Friday, December 5, 2014

Grant Funds Completion of Working Studio in Matthaei-Nichols Bonsai Garden

Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum is one step closer to putting the finishing touches on its new Bonsai and Penjing Garden, thanks to a $13,500 award from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust. The award paves the way for completion of a horticultural studio space in the garden, which opened in 2013. The money will be used to purchase key elements for better functionality, convenience, comfort, and beauty, including wheeled carts, studio tables, enhanced lighting, water runoff technology, tools, and other supplies.

The Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust's commitment to public horticulture education dovetails perfectly with the purpose of the Bonsai and Penjing Garden horticultural studio at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, says Matthaei-Nichols director Bob Grese. Only a few public gardens include bonsai and penjing collections, “and the opportunity for this kind of interactive horticulture education, even at the culture-rich University of Michigan, is rare.”

A panoramic view of the central pavilion just days before the Bonsai Garden
opened in 2013.
Beyond the beauty of the plants and garden themselves, education is key, Grese explains. Bonsai and penjing are quintessential ornamental horticultural specimens that the public enjoys but might not always understand, he says. “By integrating the work area into the public garden we can enrich our visitors’ understanding ofdisplay standards and the effort and care bonsai require to reach exceptional levels of ornamental quality.” The final construction elements will expand the public workspace and make the space more convenient, comfortable and secure so that staff and volunteers can focus on training the best plants for ornamental excellence, he adds. “The studio, together with the new garden space, will truly open a window into the art of bonsai and penjing.”

Matthaei-Nichols staff member Carmen Leskoviansky works on
a bonsai tree during the open house at Matthaei August 3, 2014.
Funds from the Stanley Smith Horticulral Trust will pay for tools
and supplies so that staff, volunteers, and bonsai experts can work
on the trees in view of the public.

Matthaei-Nichols has nurtured a growing collection of trees for over 35 years. The collection began in 1977 with a gift of core specimens from the estate of Dr. Maurice Seevers, a former director of the University of Michigan Department of Pharmacology and an ardent bonsai lover. Since then the collection has grown to more than 70 trees and includes plants from regionally and internationally recognized bonsai artists Melvin Goldstein, William Heston, Jack Sustic, Howard Wright, and Jack Wikle. Visiting bonsai masters have also worked on the trees.

The Bonsai and Penjing Garden offers a unique opportunity to experience the sense of beauty, inner peace, and reverence for nature that often accompany these miniature forms of trees. Until the garden was completed in 2013, however, only three of the trees in the collection were on display at any one time in a special space inside the temperate house of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens conservatory. The majority of the collection lived behind the scenes, with no space available for its public display. The new outdoor garden greatly expands the viewing and educational training area and provides a restful setting for the public to enjoy as many as 18 specimens representing several leading Midwestern and internationally-recognized bonsai artists.

A summer view of the central pavilion and studio in the Bonsai
and Penjing Garden at Matthaei.
The Bonsai & Penjing Garden was financed completely through private donations. Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum has launched a campaign to build an endowment to fund ongoing care for the trees in the collection. The endowment is currently at approximately $190,000—nearly 25% of the goal of $800,000. Donations to the endowment are always welcome. For more information contact the Matthaei-Nichols director of development Gayle Steiner (734-647-7847; gayles@umich.edu) or visit the Matthaei-Nichols website (mbgna.umich.edu) and click on “Give/Major Gift Priorities.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Giant Troll Spotted on Property

All kinds of creatures live at the botanical gardens and arboretum. We can now count a troll among them, thanks to students in assistant professor Osman Khan’s Contemporary Sculpture 260 class in the Stamps School of Art & Design. Last fall they constructed a 10-foot-tall replica of the fright-wigged and bug-eyed troll doll originally created by Danish woodcutter Thomas Dam in 1959.

The troll measured approximately
13 feet high when finished.

The project challenged the students on several levels, says Khan. First, it exposed them to how the object being sculpted changes or stays relevant for today’s society, he explains, including the shift from “traditional objects of sculpture such as deities, heroes, and idols to the more contemporary objects of concern for the everyday.” As for why they picked the troll, Khan asked the students to bring in something they thought could be scaled up. After reviewing the possibilities, “they all agreed on the troll, mainly due to their own shared memories of having one or playing with one when they were young.”

Khan also hoped the students would take away an important lesson about thrift and simplicity—that making a large object doesn’t have to be expensive, complicated, or require a ton of marble or other challenging material (this troll is mostly made from Styrofoam). “Easily available and relatively inexpensive materials can be used to work on a large scale,” Khan says.

