Friday, August 28, 2015

In the Key of Green

U-M music student Morgan Wynne talks about her experiences at Matthaei-Nichols as the social media and exhibits intern.  

I can’t tell you how nervous I was for the first day of work.

On May 4, I put on a new skirt and riding boots (it was still relatively chilly, people), tucked in my new, soft, and still pill-free logo t-shirt and headed off to Matthaei Botanical Gardens. I parked my car up in the overflow lot at 6:57 AM (33 minutes early) wondering which door to head into as I carefully put on my deep pink lipstick. Meandering down the hill, I followed some staff and interns at a safe distance. About a half hour later I walked into room 125, grabbed a bagel from the selection of munchies provided by Matthaei as welcome treats, and sat down quietly in a corner. Here I was: not knowing anyone. But it seemed that everyone knew each other! After a few introductions, we toured the grounds. We discussed the various gardens and my musician brain did the best it could to pick up on all the different invasives, native plants, and science jokes bouncing around.

This summer I worked 50/50 as the social media intern and the exhibits research intern. Why’d I take this position? I love social media. I think it is fascinating. People argue that social media separates people, makes us zombies. But I think that when it is used correctly, social media brings us all together. Today we can share information incredibly quickly and make connections with a single tap. My challenge this summer was to use social media as a way to bring people together to enjoy nature. To put their phones away, except for maybe a few selfies (next time you post, remember to use #umichNATURE).

I expected to work mostly alone, not knowing anybody anyway. But I discovered that there’s more music and friendship here than one might think. Over the course of the summer, I met some fascinating people with even more intriguing stories to tell. For example, did you know that parts of the agave that bloomed last year are being used to make musical instruments? Sections of the stalk are currently being fashioned into flutes thanks to professor Michael Gould at the U-M School of Music and a San Francisco-based Japanese flute maker. Ryan Gates, a local musician, is drying another section of the agave stalk to make into a didgeridoo. He even had plans to propose to his fiancée at Matthaei while the agave was in bloom!

Local musician Ryan Gates inspects a portion of the
agave stalk he hopes to use to make a didgeridoo.
There’s drama here, too, of the theater kind. Shakespeare in the Arb is a hugely popular event we hold each June that seamlessly combines nature with theater. This summer, Shakespeare in the Arb celebrated its 15th-year anniversary with a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Hundreds of people visit the Arb every summer to enjoy this show in its unique setting.

A scene from the summer 2015 Shakespeare in the Arb
production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
It goes beyond music and theater at the Arb and Gardens. Nature has been the inspiration for countless works of art: from U-M School of Music, Theatre, and Dance professor Jessica Fogel’s dance performances promoting environmental stewardship, to the U-M and Washtenaw Community College art classes that visit the Conservatory to sketch. Nature helps humans to express themselves through art, dance, music, written and spoken word, yoga, meditation, and more.

The friends I’ve made here this summer are some I will never forget. They’re brilliant people with great minds and kind hearts. They graciously let me stick my camera into their faces on countless occasions while asking them every little detail about what they were doing. They’ve taught me so much without making me feel insecure about my lack of plant knowledge, too. When I accidentally pulled a milkweed thinking it was a weed while off on some tangent (oops), Erin, another intern, helped me replant it. Jacob, an intern as well, patiently taught me how to plant different kinds of seeds on the farm. Marissa, who worked this summer as the Gaffield Children’s Garden intern, was always a ray of sunshine when I was stuck inside on a particularly nice day editing photos. Jared’s calm, levelheaded demeanor was always an inspiration to me, as my emotions generally tend to control my actions. And I think everyone would agree that our volunteer coordinator Yousef Rabhi’s jokes and positive attitude were the best part of lunch everyday. I met so many people this summer that welcomed me into their lives and made me feel like I belonged at the Gardens and the Arb, even though, as a U-M music student, I typically spend my day in a practice room poring over dots and dashes on a piece of paper.

