Saturday, March 10, 2012

Environmental Immersion Day at Kona Kai

I know it's been a little while since my last post and you're no doubt wondering if I got stranded on a remote island, lost in the Everglades, or eaten by a giant clam. Fortunately none of the above have befallen me and I have just been very busy with some exciting programs here at Kona Kai, one of which took place this past Tuesday, when The Gardens hosted our very first Environmental Immersion Day (E.I.D.) in partnership with Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden for ten high school students from Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami. We provided an opportunity for these selected students to learn more about ethnobotany and experience how what they learn in the classroom applies to "real life." This day was very relevant to The Gardens' educational aspect of its mission and a part of its increasing outreach to local communities to educate both students and adults about the vital importance of plants to human life throughout history and into the future.

To start off the day, I gave the students a brief introductory ethnobotanic tour of the grounds, explaining elements that make for an effective and enjoyable tour along the way. Afterwards I had the students each present on the ethnobotany of a different plant I had not yet covered in the tour. I could see that several of the students found the facts and stories about the plants interesting, giving them an expanded appreciation of their value beyond aesthetics.
Sharing some ethnobotanical facts about our paradisiacal coconut palms (Cocos nucifera).
One of the students describing the ethnobotany of the locust-berry (Byrsonima lucida).
After getting a taste of the ethnobotany of the plants in our collections, we then set out to discover hidden wonders and beauty to be found in our gardens. I first explained to them some of the artistic options we have for taking pictures with our DSLR, such as changing the depth of field, lighting, and close-ups. I encouraged the students to take more than a passing glance at the plants, to point out shots they thought would be interesting, and describe how they want me to adjust the settings on the camera before taking the shot. After getting several good shots, we went back to the conference room and displayed the photos on the projector, from which we selected our favorites, a few of which can be found interspersed throughout the rest of this post.
Aechmea 'Blue Tango' was a given - the students suggested I use this angle, focus on the tip of the inflorescence, and blur the background.
Students were able to gain a greater appreciation for the complexity of plants through this activity and realized there is much more to be seen if one takes the time to look closely. Speaking of looking closely, while we were walking the grounds I took time to explain how to identify and treat some plant health maintenance concerns we deal with that are often hard to see, including mealy bugs, scale, nutrient deficiency, trees that need pruning, thrips, whitefly, and snail damage. Veronika, our Grounds Director, is great at staying on top of all these concerns to the extent that most of our guests never see any adverse effects of these concerns on our plant collections and it was tough for me to find examples to show the students!
The students liked the look of this recently-pruned and now re-sprouting branch of our royal poinciana (Delonix regia), calling it "The Three-Headed Monster."
One of the challenges I faced when coming down to the Keys was learning a new set of plants. I had lots of help from Joe and Veronika but sometimes I had to make use of plant identification keys in order to determine the identity of a plant, which can be both a fun and frustrating process. I made up a small key of plants on the property and after dividing the students into three teams, gave it to them to figure out the names of several of the plants in our gardens. They really got into it and enjoyed the process of keying out the plants as well as the friendly competition with their peers.
They had no need for a key to identify the papaya plant (Carica papaya), but I had to help them out with the name of our photogenic reptilian friend, the green anole.
In the early afternoon I took the students out to conduct inventory of a few of our garden beds so that they could get an idea of what is involved in properly curating a plant collection. We measured plants, evaluated their condition, took phenology notes (in bloom, ripe fruit, etc.), and then came back inside to enter all the data we collected into BG-Base. The students had a fun time arguing about what condition the plants were in and also guessing at measurements of the plants. A more in-depth description of what we did can be found in my blog post from Nov. 19: Plant Inventory Finished and Records Labels Arrive!
Our pummelo tree (Citrus maxima) was in bloom and is deliciously fragrant, but as this picture demonstrates, look carefully before diving in nose-first!
In the conference room, we then discussed the purpose and process of creation of records labels and display labels for plants, and also the process of ethnobotanical research which goes into the creation of the large display labels. After this, we talked a bit about the social media aspect of my job and I had the students write a small hypothetical blog or Twitter post in which they describe their overall impressions from the day, several of which I've quoted below:

"Coming to the Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai was  a fantastic experience, especially during the hands-on exercises."
"Opened my eyes to see plants differently...ordinary things can have a much greater importance in everyday life. Plants can heal, comfort, and offer pleasure."
"Thanks to @kkgardens for showing me around their beautiful botanic garden. There are more to plants than you think!"
"Great time @kkgardens! I encourage taking a tour as there is much to learn about ethnobotany!"
"Had an amazing experience at @kkgardens. I enjoyed learning about different plant species, how they can affect our lives, and what we can do to help keep them healthy and alive."
"Had an awesome day at Kona Kai Botanic Gardens. What people don't understand about plants is extraordinary. I learned so much about the uses of plants in our development as humans."
"The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai really helped me understand the real-world value of plants and the ethnic, medicinal, and industrial implications they have in our surrounding environment. Often we don't stop and appreciate the real value these plants have in our lives."
"At Kona Kai my eyes were opened up to how useful plants are in our everyday lives and how our interactions with plants have helped the human race survive and prosper."
The flowering stalk from one of our 'Praying Hands' banana plants - the bud opens bract by bract to reveal lines of flowers, which are then pollinated and become fruits.
It was excellent to hear that sort of feedback from the students; is seems like my points hit home with them and that the hands-on activities we took part in throughout the day engaged not only their bodies but their minds as well. Finally, we had a final question and answer session and I was sure to record all the feedback given by the students. Fortunately, we seem to have done very well with our first try but "the largest room in the house is always the room for improvement," so we'll be working hard to make our next E.I.D. even better and more interactive. To finish up, here's a great shot of all the students who participated in our E.I.D. along with their chaperone from Belen, Mr. Martinez (far right) - I had a great time spending the day with you all!

Look forward to more posts about the ways in which The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort is getting involved in and giving back to our local southern Florida communities, including the third installment of the Olympic Wreath Competition story, coming up next!

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

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