Students in Osman Khan's Contemporary Sculpture 260 class
stand in front of the completed troll in the fairy
and troll Hollow in Nichols Arboretum.

The students also showed a lot of ingenuity and inventiveness in using digital and analog technologies such as a 3D scanner and software to scale the troll in virtual space and then trace dimensions accurately on sections of foam.

Experimenting with technologies, materials, and methods of building was the most interesting part of the project for Maya Crosman, a BFA junior in Stamps. “Each part of the process has been instructive, as there was no straightforward way to create our sculpture,” she says. No one in the class, Crosman explains, had ever made something as large as the troll doll. In fact, the class is the first of its kind. “We problem-solved as a team throughout the whole process, finding ways to scale-up the small rubber troll doll into a sculpture over ten feet.”

Someone vandalized the troll shortly before Thanksgiving,
making off with one of her feet and an arm. Quite a bit of
the hair was broken, too.
Editor’s note: We’re sad to report that just before Thanksgiving the troll was vandalized. Staff  members found her toppled over and missing a foot and an arm. We’re hopeful that whoever did this will return the pieces so the troll can be restored. In the meantime, a discussion is underway about what will happen next. Stay tuned as the story of the troll continues!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Well-Versed: Exhibit Explores Nature-Poetry Connections

The ancient link between poetry and nature is on display at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum in the exhibit “Letters & Leaves – Nature as Inspiration for Poetry.” The exhibit, which takes place in the conservatory and throughout Matthaei and outdoors in Nichols Arboretum, highlights poems by established writers and by U-M students. Also featured is an installation of nature-inspired photography by U-M students and staff, and community members. Exhibit runs Nov. 29-Jan. 4.

The Tunnel, by Hilda Havlik, retired occupational therapist

Giants, by Jochen Schacht
Professor of Biological Chemistry, UM Medical School

Misty Sunrise, by John Wirth, MAtthaei-Nichols member
Poetry’s deep ties to nature made for plentiful connections to the Arb and Gardens, says Catriona Mortell-Windecker, education program manager at Matthaei-Nichols. While initial plans encompassed the larger field of nature-inspired writing, poetry offers a concise response to our interaction with nature in a moment or a place, she adds. “And with poetry we could narrow a wide field and still offer the intensity of the physical experience of the conservatory and the Arboretum together with some great verse.”

Even if poetry might not be regular reading material for some visitors, Mortell-Windecker says the exhibit aims for an experience that “begins in delight and ends in wisdom,” as poet Robert Frost wrote. “Our hope is that through the broad sampling of poems on display and the botanical environment visitors will find something that speaks to them.”

The exhibit has evolved into a rewarding collaboration between the Arb and Gardens and faculty and students in the university’s English department, says Mortell-Windecker. And it’s also in part the product of an 8-month internship for English major Andrew Miller. The LSA senior and budding writer has been a decision-maker on the exhibit planning committee, researching and selecting the published poets on display, soliciting poetry from the larger student body, and consulting with faculty throughout the process. Partnerships with faculty have been key as well. Larry Goldstein, Professor of English and editor of The Michigan Quarterly, offered advice and guidance, as did Residential College lecturer Virginia Murphy.

The exhibit culminates in a poetry reading on December 10 by U-M faculty Keith Taylor and Lorna Goodison. Taylor, a longtime friend of the Arboretum and Gardens and an adjunct professor in the MFA program at Michigan, will read a selection of work including a poem he wrote for the opening of the Great Lakes Gardens last year at Matthaei. Given her upcoming retirement from the English department, Goodison’s appearance at the reading offers the rare opportunity to hear one of the Caribbean’s most distinguished contemporary poets.

Letters & Leaves also offers attractions beyond poetry and photography. An Open House on November 29 kicks off the exhibit with greens and seasonal items in the gift shop and the annual Spinner’s Flock fiber arts sale. On December 6 from 10 am-noon children and their parents are invited to “Wonders of Winter,” a craft and wreath-making workshop. Father Christmas visits on December 20 from noon until 2 (free); Plus, throughout the exhibit run there will be a seasonal flower display in the conservatory, a series of trees decorated with hand-crafted ornaments relating to the Letters & Leaves theme, a display of faerie houses; and spontaneous poetry-writing opportunities for all visitors. Call or visit the Matthaei-Nichols website for details.

Exhibit: Letters & Leaves – Nature as Inspiration for Poetry
Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum

Nov. 29 through Jan. 4

Open daily, 10 am-4:30 pm; Wednesdays until 8 pm. Closed Christmas Eve and Day and New Year’s Eve. Open New Year’s day 10 am-4:30 pm. Free admission.