A soecial program of yoga offered in the Arb in July.
To the numbers: this summer, we gained 263 Instagram followers, 141 Twitter followers, and 1,010 Facebook likes; well over a thousand more people brought back to nature through the use of technology. In between posting on our social media sites I spent time researching the upcoming winter exhibit about how plants contribute to—even change—our lives. 

A summer sunrise captured by the author on her morning walk
into work from the field lot at Matthaei.

Though I was usually kept busy inside documenting the happenings here and helping to plan the exhibit and talk about ways we could use social media to promote it, the best part of my day was always enjoying the walk from my car at sunrise. 

(All photos by Morgan Wynne.)

Morgan Wynne, from Midland, Michigan, is a senior at the University of Michigan studying music theory and music performance in horn. Morgan is working as an intern in the marketing and education departments.

Morgan Wynne

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Training Tomorrow’s Scientists to Think

By Richard Bryant

Developing students’ critical thinking skills. That was the goal of this summer’s Michigan Math and Science Scholars coursework at Matthaei-Nichols, says intern Richard Bryant, who helped teach one of the courses.

Each summer, the University of Michigan runs a program called Michigan Math and Science Scholars (MMSS) in which high school students from all over the world are selected on a competitive basis to study at the U-M. The two weeks of classes are conducted by a university faculty member, a graduate instructor, and an undergraduate instructor. Because the students live in an on-campus dormitory during their stay, they get to experience something that closely resembles what it’s like to attend a public university. At Matthaei-Nichols each summer, Curator David Michener teaches the class Life, Death & Change: Landscapes & Human Impact. I was fortunate to be the graduate instructor for the course this summer.

Five of the ten class days were held at Matthaei Botanical Gardens; the other five at Nichols Arboretum. On a typical day students are presented with a science puzzle to solve. For example, how do you determine in a plant population which species are likely to be native and which invasive? How can one assess whether the trees in a forest fall in random directions? Is there an association between soil properties such as color and pH, and the vegetation supported by that soil? How much water does a tree transpire on a hot summer day and what impact does this have on the ecosystem?

David Michener, right, conducts a Michigan Math &
Science Scholars class this summer
Every day we tackled questions like these, with an emphasis on training students to think critically. We asked the students, for example, what they would even begin to measure in order to make an educated guess about whether a plant was invasive.  They started to see variation in amount of leaf damage -- they inferred shortly thereafter that the leaves of invasive exotic plants tend to have a relatively smaller amount of damage.   

They figured out that invasive plants are less common food sources for our native insects and fungi.  In another challenge, students were asked to calculate how much water a tree transpires on a hot summer day. Before they could figure that out they needed to estimate the number of leaves on an entire tree. Actually counting this would take days. So how can one estimate this number as precisely and as quickly as possible?

This was my third summer helping to conduct and teach the MMSS class, but my first as a graduate instructor. Because of my background and current coursework in statistics I led several discussions about data that students may have collected that day. Curator David Michener stressed throughout the class the importance of working with a statistician while conducting field work, and how ubiquitous the field of statistics is across almost all scientific disciplines. I led a discussion one afternoon about the direction of tree fall in Radrick Forest, as well as which direction the trees are leaning. Once the data are collected, how do statisticians look at it?  They would need to state their hypotheses, decide what kind of test is most appropriate, check that the conditions for that test are met, and interpret their results.  Our conclusion was that, indeed, the tree falls are most definitely not falling or leaning in random directions.

Richard Bryant (center, black shirt) with intern
Joel Klann (white shirt), conducts an outdoor segment of the
Michigan Math & Science Scholars class.
My proudest moment in class came when I asked students to estimate the number of leaves on various trees at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.  I was pretty sure I caught some distinct boredom vibes wafting through the air.  After about ten minutes, some of the students were yawning, socializing and distracted by electronic devices.  I overheard one student asking another why we cared so much about how many leaves are on a tree, and then taking so long to answer that question.  I initiated an impromptu spiel about how questions like these arise all the time in the university setting and in interviews with prospective employers. Consider that professors and interviewers might care less about what you know and more about how you think about what it is you don’t know. This notion also extends to an academic degree. The degree may demonstrate knowledge of a particular field, but far more importantly, it ought to display an ability to think and to solve challenging problems. When I put it that way I perceived an attitude shift no less than an hour later, where the students approached the questions of the day with significantly greater attention and intrigue.

