout the grounds.  So although the plants stubbornly maintain their vow of silence, we've worked to provide you with a bit of an informative introduction to each plant on our display labels.  If you find yourself wanting to know more about them, you can talk to the front desk about a tour with yours truly and I'd be happy to show you around and give you a more in-depth introduction to the plants in our collections.  Below is an example of our larger ethnobotanical label and smaller simple display label for plants currently without significant documented ethnobotanical information:

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

P.S.  You can also follow this blog on Twitter at twitter.com/kkgardens.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Spring Plant Sale at Fairchild

As places in the garden landscape here at Kona Kai open up due to either a plant's death or removal, it is good to have an idea as to what one would like to plant when an opening becomes available.  On the other hand, sometimes you come across a plant that you simply must have, so you make space for it.  Either way, attending good plant sales or visiting quality nurseries are good ways to scope out new plants.  Last weekend, I had the privilege of venturing up to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden for their annual Spring Plant Sale to see what they were offering and also tour the grounds themselves. 

Conducting research both before a visit to a plant sale or nursery is advisable.  Researching before your visit can help you determine what is actually for sale and what will fit your needs/wants best.  For example, as Kona Kai's focus is on plants with ethnobotanical interest, I checked out Fairchild's plant sale offerings listed on their website and studied to find out which plants, if any, were of ethnobotanical interest.  Research is also advisable, especially when working for a botanic institution, because many times we are trying to acquire a specific plant and we want to make sure what is being offered is truly that specific plant.  Most nursery employees are not taxonomists and their plant identification can be incorrect or often not specific enough; plants may only be listed by a general common name.  For instance, a nursery may call a plant "thatch palm," but that name can be applied to numerous species and even genera of plants.  When it comes to botanic gardens and arboreta, even the best will have plants identified incorrectly, so even though I can have confidence that Fairchild probably has the plants they are selling ID'd correctly, it never hurts to double-check to make sure the plant you are looking to buy matches the description of the plant you want, especially if it is a rare plant or one that will be very important for your collection.

Fairchild BG is in Coral Gables on Old Cutler Road, which is a real treat to drive from the south, with plenty of sections lined with mature trees and beautiful properties.  This was my first visit to Fairchild and throughout the day, I enjoyed reading the display or record labels on plants that caught my eye - there were many excellent specimens to see.  Upon entering the Garden, I was greeted by live music well-suited to the event and setting.  A very good variety of food stands from local vendors was to be found on the Garden House Lawn, while the plant sale took place in the Palmetum.  Fairchild offered an impressive selection of plants, although you have to arrive early if you want to get your hands on the most sought-after offerings; even arriving an hour after opening was too late for some plants.  The number of vendors allowed to showcase plants at the event was not very large, but it was ok because I think that Fairchild's plants are the real highlight, given their reliability in naming and also the potential to find plants with unique histories, such as a palm grown from a seed that came from a palm David Fairchild collected in the wild, brought back and planted on the grounds.  It is always ideal to have provenance (a plant's origin and propagation history) information for plants in a botanical collection, and this is more likely to be available with plants that have been propagated at a botanic institution, although I have also come across nurseries that keep records of this and place higher value on plants with interesting, traceable provenance.

During the day, I fortuitously ran into Dr. Carl Lewis, Fairchild's Director, and we spent some time walking the grounds, talking plants, and also talking Connecticut College, since he is also an alum from the Botany department!  I was very excited to learn this since the College graduates only about 350 students per year, with only a handful of students from the small but very well-staffed Botany department.

Since our need for new plants was not great and I did not find any plants with significant ethnobotanical interest that we did not already have, I did not make any purchases, although I can see how bringing a credit card to one of these events could be quite dangerous; I think the expression "gardener at a Fairchild plant sale" makes a great alternative to "kid in a candy store."  This expression could also turn out to be of great value for anyone trying to creatively, wittily and effectively describe kids in candy stores, which has always been a conundrum for those unfortunate souls who begin a sentence with "These kids in the candy store are like..." leading to either an awkward silence or an attempted analogy that precipitates the former.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Monday, April 25, 2011

In The Keys, No Showers Needed To Bring Spring Flowers

It is said in the Keys that fall is spring and spring is fall.  Trees such as the mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni) and gumbo-limbo (Bursera simaruba) are dropping their leaves now, not due to cold temperatures, but a seasonal lack of rainfall during the winter/spring months, which has been especially lacking this year (I believe it has only rained thrice in the past three months I have been down here).  Dropping leaves limits a plant's water loss because transpiration occurs primarily through stomata in the leaves.  However, no small number of plants are always to be found in bloom in the Gardens here at Kona Kai, even while the mahogany and gumbo-limbo are shedding their leaves to limit water loss.  It's much different from up north in temperate regions, where seasons are more delimited, most plants do not flower in fall and the dead of winter, and the majority of plants in the landscape lose their leaves for almost half the year; I'm still trying to figure things out down here with regards to flowering/fruiting/leaf-drop patterns.

