Thursday, August 28, 2014

New Associate Director of The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort

As promised, in this post you'll be introduced to the new Associate Director of The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort. Her name is Emily Magnaghi and we met in December of last year, when she came down to Key Largo to take a tour with me and see what The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort was all about. At the time, she was living in Miami and working in Everglades National Park monitoring plant populations after a restoration project. We got along very well and it was great having someone come by for a tour who really knew their plants. After the tour, we kept in touch and got together a few times for day trips throughout the Keys. On one of our trips, I mentioned that we had been trying to acquire a few specimens of Pilosocereus robinii, a Florida Keys native cactus, and she happened to know one of the people up at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden who was propagating those plants for their conservation program. After a few phone calls and introductions and a proposal for our intentions of use for the cacti, we had three specimens here for the Gardens.

One of the specimens of Pilosocereus robinii (Key tree cactus) Emily helped us acquire, at home in the Gardens.

About this time, I was pretty sure my time at Kona Kai was limited, so after getting to know Emily better and seeing her enthusiasm for plants and her understanding of their importance to humans and the world as a whole, I began to think she might make a great successor to my position here at the Gardens. Once I was sure I was going to be leaving, I encouraged her to apply for my position, as I thought she'd be a great fit. After a number of interviews with Joe and Ronnie, everyone seemed to agree, and so we welcomed her as the newest addition to The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort just over a month ago, during which time I've been helping her learn all she needs to know to take the Gardens into its next stage of life, which I have no doubt will be a beautiful one. And so, it is with great pride that I now hand this blog over to Emily, whom you'll get to know a bit better by the time this post is through...

Here's Emily beside Alpinia purpurata, a beautiful ornamental ginger plant.

Thank you SO much Rick! He has been a wonderful, patient mentor to me during this past month as I have been learning all the ropes here at the Gardens. I have been fortunate to overlap with him for several weeks now which, I think it's safe to say, is making the transition easier for everyone. Rick has done such a wonderful job building the program over the past 3 1/2 years. His organizational skills are outstanding which has made finding all the files and information I need very easy. His presence and energy on the tours are always very calming yet enthusiatic. He is a good role model to strive to emulate. We will have to find a way to commemorate Rick in the Gardens! We will all truly miss Rick and wish him well on his next journey in life. I hope he will come visit us again in the future.

I know, it's a tough one...Magnaghi. Say: "mahn-YA-ghee" and be very expressive like you're really Italian. You can even use your hands to get into the role, or come by the Gardens and we can practice Italian together!

I grew up in Florida as a snow-bird, like many folks here. My summers were spent exploring National Parks elsewhere in the United States, while during the school year I was in Naples (Florida, not Italy). My path to botany was via the underwater world which I greatly enjoyed as a child. Along this path, I happened to take a botany class and this changed everything. Plants fascinated me! In the middle of winter in Michigan, here were these vibrant creatures growing in the greenhouses at the University of Michigan's Matthaei Botanical Gardens. I looked forward to that hour once a week more than anything that semester, as the plants and sunlight in the glasshouse chased the winter blues away.

After reconsidering my path of study, I decided to change course and follow the greenery. Many years later, after practicing restoration with native plants, studying plant taxonomy, pressing herbarium specimens in San Francisco and performing plant surveys for the California High Speed Train project, I find myself back home in South Florida finally enjoying the tropical diversity.

Here I am leading one of my first tour groups around the Gardens. I hope I received high marks from Rick on this one!

I am very excited about my new role at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort. Stay tuned for more information on what I hope to learn and accomplish in my role as Associate Director in my next blog post.

Emily B. Magnaghi
Associate Director

Friday, August 8, 2014


Starting in September, "The Diary of The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai" will have a new author.

I have had a wonderful 3.5+ years here at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort helping Joe, Ronnie, and the rest of the Kona Kai staff realize their dream of an ethnobotanic teaching garden here in the Florida Keys, where visitors can come and learn about the incredible importance of plants in their lives.

