Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Pocketful of Peace

By Lexi Brewer

The house at the Washington Hts. entrance
to Nichols Arboretum, formally called the
James D. Reader Jr. Urban Environmental
Education Center at the Burnham House.
Construction on the house began in 1837.
The house was moved to the Arboretum
location from Wall Street across from the
U-M Hospital in 1998. Today, it holds
classrooms, meeting spaces, and living
quarters for caretakers.
In mid-May I moved into the Reader Center at Nichols Arboretum to begin my new life as a caretaker and Sam Graham Trees intern for Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum. I had just finished a 14-hour trek from Missouri as I pulled up to the Washington Heights entrance of the Arb.  “Is this my new home?” I thought, gazing at the dazzling and historic Burnham House. 

The historic peony garden at Nichols Arboretum was one of my
views from the Reader Center for almost a month in late May
and June, . The garden, the largest collection of heirloom peonies
in North America, began in 1922 when Michigan alum
Dr. W.E. Upjohn donated a portion of his own peony
collection to the University.

I grabbed my plant babies from the front seat, stepped out of the car, and began walking towards the front entrance. I was immediately overwhelmed by the beauty of the Arb. In front of me stood North America’s largest heirloom peony collection, surrounded by unbelievably tall white pines. To my right as I ascended the steps to the house stood what I soon learned is Gateway Garden, which seems to be
The gateway garden in Nichols Arboretum forms the entrance to the Reader
Center. It seems to bloom throughout the summer with native plants.
perpetually in bloom. My amazement continued as I opened the front door and was greeted by violin music. Shakespeare in the Arb musicians
 were practicing for an upcoming performance and I was momentarily transported back to the Renaissance. I later learned that Shakespeare in the Arb performed its seventeenth season this year, with Kate Mendeloff of the Residential College directing every performance. I walked up the steps to what would soon be my apartment and heard curators and researchers discussing the best way to organize a rose collection in the Arb. As I finally walked through the door to the apartment, I had to take a moment to sit and pinch myself a few times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. 
Shakespeare musicians take a break from rehearsing. The weather during the
first days of this year's performances was pretty warm.
I’ve come to understand that my first experience with the Arb was not actually too different from the norm. I walk through the Arb at least twice a day to reach the caretaker cottage, and I am always amazed at the sheer amount of activity taking place there. Regardless of the time of day, there are people who come to run—by themselves, with friends, or with their dog. There are always families, friends, and couples in the main valley. They picnic, do yoga, or play Frisbee, soccer, or the guitar. There are hammockers and slackliners. People by the river read,
Early misty morning on the Huron River in Nichols Arboretum. The carefully
arranged rocks create a special burbling music as the water courses over them.
swim, float, or move rocks and listen to the “music” of nature.
 But my favorite activity of all is the simplest: to sit. I sit and listen to the sounds of the Arb: children playing, friends laughing, dogs joyously panting. I watch the sun stream through the trees and sparkle on the river, the wind play with the tall prairie grass, and lightning bugs bring the starry heavens to the earth.  

You can't help but relax and sink into nature in the main valley of Nichols
I was so overwhelmed that the Arb offers all of these activities to everyone. Anyone could find their rest, whether that would come from exercise, being with friends, or just reading, right here in this pocket of peace. I am so glad that the Arb can be this sanctuary to so many in the midst of Ann Arbor. But at the same time I realize that it isn’t the Arb that offers so much: it is nature itself. People go to run and play at the Arb and Gardens because of nature. It is this backdrop of trees and shrubs that is the refuge. In this one place people, chipmunks, deer, snakes, squirrels, and raccoons find their quiet place (but we try to make sure that they keep out of the trash!).

This perspective has transformed my view of nature and my position at Matthaei-Nichols. I am also fortunate to be the Sam Graham Trees intern this summer, working on a trail system supported by the Graham family. The namesake of the trail, Dr. Sam Graham, helped to pioneer ecological restoration understanding during his time as a professor at the University of Michigan. Now in his honor I help to restore native Michigan tree communities. This work includes invasive species removal, planting native trees and shrubs, and mulching and watering the native species to ensure their survival. We also maintain the trail system and educational rubbing plaques to create a learning experience about these ecosystems for anyone who would like walk through. Through these processes, interns and staff partake in the vitally important practice of natural restoration. We are maintaining these pocketfuls of peace and ensuring that they stay beautiful for generations to come.  I am grateful I can help in this endeavor and give thanks that we all get to call this special place—earth—home. 

