Friday, July 24, 2015

Volunteers in Focus: Uncle Ron, Jokey Jokemaster

Living is easy; comedy is hard. That's a lesson summer 2015 Volunteer Services Intern Joel Klann learned after attending long-time volunteer Ron Heames's 7th Annual Bad Joke Fest---a light-hearted break in the otherwise busy schedules of Matthaei-Nichols' interns and volunteers. 

15,000. That’s the number of hours a typical full-time worker logs in a little over 7 years. It’s also the number of hours Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum anticipates volunteers to dedicate by year's end. Nearly 400 permanent and close to 1,200 short-term volunteers equate to the labor of over 7 full-time employees. With Matthaei-Nichols permanent staff of just 29, the work that volunteers do is critical to the success of the organization, allowing us to provide unique community resources for conserving, restoring, and celebrating the environment. Volunteers have fun doing valuable work, and come with an enthusiasm and an appreciation for the natural world that manifests effortlessly.

I can’t say enough good things about those who freely contribute their time to any worthy cause, but as the Volunteer Services Intern at Matthaei-Nichols this summer, I can say that being able to interact with and help out many wonderful people who seek to be involved with our organization has been quite a treat.

One of many whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with is Ron Heames. Ron is one of the most senior veterans on our team, contributing countless hours to the organization during his 15 years here. When I ask him what keeps him coming back after so long, he says it’s mainly the work and the people.

Ron is a retiree from Ford, where he worked in purchasing for many years before linking up with the horticulture department at Matthaei-Nichols. When he's not busy doing his favorite activity of planting, or helping us to maintain displays of natural beauty in other ways, he enjoys long-distance running and the outdoors. For Ron, though, one thing is constant: he is always telling jokes.

Recently we were fortunate to have “Uncle Ron,” as he is known, present us with his 7th annual “Bad Joke Fest.”

Volunteers, staff, and interns hang on Ron Heames's
(center left, in red shirt) every word
A flyer for this event bearing the botanically-minded pun of a headline, “It’s That Thyme Again” is posted to a window at Ron’s back as the interns and staff wait for the show to begin. The comic tension amuses all in the room, with the first timers unsure of what they're about to witness, and past attendees anticipating the possibilities.

A flyer announces Ron Heames's 7th Annual Bad Joke Fest
As the last staff members shuffle into their seats, Ron begins to rattle off pun after pun, eliciting some laughs, some half-laughs, and his personal favorite, groans. The more a joke disappoints, the better. The imitation of the sound of two drums and a cymbal follows the especially bad ones. It’s a rather anticlimactic event—not having much to do with everyday volunteer activities—and yet that’s what makes it one of the best days of the summer internship. Ron does it every year, and he insists it gets better each time, whatever that’s supposed to mean. I think it might mean, “It’s so bad, it’s good!”

A few choice Ron Heames pearls of laughter:

        There were two peanuts walking down the street. One was a salted.

        A bear walks into a bar. The bartender asks, “What'll it be?” “A . . . beer please.” 
“Why the huge pause?” said the bartender. “I dunno,” said the bear. I've had ‘em since I was a kid.”
        The invisible man and the invisible woman make a great couple, but their kids aren’t much to look at.
        A teddy bear walks into a bar. The bartender asks, “Can I get you anything?” The teddy bear replies, “No thanks, I'm stuffed.”

Interns and staff alike are graced by Ron’s presence and his commitment to the organization. Even though his jokes may slowly be killing us, it is because of him and the hundreds of regulars and thousands of part-time volunteers that we are able to sustain our vitality and do what we do for the community at large. And for that we are thankful.

Joel Klann, from Southwest Detroit, Michigan, is a senior studying political science. Joel is working this summer as the Volunteer Services intern. He is especially interested in social welfare and civil rights issues.

Joel Klann


Monday, July 20, 2015

Student Intern Sharpens Birding Skills at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Student summer intern Alex Peters is working on getting the Medicinal Garden at Matthaei ready for its opening on August 2. She’s also a recent convert to the joys of birding. Here, Alex shares her bird discoveries at Matthaei.

Last fall I took an ornithology class at the University of Michigan and part of the lab assignment was to keep a bird-watching journal. This entailed going on birding outings, recording the species I saw and any observations, and inputting my data into (a site where birders upload their checklists; useful for other birders and for conservation). I really love the problem solving associated with successfully identifying a bird and the sense of accomplishment when you identify a bird you have never recorded before. I have been birding in the Midwest since taking that class. One highlight so far has been going up to the Upper Peninsula with the U-M Ornithology Club to see snowy owls and shrikes.

