Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The 2013-2014 Upper Keys Fairchild Challenge Is Underway!

This year is the 2nd Anniversary of The Fairchild Challenge here in the Upper Florida Keys, as facilitated by The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort in Key Largo. We had an amazing inaugural year last year, and we knew we would have our work cut out for us to make 2013-2014 just as successful.

We kicked things off in August at the Gardens' Small Meeting Center with our Teacher Information Meeting, which serves to introduce teachers and administrators to the program, specifically for the coming year. We had a good turnout of fourteen teachers and administrators representing all of the participating schools in the Upper Keys: The Academy at Ocean Reef, Key Largo School, Ocean Studies Charter School, Plantation Key School, and Treasure Village Montessori. A number of the teachers in attendance are what we call "lead teachers" for their schools; they have an especially good understanding of the program and help teachers at their own schools with any questions they might have about incorporating the Challenge into their curricula, as well as coordinate the submission of entries to The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort for judging.

KKBG's 2013-2014 T.I.M.

At the meeting, we revealed this coming year's challenges as well as some notable improvements to the program, including a web interface for access to most of the pertinent information for The Fairchild Challenge in the Upper Keys. A big part of that was creating Fairchild Challenge booklets tailored specifically for the program in the Upper Keys, removing information that only applies to the program in Miami-Dade County, modifying certain challenges to fit our smaller scale, and adding photos of Upper Keys students and teachers participating in the Challenge from last year, etc. We decided to only make the booklets available electronically this year, so I dedicated a section of the Gardens' website to include the booklets, entry forms, evaluation sheets, resource guides, and challenge results available for download. Here's a screenshot from the Elementary School section of the site:

After the meeting, teachers had a few weeks to spread the word at their schools about The Fairchild Challenge and e-mail me their schools' choices of challenges they would like to participate in. We didn't really know what to expect; whether we would get less or more participation than last year. As the e-mails came in, however, we quickly realized it was going to be a big year. Last year, we had 27 teachers and over 400 students participate in 9 challenges...this year we have 53 teachers and perhaps 500-700 students participating in 15 challenges!

We've had a great start already with a number of interesting challenges, including "Parade of Incredible Insects," a challenge in which elementary school students were asked to make a mask of an insect out of natural and/or recycled materials and describe ways their chosen insect interacts with plants. Although we might often think of plants being able to do just fine on their own, the fact is that they rely heavily on insects to serve as pollinators and even protectors. The students created some amazing masks; here are a few photos of some students at work on the masks, the judging session that took place to determine the winners, and a small collage of a number of the winning masks:

K-1st Grade students at work on a lady bug in Ms. Veronica Gutierrez's class at The Academy at Ocean Reef.

The Small Meeting Center at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort all set up for judging!

Judges (from L to R) Nola Acker (Assistant Vice President at First State Bank), Biron Valier (Islamorada resident - he brought his own mask), and Holly Raschein (our district's State Representative)

A few of the winners!

As you might guess, the results can be close with so many amazing submissions! And that applies to both students and teachers; one of the fun innovations for this year's Fairchild Challenge was the inclusion of an educator challenge, in which the teachers submit entries they have done themselves. We thought it would be fun to celebrate the 2nd Anniversary of The Fairchild Challenge here in the Upper Keys by asking educators to create a design to commemorate the occasion. The first place entry is by Mr. William de Paula, whose design includes a conch shell as the centerpiece (found both in Kona Kai's logo and the waters surrounding the Florida Keys), two notable tropical plants in our Gardens (the tropical water lily and heliconia), and seven words that concisely convey the mission of The Fairchild Challenge:

We're very thankful to be off to such a great start and are looking forward to the many challenges still to come and the awards ceremony that will top it all off. The students, teachers, parents, and judges involved in the program are having a great time, all the while enhancing their understanding and appreciation for the natural environment on the local and global level, and that's what we're all about here at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort. If that's what you're about, too, and you'd like to become involved in supporting The Fairchild Challenge here in the Upper Keys as a donor, judge, and/or advocate, send me an e-mail at The seeds we plant today shape our world tomorrow.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Why Are Plants And The Rest Of The World's Biodiversity Important?

Our lives as human beings are truly gifts. We arrive on a planet that has been seemingly prepared for us: everything we need (and so much more) is here, made possible in large part by plants.

Although not something that regularly crosses most of our minds, plants are the supporters, either directly or indirectly, of almost all macroscopic life, including humans and spiders. One could argue that the sun, or the air, or water, or our geological foundations are actually the ultimate physical sources of life, and I would agree, but plants are the ones who have taken these ingredients and manipulated them in a way that has made possible life the likes of which the world would not know otherwise. Plants are incredible transformers and producers, using sunlight, air, water, and rocks to generate complex living, moving, sensing organisms that in turn support countless other organisms.