Lexi begins her master’s at the School of Environment and Sustainability this fall, studying sustainability and environmental policy. This summer she serves as both a Sam Graham Trees intern and a Caretaker at the Nichols Arboretum. She just graduated from Drury University in Springfield, Missouri with majors in political science and Spanish. Lexi’s internship is made possible by the Betty Graham Fund created by the Graham family.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Nature’s Rx Effect

By Kate Vogel

It’s June of 2016 and I’m sitting at the doctor’s office when she asks how I enjoy spending my time. I was there to figure out how to treat my chest pain, which she thought was coming from anxiety (and caffeine, but that’s a different story). I told her that I liked spending time outside and off of social media and before I knew it I left with a “nature” prescription. (Check out this website if you haven’t already heard of Nature Rx! I would recommend watching the videos.)

This is the labyrinth at Matthaei. Walking on its path
is a good restoration activity that can help clear the
mind. The repetitive curves can be relaxing and a
good way to de-stress.
“Spend more time outside” my doctor said. “Take deep breaths and try to become aware of your surroundings.” I thought it was funny that I was being told to spend more time outside, but I was excited that I now had an excuse—a prescription—to simply sit on the deck or in the grass and disconnect from our fast-paced society for a moment. As access to technology increases, it seems as though prescriptions to spend time in nature are also increasing. For example, Dr. Robert Zarr in Washington, D.C. prescribes spending time in parks to his patients. Zarr asserts that spending time in nature allows us to “help create a healthier, happier society, and to preserve and create more natural places through our next generation of environmental stewards, conservationists, and activists.”

Fast forward and I’m sitting across from Laura Mueller, the Great Lakes Gardens Field tech for Matthaei-Nichols, during my job interview. “Why do you want this job?” she asks. “I just want to be outside. I’ll do anything to have the opportunity to work with nature” I replied.

Now it’s July of 2017, and here I am! I spend most of my time working outside in the Great Lakes Gardens at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. My main job as an intern in the GLG is to make sure that the area is well maintained in order to be attractive to guests, but also to protect native plants! This involves a lot of weeding, trimming, watering, and trail maintenance (and learning). In the GLG I also get to work with the newly planted orchids! Sometimes there are presentations that we can attend through the Nature Academy that offer us an opportunity to learn about different subjects. One of these presentations was “Environmental Connections and Mindfulness,” led by Dr. Martha Travers, who teaches in the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Dr. Travers mentioned in her presentation that she often works with students in the School for Environment and Sustainability, who, she has found, feel anxious about the future of the environment. Students like myself can find it hard to relax in nature if we are thinking about how climate change is going to affect the plans, animals, and oceans that we hold so dear. She said that she tries to help them by encouraging them to focus on the here and now, the peaceful escapes that nature has to offer. Instead of worrying about what-ifs, it is important to appreciate what we have in every moment and to be aware of how our bodies and minds interact with our environments. Instead of being afraid of the future, we have to feel in the moment. Besides, healthier minds make for better ideas on how to protect nature!

As part of the presentation we were asked to find a place to connect with nature. I found myself meditating outside, listening to the bird calls, buzzing bees, and the calming flow of the fountains in the Gateway Garden. Even though I work in the gardens everyday, rarely do I get the chance to simply sit back and be still; to become aware of my surroundings and really listen to what my body is telling me. The sun kissed my cheeks and arms and I greeted the warmth like an old friend. The wind picked up the ends of my braids and I smiled, instead of putting my hair back into place. I took some deep breaths and became one with my surroundings. I didn’t worry about what I was going to work on after lunch, if it was going to rain or not (it did!), or what I was going to do later on. As I sat there I felt the most relaxed and aware that I had in over a month, just because I was listening and feeling, instead of thinking.