Closer to home, Matthaei Botanical Gardens is a great place to spot a large variety of birds. The Botanical Gardens’ wooded trails and its proximity to Fleming Creek make for good habitat for many bird species. I’ve compiled a list of eleven species I have seen while working as an intern in the horticulture department, along with a map of where they were spotted. No doubt there are many more to see here at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum!

Note: The IUCN status included with each bird is a measure of conservation status and guides conservation efforts around the world. Each species is measured on a scale (starting from the lowest risk of extinction): least concern, near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, and extinct. For more information about the IUCN see

1. Eastern bluebird – these colorful birds are always a treat to spot. They happily nest in some of the nest boxes in the Gaffield Children’s Garden and I tend to see them in the big cottonwoods up there. Hopefully they take advantage of the native bird garden as a source of nesting material and food. Size: slightly smaller than an American Robin. Habitat: open grassland with surrounding trees. Diet: mainly insects with supplemental fruit. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: Least concern, increasing as more people install nest boxes.

© Beth Donald

2. Mourning dove – these common birds are probably best known for their lilting call. Unfortunately this summer I have known them as the birds that most often get trapped in the greenhouses and conservatory. Birds tend to fly in through open doors and then get confused by the glass walls and we need to come to their rescue by opening vents in the roof or even resorting to catching them with nets. This summer I have released mourning doves on at least four different occasions. Hopefully they will have learned by now! 
Size: slightly smaller than a pigeon. Habitat: open woodland. Diet: Seeds, foraged on the ground. Found in MI: year-round. IUCN status: Least concern.

© Ken Schneider

3. Killdeer – if you follow our Facebook page, then you have most likely seen some photos of killdeers and their nests. Killdeers nest on the ground and have a pretty amazing adaptation to ward off predators. Not only do they have a very piercing warning call, they will lure predators away from their nest or chicks by faking a broken wing. When the predator (humans included!) is far away from the nest, the adult bird will end its performance and fly away. 
Size: same as American Robin but with longer wings. Habitat: open grassland and shores. Diet: mainly invertebrates such as worms, snails, beetles, and larvae. Found in MI: during the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern, but decreasing.

© Kevin Bolton

4. Chipping sparrow – these small birds, unlike the mourning doves, have figured out the intricacies of the greenhouses. They come and go as they please and every year they nest in a scented geranium in one of the staff greenhouses. The second brood of chicks has recently started to fledge (when they start to leave the nest for the first time). It’s great to watch the parents feed the juveniles and teach them how to fly down the work corridor (photo below). 
Size: small sparrow, same size as a chickadee. Habitat: open woodland. Diet: seeds, and insects in the summer. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern.

© Kevin Carver

Photo: Carmen Leskoviansky

5. Eastern kingbird – this is a very striking bird that is usually seen perching on fence posts or trees in fields. There they wait until they spot their prey—flying insects—and swoop down to catch them midair. I spotted this bird sitting on the wire fence surrounding the Campus Farm. 
Size: slightly smaller than an American Robin. Habitat: open fields and near rivers. Diet: insects. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern, but decreasing.

© Christopher L. Wood

6. Barn swallow – I get to see these little guys every day as I walk into work. They like to hang out by the parking lot and twitter as they swoop through the sky. Like the Eastern kingbird, these birds catch insects in the air and are avid flyers. One barn swallow likes to fly into the horticulture offices and hang out in the rafters. Every year these birds try to build nests in and around the dump truck. Size: smaller than a bluebird. Habitat: open areas and towns. Diet: insects. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern.

© Eddie Y.

7. Rose-breasted grosbeak – the males of this species are a beautiful sight to see in the trees and underbrush of our natural areas. They have very large beaks that they use to crack open nuts and seeds. These birds will visit feeders and can be found in second growth deciduous forests. 
Size: smaller than an American Robin but larger than a House Finch. Habitat: deciduous forest. Diet: fruit, seed, insects. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern, but decreasing.

© Gary Tyson

8. Gray catbird – one of my personal favorites. These guys look sharp and have a call that is likened to a cat or a baby crying. I always love to hear their ridiculous noises, but they also mimic other bird songs and string them together to make their own unique melodies. 
Size: similar to an American Robin. Habitat: disturbed forests and dense thickets. Diet: insects and fruit. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern.

© robinsegg

9. Cedar waxwing – These beautiful, masked birds almost look like they were painted. While I was working one weekend recently my fellow intern Chad found a baby cedar waxwing (pictured below) near the parking lot. Because it was an older fledgling with feathers and open eyes, we left it on the ground after moving it into the shade. Sure enough, after a few minutes the parents came swooping down to feed their offspring. 
Size: smaller than an American Robin, similar to a bluebird. Habitat: around fruiting trees, open woodlands, along streams. Diet: fruit, and insects in the summer. Found in MI: year-round. IUCN status: least concern.

