Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Three Years On

It's been just over three years since The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort officially opened. I can still remember receiving, in December of 2010, the impossible pre-opening "goals" from Joe (the Gardens' Director) after I made it through some of the first rounds of interviews for this position. It was a major reason I tried to withdraw my application; I knew there was no way I'd be able accomplish it all and thought, "the whole ethnobotanic garden thing is right up my alley, but this guy must be crazy thinking someone can do all that in three months!" Joe ended up reassuring me, however, that it was more of a "wish list" and that he understood some things would require a longer time scale. And so, after a very positive visit to Kona Kai for a final interview, I packed my car and headed down to the Keys.

The infamous pre-opening goal list - having worked in a Plant Records office for almost two years, I knew that I would be hard-pressed to finish the first two items alone in three months!

During the first year, Joe and I had many discussions about what we wanted the Gardens to focus on and the messages we wanted to convey. I brought what might be called an academic, technical, and practical "scientific" perspective, whereas Joe brought a more energetic, creative, and "layman's" perspective. It was interesting and frustrating conversing with Joe because he had none of the formal education in ethnobotany or experience regarding the inner workings of botanic gardens that I did, but this ended up being very helpful when it came to articulating what we wanted people to learn. Joe could provide insight into what someone without botanical knowledge would understand and find stimulating and powerful and what they probably wouldn't. The fruits of these discussions were our first batch of display labels and the first iteration of my "ethnobotanic" tour here at the Gardens, both of which focused primarily on the ways people have used and continue to use plants, which fall under the umbrellas of "traditional ethnobotany" and "economic botany." These vital practical uses of plants to humans were what originally struck Joe powerfully and made him want to share these many values of plants with others, hoping they would come to realize that we need to preserve and protect these valuable assets if we are to survive and thrive on earth for centuries to come.

The first display labels arrive!

As our discussions continued in subsequent months, our topics began to broaden. Joe now had a pretty good grasp on the many ways people use plants, but he still didn't know much about plants themselves. And so, he would often ask basic botanical questions like, "How does a plant survive?" I would explain that a plant uses photosynthesis to produce sugars and brings in water and nutrients through its roots. Then, of course, he would ask what photosynthesis is, which I would explain simply as the process of a plant using carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to produce the sugars it uses to function and also oxygen as a byproduct. This elicited a response of wonder and astonishment from Joe, which was repeated again and again over the course of several weeks when discussing such self-evident and elementary subjects for a botanist. He explained to me that although many of these aspects of plants are well-known to me and have become by now "given knowledge," these things are potentially revelations to others who have had no botanical education, and suggested that I include many of these facts in my tour.

These particular bromeliads are not useful to humans from a "utilitarian" perspective, but they do contain fascinating micro-ecosystems within each plant, as well as clusters of tiny white flowers peeking just above the water that gathers in their centers.

One day, Joe came into the office and exclaimed, "Plants are people, too!" "Oh boy..." I thought. Joe continued, "They need to eat, they need to drink, they breathe, they see light, and some plants even move when you touch them!" "Sure," I said, "but that doesn't make them people... maybe like people, but they are not humans." Although he initially showed some resistance to this distinction, especially after reading books like The Secret Life Of Plants and Plants as Persons, we eventually reached an understanding after a number of subsequent discussions and reading of other, more scientific, literature such as What A Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz. Although Joe eventually came to agree that plants are indeed not people, we both found compelling value in the perspective of perceiving plants as much more than objects; as "persons" in their own way.

Descriptions of each of these books can be found in the "Recommended Reading" section of kkbg.org.

Well into our second year, we were able to see that the focus of the Gardens and my tours, while still based on plants and people, had expanded significantly beyond the realm of "traditional" ethnobotany and into areas like plant biology, plant behavior, and philosophical botany. If it had been just me running the Gardens, it probably would have remained focused on traditional ethnobotany and would have had a more scientific orientation. If it had been just Joe, if I may take the liberty of humorous speculation, the Gardens would have likely been a place where a man apparently out of his mind pets his plants, carries on in-depth one-sided conversations with them, and makes sure they are dressed properly with pants, shirts, and sunglasses. As it happened, though, we came together to form a very unusual collaboration, much like two different species of plants that hybridize to create a new plant that retains the best qualities of each.

Pluots (plum x apricot) - one of my favorite hybrids, YUM!

The product of this hybridization has been the development of the Gardens' current mission to transform people's understanding of plants through educational and restorative experiences here at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort, and vision of a world in which people partner with plants to preserve and protect our biosphere. We go about accomplishing this through 90-minute TYUP (Transforming Your Understanding of Plants) Tours here at the Gardens, as well as an education program for local students (we currently facilitate the involvement of over half of all elementary and middle school Upper Keys students in The Fairchild Challenge environmental education program). KKBG.org is our virtual botanic garden "app" that allows visitors to explore the Gardens in an interactive way, take the Gardens home with them, and share it with others. Although we're a small botanic garden, we're "planting" and "watering" hundreds of seeds of environmental awareness every year in the lives of those who visit us or take part in one of our programs. We strongly believe that the 21st Century is a pivotal time in human history, a time for many of these seeds to germinate to spark widespread partnership with plants to preserve and protect our biosphere for generations to come.

For more on our focus of "Plants as Partners," see Joe's most recent Director's Letter.

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director