Saturday, March 31, 2012

Olympic Wreath Competition Awards Ceremony

On March 9th, I traveled to Key Largo School for a morning much anticipated by 7th grade students in the classes of Ms. Burson, Ms. Prew, and Ms. Delgado. I last saw the students in December, when I helped them identify many of the plants they had brought in as potentials to use in their wreaths - it was great to see them having such a great time with the wreath-making process. After the students completed their wreaths and essays, the teachers selected eleven of the finest in late January to send to Kona Kai for judging to determine which five wreaths/essays would be sent to London for the final round of judging, the winning submissions of which will be displayed during the 2012 Olympic Games. That March 9th morning, I was to announce and present awards to those students whose entries were being sent to London.
I had quite a crowd waiting and the anticipation was so thick you couldn't even cut it with a bandsaw.
Before getting into that, let me give you a bit of background as to what happened between January and March, leading up to the awards ceremony. After receiving the eleven chosen entries, we worked to put together a panel of judges as I began the objective process of evaluating each submission for its satisfaction of required criteria, checking to make sure: the wreath is made only of plants; a minimum of three plants are used in the wreath; correct common and scientific names are given for each plant; the plants used are representative of southern Florida (the Keys in particular); a conservation message is included for one plant; and a 500 word rationale is provided for plant choices. On February 23rd, we brought in our panel of judges, which included Jon Olsen, our local 5-time Olympic medal-winner; Connie Chapell, an esteemed local educational consultant; and Ronnie Harris, our own artistic expert here at Kona Kai. After a couple long and grueling hours of careful and meticulous evaluation, our judges had selected the Top Five wreaths to send to London, based on averages of their scores using a detailed standard rubric put together by BGCI and Fairchild, encompassing both wreath design and essay quality.
Our judges hard at work, and me - probably doodling epic wreath designs.
We now had our winners and were ready to set up an awards ceremony at Key Largo School, which brings us back up to March 9th. To start off the ceremony, I recognized each of the students involved in the eleven submissions to Kona Kai (which all met the requirements) by calling them up individually and presenting them with a family day-pass to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden:
The students involved in the eleven submissions sent to Kona Kai, sporting their Fairchild passes.
After this, it was time for me to announce the Top 5 entries that were selected to be sent to London; the moment the students were looking forward to since December, no doubt with countless sleepless nights and almost unbearable suspense, which you have likely been experiencing as well. I'm happy to say you can look forward to a good rest tonight because here are the winners from the Kona Kai judging, whose wreaths and essays have been submitted to and received by BGCI in London to await the final round of judging (photos by Patricia Joy of Key Largo School):

In a tie for 4th/5th place - Luis De La Fuente (pictured on left) / Victoria Ellis (pictured on right), Nick Perez and Jerryck Ornelas

3rd place - Amy Warnaar (pictured) and Taryn McCain

2nd Place - Brittney Doyle (pictured), Lauren Leach and Hannah Boehm

1ST PLACE - Bridget Welsh (pictured) and Emily O'Connor

In addition to our Top 5, we also had an Honorable Mention done by Bailey Williams, Haylee Curry and Elise Anderson. 
The judges gave Awards of Merit to a select few entries as well:
-For wreath design and presentation - Eric Kruger and Tyler Prenesti
-For most traditional / authentic Olympic-style wreath - Lauren McCormick
-Judges' favorite essay - Hanna Boehm, Brittney Doyle and Lauren Leach
-Judges' favorite wreath - Bridget Welsh and Emily O'Connor
The students who were involved in the making of the Top 5 entries received, in addition to the Fairchild family day-passes, a native Florida thatch palm seedling from our Gardens and a certificate (the demand for which can only be accurately likened to that for Golden Tickets to Wonka's chocolate factory) for each student and a guest to join me for an ethnobotanic tour of the Gardens here at Kona Kai. Here's a final picture of students involved in the Top 5 entries, along with the three teachers (L-R Ms. Burson, Ms. Prew, Ms. Delgado) who participated in this year's Competition:

Our first try at bringing one of the Fairchild Challenges to schools here in the Keys ended up being a great success for all involved. I should be hearing from London about the results from the final judging in May or June (more suspense!), so I'll be sure to post when I hear back from them. In the meantime, we're looking forward to the "challenges" next school year may bring!

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

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