© Ben Thomas/GBBC

Photo: Alex Peters

10. Ruby-throated hummingbird – the only species of hummingbird that breeds in Michigan. They can be found zooming through the ornamental gardens and if you are lucky you can see them perch on branches or wire fences. I most often see them in the Gateway Garden at Matthaei sampling the annual flowers. These birds are quite territorial and can be seen chasing other hummingbirds or different bird species away. 
Size: very small; 3-4 inches. Habitat: deciduous forests and open areas. Diet: nectar and insects. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern.

© Michael Hogan

© Michael J. Andersen

11. Bald eagle – I did not realize how common it is to see bald eagles soaring in the skies in Michigan. Fellow intern Gus and I were lucky to spot a juvenile bald eagle up at the Campus Farm. It had landed on a research bug box and dove down to the ground. I didn’t see it catch anything so maybe it was still learning. 
Size: one of the largest birds in North America (length: 2-3 feet; wingspan: up to 80  inches). Habitat: forests near large bodies of water. Diet: mainly fish supplemented with small birds, amphibians, and mammals. Found in MI: year-round. IUCN status: least concern, formerly endangered. 

Alex Peters
For more information about these birds go to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website

Photos by Alex Peters, Carmen Leskoviansky, and also gathered from

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Matthaei Botanical Gardens Trail

A much-anticipated hiking and biking trail connecting Matthaei with points beyond is within sprinting distance. With some critical dollars in place and local governments on board, private donations will close the funding gap. 

Read about the trail below or follow this link to go directly to the trail donation page.

Talk of a trail connecting Matthaei Botanical Gardens with Parker Mill Park and the Washtenaw County Border to Border Trail system has been brewing for years. Until recently, however, it was just that—talk. Now we’re within sprinting distance of a trail that will engage users with nature on their way to and from Matthaei, clearing the path for the Gardens to connect to Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and beyond in a truly groundbreaking way.

The proposed Matthaei Botanical Gardens trail 
in green showing its connection to Parker Mill Park 
and the Border to Border Trail.
The finished  path will wend its way through a green quilt off Dixboro, inviting walkers and bicyclists to enjoy otherwise inaccessible ecosystems. From the trail, travelers will see quiet forests, rolling hills, and wildlife such as butterflies and birds. The trail also aligns with one of our priorities: creating nonmotorized transportation connecting U-M’s central and north campuses to Matthaei.

Help Us Close the Funding Gap
We are close, very close, to making the dream of a hiking and biking trail connecting Matthaei with points in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and beyond a reality. Now we’re reaching out to Matthaei-Nichols members and the community, businesses, and corporations to bridge the gap between the funding in place and the amount needed to go ahead with trail construction.

We hope you’ll join us in raising the $400,000 needed to make this trail a reality. 

Click here to make a contribution. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

With a Flourish of Color and Form, the Great Lakes Gardens at Matthaei Bloom throughout the Season

By Ryan Kuesel

Matthaei-Nichols student intern Ryan Kuesel is working in the Great Lakes Gardens at Matthaei Botanical Gardens this summer. The Great Lakes Gardens features plants native to our region and recreates the habitats in which they grow, such as dune, wetland, limestone plain, prairie, and others. Ryan’s photo gallery, taken over several weeks, reveals the amazing diversity of Great Lakes native flora. Scroll through to see what's blooming today, and what to expect in the spring and late summer.

Here in the Great Lakes Garden, our team of volunteers, staff and interns has been working to create botanically diverse display gardens that are representative of the many unique natural environments present in Michigan and the Great Lakes. Many of these plants and their habitats are either hard to access in the wild or require a long road trip to see in their natural state. However, we believe that these ecosystems are both beautiful and fascinating, and we hope to share some of that wonder and excitement with you. Perhaps after seeing each unique ecosystem in miniature at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, you will be inspired to make the trip and see one or more ecosystems in their full grandeur somewhere in Michigan!

As a recent graduate from Michigan’s Ecology and Evolutionary Ecology program, I have had many opportunities to explore and learn about the natural areas of Michigan. The most memorable and astounding were the daily trips into the wilderness of northern Michigan with my Field Botany class at Michigan’s biological station. As someone who has personally explored and learned about the flora of the many habitats showcased in the Great Lakes Gardens, I am excited to be able to assist in creating little pieces of each here in the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. And if you need a little more encouragement to make a trip to see some of the environments in their natural form, I can vouch for their beauty!