Air, water, sunlight, and a bit of soil are all it takes to produce this incredible pink pineapple (Ananas bracteatus)!

Without plants, Kona Kai caterpillars would have nothing to munch on.

The fact that plants provide so much for us is one of the most compelling reasons for why we as humans think we should care about the health of the earth's natural environment. Plants provide the oxygen we need to breathe and the food we eat; they've turned much of the rocky surface of the earth into soil that forms the foundation of productive croplands; they are the substance of which fuels like coal, oil, and ethanol are made; they provide countless medicines, materials, seasonings, and fragrances; and they offer us many lessons we can learn for how to live better lives on earth. Certainly, it is hard to argue that plants aren't crucial to our survival and well-being, and therefore worth protecting.

Compounds derived from rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) are used to treat lymphomas and childhood leukemia.

However, if we move beyond these anthropocentric considerations of how plants and other creatures are useful to us as rationale for their protection, we find that, like us, plants are elegantly formed, incredibly complex living entities. Their contributions to global life-supporting systems are beautiful in harmonious function, and when you consider how the creatures of the earth all contribute, like tens of thousands of musicians, in their own way to a symphonic living world so much larger than their individual selves, it is truly cause to marvel. The greater natural world, of which all individual species play a part, is a wonder beyond comprehension and adequate appreciation.

The blue-coated seeds of the traveler's tree (Ravenala madagascariensis) are easily found by lemurs, who see blue much easier than red, orange, or yellow.

Although I certainly think the argument that we should live in a way to preserve as many plants as possible because of the goods and services they offer us is a good one, I don't think it's the best. What if we end up finding synthetic substitutes for everything we get from plants today - does that mean we then have no reason to care about the survival of plants? I think not. The purest relationship is not based on what you are able to get from others, but rather on who/what they are. If your best friend doesn't offer you any material benefits, they should still be your best friend if you are truly friends. Similarly, if your spouse became handicapped, you wouldn't abandon them because they can no longer contribute to the mortgage payments or chores around the house as before if you truly loved them. When it comes to plants and other creatures, I think they have a similar value that transcends goods and services and that our appreciation for them should not be determined by what they can and do provide us, but should be based on who/what they are: unique and astoundingly beautiful wonders of life. This reason alone makes them worthy of my respect and admiration, and in turn, my great interest in their existence.

Like this Austrocylindropuntia subulata, not all creatures are useful to humans or extravagantly showy.

The death of a species can be seen as a tragedy because of what goods and services, many perhaps unknown, we might lose from it, but I would say that if we have the right perspective, we would see the loss as much more than that. Extinction of a species, much like the death of a loved one, is tragic because it involves the permanent loss of a living creature who embodied life in a beautiful and intricate way no other creature did; and now that it is gone, that unique incarnation of life is, too. The  earth itself is now no longer the same; something of its beauty and function has been lost.

A frog resting on a leaf of one of our bromeliads.

More than any other species on earth, humans have incredible power to destroy or protect life. When contemplating the natural world, we understand that a world with a greater diversity and abundance of life is better than a world with only a few hundred species deemed worthy of continued existence because of their utility to humans. For better or worse, we are in a position to determine what the earth will become in the years ahead, and I think that if we are to make the right decisions in the coming decades and centuries, it will be most important to encourage humans to take time to marvel at the wonders of life (protist, plant, fungus, animal, and human) that surround them, understanding that each (even those we don't particularly "like") as an incredibly complex incarnation of life unlike any other with functions and relationships in the wider world far beyond our comprehension. When we focus on this, rather than on simply the utility of biodiversity for humans, we should feel an intense desire to use our unique position of power as a species as an opportunity to be guardians of this life rather than destroyers of it.

A dead coconut palm serves as a home for a family of red-bellied woodpeckers and food for an unidentified fungus.

An orchid produces new life from one of its stems.

Today, as I was finishing up this post, a tiny spider let down a line of silk from the back of my computer and gently descended to my desk. Suppressing the culturally-conditioned instinct to crush it immediately, I gave it my complete attention. I marveled at the way it produced such a strong yet flexible substance from within its own body. I presented a piece of paper in front of the creature, upon which it climbed and explored slowly and carefully. It froze as I began moving the paper off the surface of the desk, and in the blink of an eye, jumped back to the surface of the desk, a leap that was many times its own body length. I thought of the strength that must have involved for its size and the movement of all its limbs in concord to effect a perfect landing. I wondered if it breathes during the jump or if it holds its breath just before taking off like I do. I picked the spider up from the desk once again and this time it remained on its perch until I stopped moving. It then descended slowly to the ground on another strand of silk, and I watched it search out a place of refuge. As it walked slowly away, I knew it was good, indeed, very good that spider exists, apart from any use to me, and I also knew that I am extremely blessed to be able to contemplate the wonder of life it is.