1800 N. Dixboro Rd. (Matthaei)
1610 Washington Hts. (Arboretum)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Behind-the-Scenes Green

What’s thriving in the greenhouses at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

Megan Barnes, Horticulture Intern

Some of the plants in the greenhouses at Matthaei Botanical Gardens
There’s plenty to see in the conservatory, display gardens, and natural areas at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. But there’s also a lot of action behind the scenes to keep the gardens beautiful and valuable to the University of Michigan community, Matthaei-Nichols’ members, and to the public. Since it isn’t possible to display the Arb and Gardens’ entire collection all at once, five greenhouses at the botanical gardens are loaded with surprises.

Some plants are in training, so to speak, waiting for a coveted spot in the conservatory or the display gardens. While othersas part of the many interesting research projects conducted by U-M faculty and students that take place in the greenhousesaren't meant for public display. Other plants might might not currently be giving their most beautiful display, or are newly acquired and still adjusting to life as Wolverines. Here’s a sneak peek and a spotlight on some extraordinary plants that are found behind the scenes in the greenhouses at Matthaei.

As a summer 2014 intern in the horticulture collections department, I had the opportunity to care for many plants not often seen in Michigan. As a returned Peace Corps volunteer from Guatemala, I was delighted to be reunited (where I least expected) with some of my tropical favorites. Within the tropical and semitropical collection, these special specimens from all over the world appeal to the senses and the sciences. Among them are

·         Cananga odorata var. fruticosa (Dwarf Ylang-Ylang)—this fast growing tropical tree from the Philippines is famous for being an ingredient in Chanel No. 5 perfume.
Cananga odorata var. fruticosa (Dwarf Ylang-Ylang)

Phyla scaberrima (Aztec sweet herb)—this sweet-smelling leafy plant has been used in Mexico and Central America as a sweetener and as a medicine for respiratory illnesses.

·        Carica papaya (papaya)—a source of delicious fruit and vitamin A, this tree from the tropics of the Americas is also used medicinally as a treatment for malaria, dengue, and digestive problems.
Carica papaya (papaya)

·        Guaiacum sanctum (holywood)—this strong-timbered tree produces lovely blue flowers and is native to Florida, where it is classified as endangered thanks to overharvesting.

·        Matelea cyclophylla—a Mexican native hard to find in cultivation, this flowering vine is lovely and unique; it is known for its corky caudex, or “fat” basal stem structure. 
Matelea cyclophylla

The greenhouses house several more-familiar plants, too. And they’re available to researchers for experiments on varied and fascinating topics. U-M faculty and students are studying a population of weedy morning glories to see how they may be developing resistance to herbicides.

A group of morning glory plants are
part of a 
U-M faculty research project.

Ant Plants
Another fascinating class of specimens tucked away in the greenhouses is an impressive collection of ant plants (mostly Myrmecodia and Hydnophytum). 

Pictured, top to bottom: ant plants.

These are tropical epiphytic plants boasting a swollen, hollowed-out caudex or stem that is useful in forming a symbiotic relationship with ants, who use the tunnels for housing, while providing protection and food (from their waste) to the plant. Perhaps you’ve spotted them in the conservatory, but there are hundreds more specimens behind the scenes at Matthaei. The collection also contains a Hydnophytum formicarium grown from seeds that are said to have fallen from a tree in Singapore’s famous Central Catchment Reserve. A lively discourse in ant plants, as well as a stream of trades and gifts of seeds, comes out of Matthaei’s greenhouses thanks to a donor of the plants and “ant plant guy” and Matthaei-Nichols’ volunteer Frank Omilian, who cares for the impressive ant plant collection. From keeping slugs away from his ant-friendly ferns (Lecanopteris) to the constant battle with hungry greenhouse-dwelling insects, raising these sometimes rare and not commonly cultivated plants is a challenge, but adds a unique character to Matthaei’s collections. 

Within the humid and bright intensity of the greenhouses at Matthaei, one can discover wonders not typically on display. A spectacular collection of pitcher plants, native plant seedlings getting ready for life outdoors, a few redwood seedlings, even indoor cattails with a special watering system greet a visitor to the greenhouses. Yet another reason to visit Matthaei Botanical Gardens— when they’re ready, many of these fascinating plants will finally make their debut to an enthusiastic public.