Gateway Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. July 9, 2017
When you allow yourself to open your senses to nature, you begin to notice new things that you might not have before. It’s really important to allow yourself these mental health breaks in order to de-stress and clear your mind. I think often in our line of work we always feel like everything has to be done right away, which in some ways can be productive, and in other ways is more counterproductive. I think that if we allow ourselves more breaks like this, even in the garden spaces that we work in, it will allow us to be more creative and productive. It will teach us to appreciate the land we are working with instead of dreading the projects we “have” to do right away. By listening to the world around us, it will allow us to slow down and realize that even though there are always going to be things to do, everything is just fine for the time being.

If you allow your mind to open to everything around you, Dr. Travers might say that it will allow you to find yourself. We are the air we breathe, we are the land beneath our feet. Paying homage to the land and stepping back allows us to pay homage to ourselves.

As I reflect on the past year, I realize that nature has helped me feel better. My heart sings songs just like birds do, I smile at the sun just as flowers do, and I dance just like the rain bouncing on the ground. When I am in nature, I’m okay because I’m simply being. Why is nature so healing for me? Because I am nature. We are nature.  So next time you feel stressed, take some time to feel the nature around you, and let it heal you, reminding you of your roots and nature’s beautiful cycles. We might not have the answers to everything, but in nature when you are simply being, there are no questions to be asked, there is only nature to be aware of.

Just as my blog post was going to print this morning, a story on "forest bathing" posted on National Public Radio. Check out the story here. The idea of forest bathing, which originated in Japan in the 1990s, is to immerse yourself in nature and slow down to notice things you might not otherwise, like birdsong and other nature sounds, and tactile, olfactory, and sight sensations. Benefits flow from these observations and experiences---a lifting of mood, lower blood pressure, lower stress levels, a boost to the immune system.

Here are some pictures that I’ve taken this year when I let my senses, instead of my thoughts, take over.

Matthaei-Nichols staffer Steve Parrish found this salamander under a log
when we were pulling garlic mustard. Keeping your mind alert reminds
you to pay attention to your surroundings, and not just the task at hand. 


This is a flower in one of the bromeliads in the conservatory at
Matthaei Botanical Gardens.. I had probably walked by this for
two weeks before noticing that bromeliads flowered like this. 
I thought that it was really interesting to see the
prickly pear cactus blooming in front of a destroyed
snapping turtle nest… I had never seen a snapping turtle lay eggs,
nor did I know that cacti bloomed in Michigan. 
Look closely and you can see this is a photo of crayfish in the creek behind the pumphouse. There's one in the center near the top of the photo as well as two in the lower left corner and several in the upper right. I noticed them for the first time last week as I bent down to turn the water on. Always keep your eyes open for new finds!

Of course, this is a weed, but in
the moment of the picture I
thought it looked beautiful.
It’s important to try and find beauty
in everything to have a more positive outlook. 

This is a rare Blanding’s turtle that I saw from the back hallway near
greenhouse 2 at Matthaei. I don’t know what caused me to look up,
but I did, and that’s when I noticed that there was a turtle crossing the road.
We picked the turtle up and moved him off the road. There are a lot of turtle-car
accidents here.

Kate Vogel, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a rising senior studying Program in the Environment and international studies with minors in Spanish and sustainability. Kate works in the Great Lakes Gardens at Matthaei. At school she has a specialization in water policy and conservation, but outside of her studies she specializes in traveling, writing letters, and eating sushi. Kate’s internship is made possible by the Matthaei-Nichols Membership Fund and by individual donors.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

No Goats Allowed, and Other Oddities from the Front Desk at Matthaei

Sophia Paul

The Visitor Engagement team at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum plays an important role in the organization by ensuring that visitors have a positive experience. We greet visitors, answer questions, and generally create a welcoming environment. Working in a position that directly engages with visitors means fielding a lot of questions. Sometimes I can answer them, other times I need to redirect them.

The most common question I get is about parking, and the most unusual question came from a person who wanted to know if they could bring their goat to the Arb (no). I’ve gotten a lot of questions, but here are some of my favorites to answer.