Photo credit: Lasiu7 from

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Reflections on Technology, Humans, and Botanic Gardens (Ethnobotechny!)

I've been writing this from my personal computer, as the computer here at the Gardens I usually use has been in the local Apple computer hospital due to a temperamental power button, which is a pretty crucial part of the machine. After someone at the Genius Bar checked out the machine, he explained that he hoped the problem had to do with the power supply rather than the power button itself, because if it was the power button, the entire interior of the machine would have to be dismantled and rebuilt... practicality definitely seems to be taking a backseat to design elegance. Just look at an Apple product and see if you could even think of a way to simply open the thing up without cracking the screen. Ironically, I wrote that last sentence before Apple called me and informed me that the computer wouldn't be ready for a few more days because they had to order a new screen, as they cracked the original one when they were replacing it!

Magic seems to be the only thing that can be used to open this thing up.  Photo credit:

During the computer's absence, I've been reflecting on how vitally integrated computers and the Internet have become for staff in botanic gardens and many other industries and areas of life as well. I use a computer to keep plant records, map plants, produce labels, research and write plant profiles, blog, plan, choose plants for our collections, educate others, communicate with others, learn how to do something new, purchase products, etc. Almost everything I do here at the Gardens involves personal computers and the Internet (neither of which even existed one hundred years ago!) as a major, crucial component. After I got back from taking the computer in, I had to sit in the office for a few minutes and literally think really hard about what things I could do now that I didn't have a computer. I found myself wishing I could experience what it would have been like to work at a botanic garden during the 1700s or 1800s: working with paper records, making labels by hand, visiting libraries for research, writing out pamphlets for education, keeping a notebook, setting up physical meetings with others, communicating via letters, and tracking down specific plants only after extensive travels. Liberty Hyde Bailey and Asa Gray would know something about all that:

Liberty Hyde Bailey.  Photo credit:
Asa Gray at his desk.  Photo credit:

I then began to think about why exactly we develop and adopt new technology. Today, developing and adopting new technology has become so ingrained in our society that there don't really seem to be questions of "if" or "why"; it's assumed that further technological advancement is beneficial progress.

It seems the major reason humans have historically embraced technology and chosen to develop it is the perceived promise of making life easier, simpler, longer, and better overall. Theoretically, if technology makes it quicker and easier to do something, we would have less work to do since we can now do what once took eight hours in two hours and what once took a month in a day. The irony is that the more technology makes things easier and simpler, the more stressful work seems to become, and we still work the same amount of time (more in most cases, to provide for a longer life!). This is because the overall business climate of the world is competitive and profit/goal-driven and 40+ hour work weeks have become the "norm," so if time can be saved by technology, businesses will not normally give their workers an equivalent amount of time off, but will instead require them to complete more tasks at a quicker pace, while at the same time having to learn how to work with constantly updated technological tools, all of which thereby increases productivity/profit, but also stress. Something similar happens with our personal lives, where technology makes many tasks much quicker and easier (e.g. laundry, dishes, cooking, heating the home, errands around town, etc.), and yet many of us feel like we barely have time to breathe! Sure, technological development and progress in the past was slower, but was that necessarily a bad thing?

Photo credit:

After seeing this a while back I laughed, but not for too long.

The tools technology offers us are certainly extremely powerful and extremely useful, but I wonder if there is a point where that power, speed, utility, entertainment, and lifespan could be considered by us to be "good enough" or perhaps even "optimum." It's pretty easy to learn from experience that "more" is never enough, and that one desire satisfied makes way for another unless one understands and embraces contentment. Contentment, however, is not one of mankind's "default settings"... it's something we have to dig deep to find in our "system settings" and enable. The trouble is that our society holds accumulation of wealth and the fulfillment of desires (both of which are diametrically opposed to contentment, and also driving forces for technological development) as the ultimate measures of success and happiness.

Photo credit:

This, of course, is a lie that is too often taken for truth. If the promise of technology is to make life better overall, then why are so many technologically-optimized people who accumulate the most wealth and fulfill the most desires in developed countries so miserable? There are indigenous people I lived with in the Peruvian rainforest who have little more than their families, their simple homes, arts and crafts, and their surrounding natural environment who seem to demonstrate that the opposite is true. I certainly admit that technology has given us many blessings, but I also think that, like the relationship between earnings and happiness, there is an optimum peak to the rate of technological development and the nature of its adoption during a person's life as it relates to human well-being and contentment.