Helping to train students who could be tomorrow’s environmental scientists was a joy and a privilege. Using the two Matthaei-Nichols sites to train students to think was thrilling. I’ve worked at these two sites for close to four years, but it is incredibly refreshing to see them through the eyes of high school students. It’s gratifying for me to see Matthaei-Nichols being used to connect and engage future students in ways they may never forget. Immersed in a natural setting, the students discovered myriad ecological principles—principles that govern sites throughout the natural world. In essence, Matthaei-Nichols laid out a framework for how these students will progress as they move into future chapters of their lives.

Richard Bryant
Richard Bryant, from Rochester Hills, Michigan, is a second-year masters student in applied statistics. His primary areas of interest are consulting and multivariate analysis in big data. Richard is working as an intern in plant records and garden plans.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Diverse Mint Family a Boon to Kitchens and Cultures around the World

By Claire Roos

Horticulture intern Claire Roos discovers the surprising diversity of the widely cultivated Lamiaceae, or mint, family

Whenever I find myself weeding in a garden my thoughts tend to wander from the absurdly mundane to the dramatically profound. It was during one of these moments, while I was pulling out every curmudgeonly weed I could find in the Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden at Matthaei, that an interesting observation occurred to me. 

As I perused the culinary beds, it struck me that although basil (genus Ocimum) and mint (genus Mentha) have drastically different flavors, they belong to the same family, the Lamiaceae family. The spark had then been lit, and I promptly set out on an investigation. I soon discovered that not only were basil and mint in the same family, but many common herbs belonged to the Lamiaceae family as well, including sage (genus Salvia), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), thyme (Thymus vulgarus), marjoram/oregano (Origanum majorana), savory (genus Satureja), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), bergamot/beebalm (genus Monarda), hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), and catnip (Nepeta cataria). How could it be that a single plant family is responsible for such domination in human culinary creations? At this point, I began my research on the mystery and magic of Lamiaceae.

The Lamiaceae family, commonly referred to as the mint or deadnettle family, is a group of related flowering plants characterized by its opposite leaves, square stems, and hypogynous (growing on the undersurface of leaves) flowers. Members of this family are known for their strong aromatic qualities. That being said, their aroma is not the only trait that makes these plants stand out; they also exhibit remarkable morphological diversity with species ranging from ephemeral herbs, to shrubs, to long-lived trees. It is therefore unsurprising that Lamiaceae species are cultivated by humans not only for their essential oils, but also for their seeds (Salvia hispanica, commonly called chia), high quality lumber (Tectona grandis, the teak tree), and tubers (Plectranthus rotundifolius, the Chinese potato).

Chinese potato (Plectranthus rotundifolius) is a member
of Lamiaceae, as is. . . 

teak (Tectona grandis).

So, how did Lamiaceae species end up being so popular and widely cultivated by humans? While I was unable to find a specific answer, I think I’ve been able to piece together some major factors for their success. To start, it turns out that Lamiaceae is presently the sixth largest angiosperm family in the world (with more than 7,200 species total), growing in all continents except Antarctica. Gathering from what I remember from Intro to Biology, a phylum’s success is generally contingent on the degree of diversity of the species that are classified under said phylum. We can therefore make the assumption that even before human use of the plants, the high diversity of species in the Lamiaceae family is a result of a particularly vigorous genetic code. This combination of genetic diversity and widespread distribution meant that humans already had a lot to work with when they started selectively breeding plants for agricultural cultivation, allowing for a wide array of cultivars to be produced by all different cultures worldwide.