What is this flower?? The flowers of the tulip tree
are striking and when the tree is in bloom, people are
about what they are. The flowers do look like
tulips. There are
 tulip trees in the Arb and the Gardens
including one near the Medicinal Garden at Matthaei.
I just saw a really cool flowering tree/blue butterfly/yellow orchid. Do you know what it is?
I don’t always know the answer to this kind of question, but I can usually connect someone to resources. More than that though, I get excited by people’s excitement about all the cool things at Arb and Botanical Gardens. Sometimes people will show me pictures that they took out on the trails and I love seeing them. It's as much an opportunity for me to learn about what's going on in our gardens and spaces as it is for our visitors to enjoy!

What should I go see today?
A blooming bonsai azalea at Matthaei. Since the plants bloom
for a relatively short period of time, catching one of these amazing
azaleas is a treat for visitors. This display would be a must-see
recommendation from anyone working the front desk at Matthaei.
(Photo by Scott Soderberg.)
The answer to this question is almost always that it depends on where you want to go. However sometimes people ask what's in bloom and/or looking particularly neat. Both the Arb and the Botanical Gardens contain plants that bloom, set fruit, turn color in the fall, or play a particular role in the ecosystem. This diversity means there’s something exciting to see throughout the year. For example, in early June, Matthaei Botanical Gardens hosted a display of blooming bonsai azalea on loan from donor Mel Goldstein. The azaleas bloomed for about a week and are one of those plants whose bloom season is relatively short. So the bonsai are a must-see and when they bloom, provide a standout experience for visitors.

The model of the massasauga at the
Matthaei front desk is real but no longer
living. It is a valuable display, however,
because visitors can see what a real
massasauga looks like.

This is an eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Cistrurus catenatus)
photographed at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Most people
are surprised to learn that a rattlesnake lives in Michigan! This
native snake is shy and avoids humans but visitors do see them
occasionally at Matthaei. 
Is this snake real?
We have a model of an Eastern massasauga rattlesnake at the front desk. It is real, and while not alive, it is very eye-catching. I enjoy the chance to talk about this rare native species that many people aren’t familiar with. In southeast Michigan, the massasauga lives at Matthaei and several other places. Talking to visitors about the massasauga is an opportunity to educate them about this. If you see one at the botanical gardens, report it to the front desk staff or online at the Michigan DNR’s Eyes in the Field observation reporting page. If you're out on the trails, be aware that this snake does live in Michigan but is also quite shy. Keep your distance and don't try to play with or disturb the snake. It's a wild animal, after all, and should be left alone. Click here to read information about the massasauga on the Matthaei-Nichols website.

Where should I go to eat?
Some people from out-of-town or out-of-state come to visit the Botanical Gardens or the Arb and many of them want to get a bite to eat on the way out. Many of them know where they want to go already (and I’m happy to give directions), but others are looking for suggestions. Since I think Ann Arbor has a lot of excellent restaurants I love the chance to provide recommendations for people with different tastes, interests, and budgets.

Yes to dogs (on leash) in Nichols Arboretum No to dogs at the botanical
gardens. For sure---no goats allowed at either place!
Can I bring my dog to the Arb?
First: no goats allowed! And while dogs are not allowed at the Botanical Gardens, the Arb is open to all dogs on leash and I certainly enjoy the chance to meet them while I’m working there! Here's a picture of a runner and his dog participating in the fall Run for the Arb 5K.

The air plant, or Tillandsia, is a genus of plants in the bromeliad
family---same family as the pineapple and Spanish moss. They
are a popular purchase at the Garden Store at Matthaei
Botanical Gardens.
What plant should I buy?
The Garden Store at Matthaei is always stocked with an array of succulents, house plants, and air plants. I’m always happy to chat about plants and give recommendations. The air plants are often an object of particular fascination. They’re bromeliads and evolved in tropical climates to get the water and nutrients from the air in canopies. Since Michigan generally isn’t as humid (or as consistently warm) as the tropics, air plants do need to be periodically misted or soaked. If someone is looking for a plant that thrives with minimal attention, I’m always excited to recommend the purple shamrock. I had one all throughout undergrad and while it didn’t always thrive when I neglected it; it is still going strong now that I’m taking better care of it.