Megan Barnes, from Harbor Springs, MI, is a second-year graduate student in the Landscape Architecture program at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Megan Barnes

Monday, September 8, 2014

In These Branches, Birds Once Sang

By Joe Mooney

Vast numbers of passenger pigeons thrived for millennia in North America, many of them roosting in our region’s native trees. It seemed impossible that a creature so numerous could be wiped out. What conservation lessons can we learn from this remarkable bird, and what parallels to the plant world can we draw? 

Martha is dead,” the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on September 2, 1914. Martha, who had been living at the Cincinnati Zoo for 15 years, was the last living passenger pigeon in the world and an example of a population that once numbered in the billions.

A wood carving of a passenger pigeon by Mike Ford of Midland, Mich. The carving is on display at the Chippewa Nature Canter in Midland.

By many accounts, passenger pigeons flew overhead in flocks large enough to blot out the sun’s light, or roosted in trees in branch-snapping quantities. John James Audubon himself calculated a flock in Kentucky in 1813 to be more than a billion birds. When Martha died, an entire species died with her.

The passenger pigeon still stands today as one of the largest examples of human action as a major cause of whole-species extinction. The pigeon didn’t stand a chance against the insatiable demand for the birds as food or sport, according to A Passing in Cincinnati, a pamphlet published in 1976 in Washington, D.C., by the Office of Communications, Department of the Interior:

All kinds of firearms were used, but traps and nets claimed the greatest numbers of those mild-mannered birds—often in the hundreds or thousands at one time. They were so numerous in the early 1800s that one farmer once caught more than 2,000 simply by closing the door of his barn after the pigeons flew inside.

American colonists used nets as early as 1640 to take pigeons, and the practice was continued until the pigeon population was virtually exhausted….

Ceaseless slaughter and lack of protection proved the final undoing of the passenger pigeon. By 1886 only two     flocks were known to exist. According to A Passing in Cincinnati, in the late 1890s and early 1900s a few states had enacted laws to protect the pigeon, including Michigan, and some individuals made an effort to save the pigeon, but it was too late.

The University of Chicago sent the Cincinnati Zoo-logical Gardens a female pigeon in 1902. When Martha died in 1914 she was “suspended in water and frozen into three hundred pounds of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution. . . ”

A Cautionary Tale
In his book A Feathered River Across the Sky author Joel Greenberg writes, “Human beings destroyed passenger pigeons almost every time they encountered them, and they used every imaginable device in the process. . . . Whether a concerted effort could have reversed the decline and altered the outcome was a question asked far too late for any attempt to have even been tried. . . . It is hoped that this tragic extinction continues to engage people and to act as a cautionary tale so that it is not repeated.”

The implications of a keystone species—one that disproportionately impacts the structure of the ecosystem as a whole—going extinct is perhaps unknowable, observes Matthaei-Nichols natural areas manager Jeff Plakke.

“Probably the best illustrations of what can happen from over-exploitation in North America are the Dust Bowl and more locally, the Great Michigan Fire,” he says. (The Great Michigan Fire was a series of simultaneous forest fires in Michigan in 1871.) “Extinctions of a single species may be less dramatic, but could easily have cascading effects for centuries or millennia.” Plakke points out that the extirpation of beavers in southeast Michigan through hunting and trapping for pelts well illustrates that cascading effect. “Beavers are a prime example of a keystone species,” he explains. “They selectively harvest trees, build dams in creeks and streams, and create extensive acreages of open wetland communities. They significantly changed the hydrology and development of soils. Numerous species of plants, animals, birds, and insects depended on beaver to literally build these ecosystems.” Passenger pigeons were certainly a keystone species as well, continues Plakke. “Numbering into the billions, the pigeons must have had an enormous impact on the environment through their feeding and the movement of nutrients, nuts, and seeds through their migrations.”

Plant-World Parallels
Sheer numbers and the colorful spectacle of their flight made the passenger pigeon particularly vulnerable to exploitation. While plants don’t move in the same attention-grabbing way as birds and other animals, parallels can be drawn between their decline or demise.

A 225-year-old bur oak tree has lived on what is now the Matthaei Botanical Gardens since George Washginton was president. This tree, which would have been 100 years old in the late 19th centeury, likely provided food and shelter for the passenger pigeon.

Some groups of plants once constituted entire ecosystems unto themselves. “The prairies and oak openings of North America are good examples of ecosystems that have nearly disappeared,” says Matthaei-Nichols director Bob Grese. “Many of the plants associated with those ecosystems are now quite rare.”