As summer kicks into full swing the gardens have metamorphosed through different stages of color. While vibrant hues once lay at your feet in the early spring when ephemeral wildflowers bloomed, the buds of shrubs and tall herbs are now beginning to open. A range of colors are here for your enjoyment now, and you can watch over the next few weeks as more plants begin to open their blossoms, adding to the spectrum of the garden.

Here we’d like to show you just a snapshot of the spring flowers that have flowered and faded, the colors that spot the garden today, and the buds that are waiting to burst into vibrancy soon. All of the images were taken within the Great Lakes Garden this spring and summer.

Spring Ephemerals and other Early Bloomers: Spring ephemerals are perhaps better known as spring wildflowers. They pop early in the spring before the leaf-cover appears to block the sun they need to thrive. The ephemerals die back or drop their flowers quickly as shade begins to take over the understory. Anyone who’s ever gone looking for wildflowers in local nature preserves knows that these colors don’t last long. But, when you find a large patch of their blossoms, or just scattered spots of their color, their vibrancy is matched by few natural wonders. Come visit the gardens next spring to see these in person!
Dutchman's-Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria): 
Oddly-shaped flowers of the Dutchman's-Breeches

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis): Short, white blossoms of the Bloodroot.

Dwarf Lake Iris (Iris Lacustris): Short, showy bloom of the Dwarf Lake Iris.

Lakeside Daisy (Tetraneuris herbacea): Short, yellow heads of the Lakeside Daisy.
Marsh-Marigold (Caltha palustris ): Plentiful, yellow blossoms of the Marsh-Marigold.
Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum): These strange tufts of purple hairs are the flowers of Prairie Smoke.

Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata): Tall, showy blooms of the Wild Blue Phlox.

Wild Lupine (Lupinus perennis): Purple flowers and hairy seed pods of the Wild Lupine.
Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum): 

Brilliant and delicate flower of the Yellow Trout Lily.

Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum): Unique, shoe-shaped blossoms of the Yellow Lady Slipper.

Currently Flowering: These plants currently have their colors on display in the garden. While the understories of forests bloom with color in early spring, currently Michigan’s grasslands, shorelines, wetlands, and sand dunes are in bloom. Some plant species hold on to their flowers for a long time while others come and go quickly. Warm, sunny weather tends to speed up their cycle, while cool, moist weather tends to keep them flowering for longer. Come visit today to see these in person!

Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta): Yellow heads of the Black-Eyed Susan.

Blue-Eyed-Grass (Sisyrinchium albidum): Small, violet flowers of the Blue-Eyed-Grass.

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa): Showy, orange clusters of the Butterfly Milkweed.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca): Round, purple clusters of the Common Milkweed.

Common Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis): Purple, three-petaled flowers of the Common Spiderwort.

Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus): 
Plentiful white and yellow heads of the Daisy Fleabane.

Foxglove Beard-Tongue (Penstemon digitalis): Large, white blossoms of the Foxglove Beard-Tongue.

Golden Ragwort (Packera paupercula): Small, yellow flowers of the Golden Ragwort.

Indian-Hemp (Apocynum sibiricum): Small, white clustered flowers of the Indian-Hemp.

Kalm's St. John's-Wort (Hypericum kalmianum): Plentiful, yellow blooms of the Kalm's St. John's-Wort

Lake Huron Tansy (Tanacetum bipinnatum): 
Tall clusters of yellow heads on the Lake Huron Tansy.

Limestone Calamint (Clinopodium arkansanum): Tiny, purple flowers of the Limestone Calamint
Prickly-Pear (Opuntia humifusa):
Large, yellow blossoms spout from the tip of the Prickly-Pear cactus.

Silverweed (Argentina anserina): 
Yellow flowers crawl along the ground on the Silverweed.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): 
White flower cluster of the Yarrow.

Late Bloomers: Many plants such as blazing stars, asters, and goldenrods bloom in late July to early August. Come back in a few weeks to see their blossoms!

Common Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum): 
Distinct white clusters will dot the Common Mountain Mint.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum): 
Large, sunflower-like blossoms will top the Compass Plant.
Culver's-Root (Veronicastrum virginicum):

Joe-Pye-Weed (Eutrochium maculatum): 
Large, purple flower clusters will top the Joe-Pye-Weed.

Marsh Blazing-Star (Liatris spicata): 
Frilly, purple spikes will cap the Marsh Blazing-Star.

Ohio Goldenrod (Solidago ohioensis ): 
Clusters of tiny yellow flowers will top the Ohio Goldenrod. 
This one's a little early. 

Prairie-Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum): 
Showy, yellow heads will top the Prairie-Dock.