Sophia Paul is pursuing a master’s degree from the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, with concentrations in environmental policy & planning and environmental justice. Sophia is originally from Northeast Ohio and enjoys cooking, eating, and cycling around Ann Arbor. Sophia’s internship is made possible by Matthaei-Nichols members and individual donors.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Seeing the Trees and the Forest in Nichols Arboretum

Audrey Pangallo

I’ve spent most of the first two months of my internship at Nichols Arboretum, hunting for specific species of trees. Eventually these trees will make an appearance in an app as a study tool for University of Michigan students in the School for Environment and Sustainability who are taking the Woody Plants class (ENV 436). This project is being done in conjunction with Curator Mike Kost and Matthaei-Nichols GIS specialist Maricela Avalos to create a GIS-based map of trees in the Arboretum. The project will be available as a web map and application by the end of August.

We tested the app the week of July 3 with students participating in the Michigan Math & Science Scholar (MMSS) program. MMSS offers a pre-college experience that exposes high school students to several curricula offered at the University of Michigan while introducing them to current developments and research in the sciences. Matthaei-Nichols Associate Curator David Michener conducts the annual summer sessions in the field and lab. Read more about MMSS and about the students’ visit to Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum.
A screen shot of the map of trees
in the Arb. The map will be used by students
in the Woody Plants class at University
of Michigan. The map pictured is close to
what the actual map will look like.

The testing went very well. We split the students up into teams and had them locate 10 trees on the map. We then met up at the Reader Center to talk about how it went and to see what feedback they had regarding the map. Overall the students really found the app useful, and the average score for it was 8/10—pretty good for the very first version of the app. The students confirmed issues that I suspected we'd have. Basically, the biggest issue we have to fix is the accuracy of some of the points, and then the map will be good to go.

As I was saying about my time in Nichols Arboretum. . . . One of the things I’ve discovered about being a Nature Academy intern is that plants rule, of course, but there are a lot of other things worth discovering—birds, trees, snakes, and human-made objects, to name a few. In between hunting for trees I’ve found all sorts of interesting goodies in the Arb and I thought I’d share them with you.

A cup fungus I found in Nichols Arboretum.
This is a cup fungus. There are many varieties of cup fungi, which is a name that encompasses any mushroom that looks like a bowl. Typically, they are difficult to identify, as most of the features to tell them apart are microscopic. I found it on the ground hidden behind a log while looking for a white oak. A week or so later, I went back to check in on it and it appeared to have died.

Nature-based folk art? These painted rocks
provided some humorous moments in my
travels through the Arb
These are quite clearly rocks. Someone was having a little fun hiding them around the Arboretum. I’m not sure who, but I did appreciate the puns (“A2 Rocks”) and the clever hiding spots along the trails.

Another mushroom. This one was huge, yet somehow still able to hide among the
A large but unidentified mushroom in the Arb.
The diversity of kinds and shapes of fungi is
plants. I only noticed it because I had to walk off trail to get a closer look at an American elm tree.

Shelf fungi on a black oak.
You might be sensing a pattern here… I really like finding fungi. The mushrooms attached to this black oak were too interesting to pass up. These are shelf fungi; they grow and reproduce above ground. Each year, shelf fungi add a new layer of spore tissue, so usually if you see a large shelf fungi, you’re probably looking at one that’s old.

An American goldfinch perching on a peony bud in the
Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden. The Arb is well-known
as one of the best birding spots in the area for spring and
fall birding.

Clearly, I was not looking at trees when I took this. Honestly, I’m not sure how anyone could expect me to pass up this American goldfinch—it basically posed for the picture. There are lots of varieties of birds to see, or just listen to, in the Arboretum. In fact Nichols Arboretum is considered to be one of the best birding spots in Washtenaw County.

Besides birds, I also found several snakes while trekking around the Arb. After severaldays of trying, I finally got a picture of one! This kindly snake sat still for a whole two minutes so I could get this shot. The Arb is home to a lot of interesting plants and animals. It really is a little green oasis in our town.

Audrey Pangallo is a second-year dual master's student in landscape architecture and conservation ecology. This summer she is working with Mike Kost, Matthaei-Nichols curator of native plants, on creating a GIS based map of trees in the arboretum for the Woody Plants class in the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. Audrey would like to work in ecological restoration and community-based design when she graduates. Her internship is made possible by donors Philip and Kathy Power, whose gift provides support for field-based environmental education collaboration between Matthaei-Nichols and the School for Environment and Sustainability. 