John Muir at Yosemite, with a walking stick as the extent of his technology.  Photo credit:

Steve Jobs showcasing what is clearly a better, more technologically advanced experience, no walking stick necessary.  Photo credit:

I see plants as ideal models for us of contentment; they spend their time living with what they have rather than obsessively developing newer technologies they think might improve their quality of life. They seem to have learned that since more is never enough, life with a good supply of the necessities is optimal; no more, no less. Could we not also thrive and bloom beautifully with only good provisions for our basic needs of fresh air, water, food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and hygiene? How much technology do we really need for optimum well-being and what good could we do with the resources we would normally allocate to technological development if we chose to be content with a more elemental existence, as plants are?

An explosion of life and beauty exuding optimum well-being with just air, water, and sunlight. The resources it doesn't use are made available to and used by other plants to thrive.

Technology has no power on its own (yet), only what is given to it by humans; it is not inherently evil in itself, but is a valuable tool that can be used however we see fit, for our good or otherwise. I suppose everyone has a different idea regarding what kinds of technology are worth adapting and to what extent.

Technology making life better than it's ever been!  Photo credit:

So where do botanic gardens fit in with all this? I've always perceived botanic gardens as places to "get off the technological treadmill" as it were, places to experience the world in a more elemental form. It is so powerful for me to feel the relative silence in which the natural world and the universe in general exist without us and how restorative this quietness can be to the human spirit. One thing that's neat about gardens is that they can fit into crowded spaces, so they can exist precisely where they are needed most. I hope botanic gardens will always exist as sanctuaries where one can experience the natural world more directly, inspiring reflection and important questions like: What is life on this earth all about and is there an "optimum" way to live here in relationship with Earth's other creatures, both individually and globally? What am I doing in my life and why? What can I learn from the natural world around me, which has existed without humans for millions of years? Are technology and what society puts forth as valuable distracting me from what is truly important? Perhaps there will be a time when questions like these will hardly ever be asked by the general population due to technological exposure almost every moment of the day from birth to death, causing us to be estranged from ourselves, our ultimate purposes for our lives on earth, and the sources of true joy and fulfillment, as in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. It is scary how strangely similar the world in that book seems to our own today, but there is reason for hope if gardens remain, where humans can go to get back in touch with their humanity and glean profound insights in the company of Earth's quietest creatures.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Aquascape Garden Snorkel Trip

It's been some time since I wrote my last blog on the Aquascape Garden back in July of 2012. If you recall, our Aquascape Garden is a collection of plants that resemble a diversity of aquatic organisms found in reefs, along with a number of resident "sea creatures" hidden throughout the coral stone foundation. It really does look like one of Key Largo's reefs has been lifted up out of the water and onto dry land!

Recently, we decided it would be a great idea to put together a little virtual tour of the Aquascape Garden to showcase some of the specific plants and their "aquatic equivalents." When the Garden was being built, we could get a general idea from the look of a plant if it resembled something we would find in a coral reef, but we didn't have specific resemblances in mind. So I began searching to see if I could find anything under the sea that reminded me of plants we have. Since the underwater realm is not really my specialty, I had to do a lot of searching and ended up coming up with quite a few uncanny resemblances! Here's a plant we have (Dyckia 'Cherry Coke') that I thought looked a bit like a hermit crab:

Pretty cool, right?

What I ended up doing is putting together a number of these photo pairs with a plant from the Aquascape Garden and its aquatic equivalent to make a virtual "snorkeling tour" of our Aquascape Garden. Since I'm lacking quite a bit in the area of undersea identification, I haven't been able to put names to a number of the aquatic "faces," so if you have any idea as to what some of the unidentified undersea creatures are, please do let me know!

Enjoy your "snorkel" and be sure to stop by the Gardens for a tour with me sometime to see these specimens in person!

 Echeveria rosea and an unidentified hard coral.

 Fenestraria aurantiaca and a sunflower mushroom coral.

Gymnocalycium mihanovichii 'Hibotan' and sea anemones.

Euphorbia lactea f. cristata and an elkhorn coral.

Stapelia gigantea and unidentified hard coral.

Senecio mandraliscae and an unidentified coral.

Sedum praealtum f. cristata and an unidentified soft coral.

Portulaca 'Maraca' and an unidentified hard coral.

Manfreda undulata 'Chocolate Chips' and an octopus.

Mammillaria gracilis and an unidentified soft coral.

Euphorbia trigona and an unidentified coral.

Stapelia gigantea and a sea star.

Mammillaria 'Red Cap' cristata and a developing brain coral.

Orthophytum navioides and a sea urchin.

Sansevieria trifasciata and seagrass.

Euphorbia obesa and a sea urchin shell.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director