Looking back, it's amazing to see what we've accomplished. I remember some of our first projects: building a comprehensive BG-Base database for KKBG's plant collections, creating 500+ records labels and 140+ display labels for the plants, and developing the first iteration of our "Ethnobotanic Tour," which we now call our "Transforming Your Understanding of Plants Tour." The Tour has been taken by over 1,200 people from all around the world since I began leading it in March 2011. After working on establishing these foundations for the Gardens, I moved on to develop, the Gardens' virtual mobile-friendly botanic garden "app", with Joe while at the same time working with Ronnie on expanding our educational outreach to the local community by making The Fairchild Challenge (a very successful South Florida environmental education program developed at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens) available to Upper Keys teachers and students as "The Upper Keys Fairchild Challenge," which involved over 900 students (53% of all local elementary and middle school students) last year.  Since Day One, I have worked closely with our Grounds Manager, Veronika, when it came to learning more about the characteristics and needs of the plants here on the property, conducting tree trimming, discussing plant selection, and planting our precious new specimens. I also had plenty of interaction with the other staff here, too, even if it wasn't as frequent or intensive as my work with Joe, Ronnie, and Veronika. Tracey and Denise coordinated reservations for my tours, and I always saw Ileana, Maria, and Charlie around the Gardens taking care of the accommodations or their garden beds. We have also recently been blessed with another great addition to the team, Karen, who is helping Veronika out in the Gardens, and it seems like she will fit in wonderfully.

As you can see, even though I have been the "face" of the Gardens for the past few years, I've had incredible support from the rest of the staff here, without whom the Gardens' work would not have been, or continue to be, possible. On a personal as well as professional level, I have learned from each of them, and know I am a better person for it. One of my favorite parts of working at Kona Kai is that the staff here do not see each other exclusively as co-workers or colleagues, but friends and family, which I believe is no small contributing factor in what makes Kona Kai so magical; you feel like you're coming home from the moment you arrive on the property, especially as a returning guest.

Although I am departing, it is not because I see the mission and vision of the Gardens to be unimportant, as I hope you've been able to realize from all of my previous 75 blogs, which I have written from the heart. Indeed, I still consider it one of the most noble and urgent causes in today's world. What I have felt is a calling within the deepest parts of my spirit that I can no longer ignore, and unfortunately I cannot answer it while at the same time having a full-time job. In 2007, a strange unprompted curiosity came over me about contemplative monastic life, which I knew nothing about at the time. In order to learn more about it, I visited a Trappist monastery in Massachusetts while at Connecticut College, after which I knew I needed to return at some point for a longer visit and also explore other monastic orders, which I was planning on doing after finishing my internship at Holden Arboretum in 2011. One of my favorite quotes is "If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans," and as I was making plans for monastery visits, I came across the advertisement for my current position here at The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort. I could not believe there was a position being offered at that particular moment in time that suited my ethnobotanical interests / education and my botanic gardens work experience so well, so I figured this might be where I was meant to be for the foreseeable future. I applied for the position and have been here since. Even though I see the work being done here as extremely important and I really couldn't have asked for a better job for several reasons, the pull towards monastic life has not ceased to leave me, and has become more and more intense, especially over the past year, during which I made two visits to the same monastery I visited in 2007. After my last visit in June, I've had a deep sense of peaceful conviction that it is time for me to make the necessary visits to the monasteries to discern whether or not life as a monk is my next vocation.

I have no doubt the "sunset" of my time here will quickly make way for a beautiful sunrise; I am confident the Gardens' work will continue to thrive, supported by all the staff I mentioned earlier, Kona Kai guests, the local community, and one other notable addition (to be introduced in the next posting) who will take my place as Associate Director of the Gardens at the beginning of September.

What follows is a slideshow I put together covering the Gardens' main themes and undertakings over the past three and a half years. Be sure to watch it in full screen mode (click on the button on the bottom-right-hand corner of the video) on a laptop or desktop (if you watch it on a mobile device, you won't get any of the sound that goes along with the video and you probably won't be able to read any of the text), and adjust the quality to one of the HD options by clicking on the "gear" button on the bottom-right of the screen after you've begun playing the video in full-screen mode. Here's to many more "fruitful" years to come for The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort!

Rick Hederstrom
Associate Director