Helping Young Students Make Meaningful Connections with the Natural World

By Annemarie McDonald

The most effective antidote to the unease provoked by watching the news these days might be a walk on the trails of Matthaei Botanical Gardens with a group of elementary school students. Their curiosity and enthusiasm about the natural world reminds me that science can be an adventure and an exploration.

As an intern in the youth education department this summer, I’ve had many opportunities to participate in these explorations. Since the beginning of May through mid-June, 28 different schools have visited Matthaei for guided tours. That’s about 1,400 students in six weeks—and that number doesn’t even include the teachers, principals, and chaperones who accompany students on the tours. These groups represent schools from all over southeastern Michigan and greater Detroit who come to explore the plant collections and natural communities here.

Research tells us that outdoor science-based field trips have many benefits for students, especially those who have had less exposure to nature. A recent study by Emilyn Whitesell of New York University evaluating field trips’ impact on middle schoolers in New York City suggests that this type of extracurricular learning can improve standardized test scores, especially for students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch (Whitesell, 2016). Informal education experiences not only increase students’ content knowledge; they can also foster pro-environmental attitudes. A 2012 study at Indiana University found that a year after a field trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, students both remembered environmental and ecological information and expressed pro-environmental values.  

For the youth who visit Matthaei, it might seem that the field trip starts when they get on the bus at school. But in reality, we hope the trip starts even before that. Teachers often plan trips to Matthaei-Nichols in conjunction with their science curricula, providing students with an opportunity to make meaningful connections between classroom and real-world learning.

Here’s how a typical field trip works: when students arrive at the gardens, Liz Glynn, Matthaei-Nichols children’s program coordinator, welcomes them and gives a brief introduction to the gardens. There are two components to most tours—the conservatory and the trails—and students spend an hour at each. The rules for both are simple: follow your docent guide and only touch the plants your guide says you can touch (it’s hard to get excited about nature when you have a rash from poison ivy).
Students use a magnifying glass 
to look at the details of veins in a leaf. 

In the classroom, students compare the textures
of two different stems.

During a walk on the trails,
a student examines a monarch
caterpillar on a milkweed leaf.  

Then half of the groups head out to the trails while the other half go inside to explore the conservatory. There’s a lot to see, touch, and discover in both places. On the trails we might look for evidence of animal activity, learn to identify a few native trees, or even sneak up on a frog. In the conservatory students are often excited to learn that chocolate really does grow on trees, awed by the insectivorous bog plants, and disgusted by the smell of the starfish flower. The key to these field trips, however, isn’t what the students see, but how they see it. And that’s all up to the guides. Docent guides here at Matthaei are interested in education, care about the environment, and have extensive ecological knowledge to share with youth—and they do it all as volunteers!
Chocolate (at least the raw material for it)
really does grow on trees, as these students
discovered on a field trip to Matthaei
Botanical Gardens.

But even with all this expertise, not all field trips go to plan. A few weeks ago, a group of second graders came on an overcast day; the forecast threatened rain within the hour. The teachers chose to have the students participate in an indoor activity rather than get wet and muddy trying to navigate the trails. You might think this would put a damper on the whole trip, but with some help from the leftover plant-sale plants, students still had a hands-on plant-science experience. They used magnifying glasses to examine the plant parts they had learned about in school, removed soil to expose root hairs, pulled apart stems to reveal the vascular tissues inside, and explored the network of veins in a leaf. Even without going outside, there are opportunities here at Matthaei to make meaningful connections with the natural world and build upon classroom learning. Each field trip is a unique opportunity to grow students’ understanding of and appreciation for the natural world, and I hope they leave here with more questions than they came with—it’s a good reason to come back.

Annemarie McDonald is a master’s student in the conservation ecology track at the University of Michigan School of Environment and Sustainability. Her internship in the Youth Education department was made possible by a gift from Ian and Sally Bund to provide continued support of current and future nature-based educational programming at Matthaei Nichols.