A prairie and savanna management guide prepared by the Michigan Natural Features Inventory for the state DNR wildlife division cites a study estimating that just .02% of the Midwest’s original savanna remains, “declining from around 11 to 13 million acres to just a few hundred acres spread across a dozen states.” The report goes on to say that the loss of savanna in Michigan is most dramatic in the oak openings communities, which have declined from an estimated 900,000 acres to just 3, a loss of 99.9996%.

Some individual plant species are also at risk, notes Grese. “American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a good example of a plant popular in herbal medicine that has become quite rare because of over-collecting. It is currently listed as ‘threatened’ in the state of Michigan,” a status that offers some protection for the plant, he says.

University of Michigan students working on a geographic information systems (GIS) “grandfather tree” project several years ago mapped and measured over 50 oaks on the Matthaei property estimated to be more than 200 years old. One bur oak at Matthaei (Quercus macrocarpa, pictured at left) is 45 inches in diameter and approximately 225 years old, according to a method for measuring a tree’s age developed by the International Society of Arboriculture. By that estimation the oak would have already been 100 years old in the late 1800s. It’s very likely that this oak and others on our lands here provided shelter and food to the passenger pigeon.

Parts of a Whole
As the late Burton Barnes, professor in the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment once observed, “we are parts dependent on the whole earth for our existence.”

The demise of the passenger pigeon is a graphic reminder of the drastic impacts humans can have on the environment, says Grese. “To know that the most plentiful bird species in North America and the one most associated with the oak forests and oak openings of southern Michigan could go extinct within 100 years is a humbling reminder of the need for conservation.”

As we become more aware of the rare plant and animal species found on the properties managed by Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum we are working hard to steward the unique habitats that contain them, Grese continues, so “creating a greater understanding of the threats rare species and regional ecosystems face is clearly something key for an arboretum and botanical garden like us.”

Exhibits & Resources

Museums and institutions on the U-M campus and elsewhere in Michigan are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon with special exhibits and displays. In the botanical realm, for an immersive experience of some of the special spaces that protect or recreate the region’s rare or threatened habitats and ecosystems, such as prairies or the Great Lakes Gardens, visit Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum. For a map of some of our “grandfather” trees, visit mbgna.umich.edu. Following is a list of organizations featuring passenger pigeon exhibits. For a full list, visit passengerpigeon.org and click on Michigan.

Passenger pigeon exhibits:

Passenger Pigeon Exhibit: University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, Fourth Floor Gallery  

Moving Targets: Passenger Pigeon Portrait Gallery, Enviro Art Gallery, University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, Dana Building  

They Passed Like a Cloud: Extinction and the Passenger Pigeon

Michigan State University Museum  

Recommended reading:

A Feathered River Across the Sky, by Joel Greenberg (Bloomsbury)

Passenger Pigeons: Gone Forever, by Vic Eichler (Shantimira)

Online Resources:

passengerpigeon.org, an international effort to familiarize people with the history of the passenger pigeon and its extinction, raise awareness of how the issue of extinction is relevant to the 21st century, and support respectful relationships with other species.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Maintaining the Plant Collections on the Laurel Ridge Trail and the Heathdale in Nichols Arboretum

By Amy Wells

I first fell in love with rhododendrons while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The tall, dense shrubs boasted perfect evergreen leaves and were covered in clusters of large, showy flowers. When I began school at the University of Michigan three years ago, I was enchanted by Laurel Ridge Trail and the Heathdale in Nichols Arboretum because they reminded me of hikes through the Smokies. The Heathdale, apart from being one of the most peaceful places in the Arboretum, is also home to the Julie Norris Post Heathdale Collection. Many of the plants in the Heathdale are members of the heather family (such as rhododendron and azalea) or are found growing in the Appalchian mountains.

This summer, as an intern at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum, I had the privilege of helping to maintain the ericaceous plant collections in the Arb, as well as collecting data that will help Arboretum managers make better planting choices in the future.

I began the summer with a list of 422 rhododendrons, azaleas, and mountain laurels in Heathdale and on the Laurel Ridge Trail. I was asked to find all of the plants, evaluate their health, and test the pH of the soil they were growing in so the plants would continue to thrive. And I sought to gather useful and complete information using methods that would be easily repeatable by future interns.

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)



To keep track of the plants in this large collection, maps and spreadsheets are used to catalog plantings and embossed aluminum tags give each plant a name and number. Despite the challenges and time required, it’s important for Matthaei-Nichols to keep track of the health of individual plants. Knowing where specific cultivars thrive or die can save time and money when new plantings are chosen. The Arboretum is also responsible to the donors who support the care and stewardship of its plants and plant collections.

