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

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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