If you have ever been to the Keys, you might understand that the phrase "dead of winter" doesn't exactly apply here and that flowering in the winter months can occur in a number of plants, despite the fact that there is a shortage of water during this time.  It seems as though there has been an increase in the number of plants in bloom around the property in the past few weeks, likely in anticipation of the rains which usually fall with greater frequency in the summer and fall months.  If plants complete their flowering in the next couple months, then they will begin developing fruit, a process requiring elevated amounts of water, in months when rain is more plentiful.  Many plants on the property also come from other regions of the world and when plants are moved from their home ranges to different latitudes, their original flowering/fruiting patterns do not change dramatically, so some of the plants in bloom now might be used to flowering in the spring months in their native range, even though this time might not be an ideal time for flowering in the Keys.

Photo on left - Plumeria alba (frangipani), photo on right - Strelitzia reginae (bird-of-paradise).

I recently traversed the Gardens armed with a point-and-shoot digital camera to document some of the springtime beauty at Kona Kai.  From the pictures taken (some of which are included in this post for those who do not have Facebook), Gardens Director/Owner Joe Harris put together a photo album for Facebook in celebration of spring, which you can check out by following this link: Spring Flowers at Kona Kai.  I was new to the camera and as many of you may know, the auto-focus feature on many point-and-shoot cameras is by no means perfect.  It seems like every time I want to take a picture of something, the camera finds a way to focus on anything but the subject of the photo, seeming to think that I can't possibly want to take a picture of the beautiful flowers dominating most of the screen, and that I must certainly mean to focus on obscure objects far in the distance.  So, instead of an excellent, sharply-focused close-up picture of an orchid flower, I find that I have a picture that looks like an orchid flower jumped in front of the lens at the last minute like an obnoxious child ruining a photo just as I was snapping a picture of a piece of potting soil in the distance.  For his own reasons, Joe chose to include some of my out-of-focus masterpieces in the album, which doesn't bode too well for upholding my Ansel-Adams-level reputation as a photographer, but perhaps it will start a new movement in photography, starting with my own first exhibit, which I'll call something like "Flowers Through The Eyes of Great-grandparents Sans Spectacles."

Photo on left - inflorescence of an unidentified bromeliad, photo on right - Bougainvillea spectabilis (paper-flower).

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Time For A Haircut

'Tis the season for the first of our biannual (twice a year) pruning and maintenance of the trees here at Kona Kai.  The Gardens were considerately abuzz with activity over the past couple days as our trusty Florida Keys Tree Services crew consisting of Bernie, P.J. and Stevie was been brought in to clear out dying/dangerous limbs, coconuts, old palm fronds and tree stumps, with much help from Veronika as well.

It is important for us to keep on top of pruning for a number of reasons, and some of these reasons apply more to sub-tropical / tropical environments than temperate ones.  For example, as palm fronds die on certain palms, such as fan palms (Washingtonia spp.), fronds hold on to the tree and form a sort of skirt around the top of tree below the living fronds.  As fronds are cut from palms, the bases of many need to be left because they are still mostly attached to the trunk.  Over time, these frond bases loosen and can be pulled off.  If regular maintenance is not done to remove dead fronds and their bases, these areas can become nesting areas for insects as well as small animals such as squirrels and rats, which is not very desirable, especially at a resort.  In the picture on the left, you can see the nifty apparatus (actually made by Niftylift in England) Bernie and his crew use to get up into the tree canopies.  It is quite an amazing machine that can even navigate tight sidewalks, a big advantage over bucket trucks.  The photo on the right shows P.J. attaching a rope around a heavy coconut bunch so that when cut, it doesn't crash to the ground, destroy plants and cause general flying-coconut mayhem.

Hurricanes are another reason for regular pruning.  If we don’t remove as many of the coconuts, weak trees, weak limbs and dead palm fronds as possible, they can become dangerous debris during a hurricane.  You can imagine the damage a five-pound coconuts would cause at over 100 mph.  Even without wind, coconuts will fall, and the last thing we want is for one of our guests to be the first to test out how well an iPad holds up after it is introduced to a coconut falling from a 30-foot tree.  It is also good to prune back tall trees or trees with limbs overhanging our buildings, as these branches also become potentially very dangerous to structures during hurricanes.

As you can see in the pictures below, we have taken out the rest of the Schefflera completely because it was weak, rotting and would likely have fallen soon (see pics from previous entry).  Bernie brought in a stump grinder so that we could remove the stump, fill in the area and decide what we want to plant there in the future.  Stump grinders are pretty powerful and helpful machines; they make quick work of a stump that would take much longer to rot away or remove by hand and allows for immediate re-planting of an area.  A potentially amazing alternative use for this machine would be as a giant margarita blender; I'll look into it.

While they were here, we also had the crew cut down what remained of the Altocarpus altilis (breadfruit tree) in our fruit garden, which died back nearly to the ground in a cold snap last year.  Although shoots were coming out of the stump, we agreed it would be best to take it out and leave a few shoots that had come up from the roots a few feet away from the trunk.  As you can see from the picture on the right, the stump had a low "V" crotch and was rotting away at the top.  Later on, we will select one of the nearby shoots to hopefully grow into a strong tree.

We make the best efforts to keep the grounds as pristine as possible throughout the pruning/trimming process, and at the end of two days of trimming, there is almost no trace of the work, which was incredible for me to witness because of the amount of plants that we worked on.  Much credit goes to Veronika, the tree service crew and the rest of our dedicated staff who helped make this Spring's trimming a great success.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director