To ensure that future plant health assessments would be comparable to mine, I worked with Arb and Gardens collections and natural areas specialist Tom O’Dell and fellow summer intern Emily Gehle on a key to describe and rank each plant’s health on a scale of one to five. Using pictures of archetypal plants from each category, I created a key to guide future interns. The health assessments will always have a qualitative aspect to them, since the line between any two ratings is a matter of opinion, but hopefully this key will impart some consistency into the process.

Assessing the health and soil pH of each plant was like a game of hide-and-seek. Fortunately, I had a great pH meter. It didn’t require me to wet the soil before testing, and it only needed a swipe with a conditioning film between each test while I waited patiently for the needle to stop. I also took light measurements from each bed, marking the locations with green flags so that subsequent readings can be done in the same place.

The plant health assessments are important for creating a stewardship plan for this area. It was also a learning process for me. For example, I noticed that one cultivar of rhododendrons, ‘Yaku Princess,’ does less well in a particular location of Laurel Ridge Trail, while other cultivars like ‘Today and Tomorrow’ do very well there.

I know that continuing to monitor and amend plant records improves the vigor of the plant collections in the Heathdale and the Laurel Ridge Trail. I look forward to returning each year in May and June to see them bloom.

Amy Wells, from Orion, MI, is a senior in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts majoring in plant biology and minoring in multidisciplinary design in the College of Engineering.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Agave

Last April a volunteer with the Southeast Michigan Cactus and Succulent Society noticed an unusual stalk poking out from the leaves of the variegated American agave (Agave americana) in the conservatory at Matthaei. Turns out it was a flower stalk. Pretty soon it was growing six inches a day. Finally, around the first week of July, the agave’s flowers began to open.

A view of the agave from above when workers came out last August to collect flower buds for the U-M Herbarium.

We’ve seen agaves bloom in the past here but no others have quite captured the public’s imagination—or the media’s attention—like this one. Part of the appeal was the agave’s age when it finally bloomed. In nature the American agave usually flowers at 20 years or so.

Just as we wrinkle with age, so our agave began wrinkling later in the summer after it had finished blooming. Eventually, the parent plant will die when it's finished setting seed

Collected in Mexico in 1934 by graduate student Alfred Whiting, our 80-year-old plant for some reason picked 2014 as The Year to Bloom. The fact that the parent plant would die after blooming only added to the drama.

The agave as it looked on April 30, 2014. No drooping here!

Extensively covered in local, national, and international media, including USA Today, Smithsonian.com, Associated Press, and NPR’s Morning Edition, the agave drew thousands of visitors to the Gardens. So many that visitor numbers and total revenue for July 2014 at the parking kiosks, Garden Store, and donation box were double those from the previous year.

And as it looked on August 1. Exhausted.

As of this writing seed pods have begun to form and we're praying for a few pups—plantlets that are genetically identical to the parent—to appear. And one person even wants a part of the stalk to make a didgeridoo. Stay tuned for the final story of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens great American agave bloom of 2014.

A seed pod from the agave reveals hundreds of immature seeds neatly lined up.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Bonsai Challenge Matches Dollar for Dollar

Donors Jerry and Rhona Meislik are well-acquainted with the recipe for bonsai success. First, build a permanent home for our bonsai and penjing collection. (Done; the garden opened last year at Matthaei.) Then, because this living art form needs continual care, take steps to protect the health and beauty of the collection—a dedicated effort requiring significant funding.

Above: Jerry and Rhona Meislik (left) stand with Matthaei-Nichols director Bob Grese and Jack Wikle moments after the ribbon cutting at last year’s opening of the Bonsai & Penjing Garden at Matthaei. The Meisliks seeded the endowment fund for the garden and are inspiring others to continue the endowment funding effort with a special matching challenge.
Ardent supporters of our collection and bonsai aficionados themselves, the Meisliks announced a dollar-for-dollar match challenge at the June 2014 Ann Arbor Bonsai Society program. The challenge will fund an endowment for the ongoing care of the bonsai and penjing collection at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The Meisliks, who already seeded the bonsai garden endowment last year prior to the garden’s opening, will give up to $10,000 to match gifts of at least $500 that are given or pledged before November 25, 2014. “Our dream is that others will feel as passionate about the Matthaei-Nichols collection as we do,” Jerry says. “Now that the trees themselves have a permanent home, the next natural step is a commitment to caring for them, so we hope to inspire others to help make that happen. A matching challenge is a great way to double that commitment.”

The endowment specifically funds the care and maintenance of the collection. The endowment goal is $800,000, which will fund a half-time horticulture specialist, materials, and work with leading bonsai practitioners on bonsai artistry and health. Currently we’ve raised nearly 25% of that goal, about $167,000. To make a donation to this special bonsai challenge visit the Matthaei-Nichols website or call our director of development Gayle Steiner: 734.647.7847.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

At Matthaei, Children's Ed Is As Much an Education for Interns as for the Kids

By Matthaei-Nichols summer 2014 interns Genevra Galura and Diana Bach

 “Are all these plants real?” ”Do you live here?” “Look! An ostrich!” (Note: we don’t have ostriches at the Botanical Gardens but we did, on this occasion, see an osprey flying over Willow Pond.)

As children’s education interns, we hear a lot of cute, insightful, and just plain funny kid-isms from children that visit the Botanical Gardens. We’re constantly surprised by the acuity and knowledge of our young visitors, who soak up information and then love to share what they know, whether it’s that one time they saw a frog in their backyard or their detailed knowledge of the Venus fly trap.

Much of our time in children’s ed is spent leading guided tours for the many school groups, summer camps, scout troops, and families that come to visit the gardens’ conservatory and trails. Our groups range from preschoolers to college students, and everything in between. Aside from traditional tours, we also develop and run other programs with more specialized topics. This summer our programs have run the gamut from making recycled paper, teaching gardening skills, catching and studying insects, and cooking with herbs. We don’t come into the job as experts on all of these topics but learn a lot as we go. It’s a unique and challenging job, but we love the constant learning!

One of the most rewarding programs we’ve done this year was in conjunction with Scarlett Middle School and the University of Michigan MAC (Master of Arts with Certification) education program. We partnered with the school’s summer program to develop a lesson plan for 6th-8th graders studying ecosystems.
During two field trips to Matthaei, middle school students studied the aquatic ecosystems found here. 

Students learned about the water cycle, watersheds, and the ways humans affect these habitats. Most importantly, the kids conducted ecosystem assessments firsthand. Using Willow Pond, the constructed wetlands, and Fleming Creek at Matthaei, we collected water samples to test physical characteristics and complete a biodiversity count of the aquatic organisms found in each water body. It was high-level science, but the kids rose to the occasion and had fun while they were at it. The most rewarding part of this experience was exposing the students to hands-on science; some of them would never have thought they’d be catching crayfish, identifying dragonfly larvae, or sticking their nose in pond water to see how it smelled.

A constant challenge for us as educators is our ever-changing and diverse audience. Every day children come to us from different ages, places, backgrounds, and experiences. Some arrive already loving nature and full of excitement to be on the trails, while others have never experienced the woods and need some coaxing to realize the outdoors is not a scary place. While we do aim to teach these kids about insects or plant parts or whatever they might be here for, our goal reaches further than that. We hope to provide a positive experience in nature so that children grow up appreciating the outdoors and all the natural world has to offer us. This is core to the mission of Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum; as a living museum, we’re educating future generations to preserve and protect the beauty of the natural world.

Diana Bach, from Chelsea, MI, is a recent graduate and first-year master's student studying environmental engineering with interests also in sustainable food systems and environmental education.

Genevra Galura, from Saline, MI, is a junior studying cellular and molecular biology.

Diana Bach

Genevra Galura

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Record System in Translation

by Richard Bryant

Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum works hard to keep meticulous records of all the plants in its possession. These records are compiled in a database which currently exists in Microsoft Access. I was recently tasked with finding a way to migrate our database from Access to a new piece of museum software called KE EMu, or KE Electronic Museum. This software would allow us to keep a more detailed catalog of our plants, forcing us to maintain records that are organized and up to date.

I knew immediately that this would be an incredibly daunting task. My first thought was, “Do I really have to copy every single one of our 17,000+ object records and paste them somewhere into KE EMu?” Thankfully, this was not the case; as it turns out U-M’s IT staff could program this kind of heavy lifting.

To migrate a database, there needs first to be a consensus of what information is worth tracking and what is not. A detailed design plan must then be drawn up. Thousands of records---some of which are incomplete or complex and can cause technical glitches---must then be copied and moved. Coming up with the design plan, then, was my job.

I opened KE EMu in an attempt to acquaint myself with its inner workings. I only became more confused. I couldn't figure out how to use the software, and it seemed clunky and disorganized. Matthaei-Nichols’ IT and curation departments were somewhat confused by the software as well. I wondered, if this software is so confusing to all of us, is migrating our database to it really a good idea?

I decided to give it a chance. I scheduled a meeting with Beverly Walters, Research Museum Collection Manager at the University of Michigan Herbarium. They’d already made considerable progress migrating their database into KE EMu and knew that they were ahead of us here.

Meeting with Beverly and a U-M School of Information intern helped answer a lot of questions. They gave me a rough idea of how to use and customize the software, and they briefly walked me through the plan for their own database migration. After the meeting I realized that our own migration process would be simpler than I’d originally thought—I could follow the Herbarium’s plan as a model. I came up with a rough game plan and then scheduled another meeting, this time with John Torgersen, U-M Database Administrator Intermediate, who oversees the KE EMu project as a whole. After discussing our plan for migration with John he approved of my ideas, adding that the Arb and Gardens has a far less complicated database than the Herbarium’s. I then drew up a design plan for the migration and sent it to the university’s technology staff. Our migration is nowhere near complete, but my role in the project is over for the time being. Creating the design plan was my responsibility. Initiating the migration process is a task for U-M’s IT staff.

This project was very interesting to me personally. As an intern I was fortunate to be given the authority to act independently. Creating a preliminary design plan for this migration process was a massive task given to Matthaei-Nichols as a whole but I did it almost entirely by myself. The choice to meet with the Herbarium and U-M IT staff was my own and one I undertook to expand my understanding of the software and the migration process. I also had many engaging team discussions with our curator David Michener and information specialist Adam Ferris-Smith.

Many questions remain for future curation work on our databases. What information does Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum track now? What information do we want to track in the future? What are we missing in our current record system and how can we consolidate this information? All of these are valid questions for years to come when other staff or interns continue where we left off.

Richard Bryant, from Rochester Hills, MI, is a master's candidate in statistics at the University of Michigan with Bachelor of Science degrees in economics and statistics.

Richard Bryant

Friday, July 18, 2014

Why I Love the Campus Farm

By Lello Guluma

Certain fragrances remind me of my childhood. I would wake up to my mother cooking special Ethiopian dishes in the kitchen of our home in East Lansing. The smell of spices and vegetables marinating under her watchful eye is a memory from my childhood. Years later, I can walk through the fields cultivated under the University of Michigan Campus Farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and smell my mother’s kitchen—oregano, thyme, Swiss chard, collards, onions, and garlic to name a few. Sometimes early in the morning at the farm, the noise of the trees rustling, the birds chirping, and the smell of the early dew remind me of the clear mountainside along my grandfather’s compound in Ethiopia.

One year and one month ago, I returned from Ethiopia. Ethiopia is my heritage, my culture, and Oromia—the land that the largest ethnic group (the Oromo) within Ethiopia occupies—is my ancestral home. This trip was my first time visiting Ethiopia and meeting a large number of my direct relatives. Ethiopia was an amazing experience, and I often long to go back. Nevertheless, it was my time in Ethiopia and what I learned about myself and about the country that inspired me to work at the Campus Farm this summer.

The first thing that Ethiopia taught me was about my heritage. In my life I’ve often heard stories about my heritage but to experience it first-hand was incredible. My father often told detailed stories of the village where he grew up. His grandfather owns a portion of land that he cultivates high up in the mountains of Ethiopia. I was able to travel to his village, even in the home where my father grew up many years ago. My grandfather and aunt were quick to point out a large mango tree. My mother translated and told me that over 40 years ago my father planted that tree. At that moment I looked toward my cousin, and his hands were full of ripe mangos. Ethiopia solidified my view on my identity; I say with pride now that I am an Oromo.

My passion lies in Ethiopia. Like many third-world countries, Ethiopia struggles with pollution, poverty, food insecurity, etc. After completing my first year at the university, I knew I wanted to incorporate my passion into my academics. This led me to the Campus Farm. Upon completion of Alternative Spring Break focused around environmental justice in the winter semester I meticulously searched for some summer position that would allow me to continue a similar path. I came across the Matthaei Summer Internship program, and subsequently the Campus Farm position. I could say the rest is history, but I know this is just the beginning. The Campus Farm is helping me further my interest in sustainability, organic/urban farming, and so much more. When I learn about another method of organic growing or natural pest control, I think of how my relatives abroad could benefit.

I am thankful for the opportunity to work at the Campus Farm and have learned more than I could have imagined. I am also grateful for the sights and sounds of working at the Campus Farm, and how they allow me to reminisce about my home.

Lello Guluma from East Lansing, MI, is a sophomore in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts majoring in Environmental Science.

Pictured, from top: Home of the author's grandfather in Ethiopia; a view of the land the author's grandfather cultivates; a mountainside outside of Ne’Kemte, Ethiopia; up close view of part of the land farmed by the author's grandfather.

Below: Lello Guluma