Furthermore, while this may be obvious enough, when cooks use herbs to spice up their cooking, they look for plants that are particularly aromatic. As I mentioned previously, a common characteristic of the Lamiaceae family is its strong essential oils, which are perfect for adding flavor. In addition to that, the strong odors associated with Lamiaceae also form terpenes, compounds that seem to be effective in suppressing the growth and germination of surrounding plants. Talk about a competitive advantage! And considering Lamiaceae’s easily identifiable characteristics, I would guess that after having successfully consumed one member of the Lamiaceae family, our ancestors were more likely to continue experimenting with eating plants that looked similar to the ones they already had proven safe. To top it off, Lamiaceae species are relatively easy to propagate by cuttings and seed, facilitating the process of selective breeding. The combined factors of having an already diverse wild gene pool, strong essential oils, an impressive vitality, and ease of propagation argue for Lamiaceae’s lasting presence in human culinary culture.

Claire Roos

Claire Roos, from Ann Arbor, is entering her senior year majoring in Program in the Environment and Spanish. Claire is working as a horticulture intern this summer.

Monday, August 3, 2015

A Digital Place for Every Plant

By Richard Bryant

Summer intern and statistics grad student Richard Bryant drills down into the details of the plant databases at Matthaei-Nichols. His efforts—for example on the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden website—have already made the search experience better for students, researchers, and visitors seeking plant information.

Let’s say you’re interested in a specific type of black-eyed susan you’ve seen at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Through a Google search, you find its official, botanical name -- Rudbeckia hirta. Maybe you’re with a design team that thinks one of these beautiful sunflowers would look great overlooking the amazing Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden. Or perhaps you’re a volunteer who wants to know the natural history of this particular plant. So you want to go into the field and find it. The first thing you do is visit the Plant Finder on the Matthaei-Nichols website, where you discover that one of these plants lives in “Bioswale.” However, this doesn’t give you much information. First of all, there are multiple bioswales! Which one is this plant in? Furthermore, the bioswales are relatively large. It would take you a frustratingly long time to go to multiple bioswales, sift through plant labels (if it even has one), and find this plant.

These black-eyed susans are beautiful!  Where are they?!
One of the projects I’ve been working on with the staff at Matthaei-Nichol this summer is a logical system that breaks large zones such as the Bioswales into smaller, digital and physical “Places.” Each “Place” will have global positioning system (GPS) coordinates. That way, one can look up the place that a plant lives in, which makes finding that plant significantly easier. Instead of having as many as 200 Bioswale plants to sift through to find Rudbeckia hirta, anyone looking for this information will know that it’s in a much smaller “place” within the “Parking lot bioswale.” Now there are only 10 plants to look through! Suddenly, the task of finding this plant is significantly less daunting.

This specificity is particularly useful with respect to the Medicinal Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The garden, which opened on August 2, 2015, features over 100 plants that are or have traditionally been used to treat human disease. For example, let’s say a student visits Matthaei while doing medical research and needs to find Ephedra sinica, a plant used for treating respiratory conditions. But the student lacks knowledge of many plants in general and doesn’t have more than a few minutes to find Ephedra sinica. But because the Medicinal Garden is organized online into the biological systems the plants are used to treat—a respiratory place, an ophthalmology place, a women’s health place, etc.—this makes for a very well organized garden.

To arrive at my system of organization, I meet with our curator and I look at each garden in isolation and not in relation to any other garden on our properties.  For purposes of illustration let’s look at the Great Lakes Garden. A first point of investigation is determining whether staff members have already created some kind of organizing system for this garden. A search of Matthaei-Nichols’ shared network reveals a highly detailed plant list. As it turns out, a Natural Areas team had already broken the Great Lakes Garden into 31 different components, and then identified which plants were in each garden already. This made my job very easy. But what about something like the Perennial Garden? Staff members installing this garden years ago may not have thought about how one “deconstructs” the information about this garden. Thus thinking about the perennial garden for my project in terms of “Places” involves sitting down with horticulturists, their interns, and the curator who oversees the entire record system, and then asking the question: “What is the most logical way of dividing this garden into distinct, useful components?”

Naturally, this project is not always straightforward. People think of gardens in different ways. A horticulturist may look at the Bonsai Garden and see it as, for example, six distinct beds.  But a student might see the very same garden as two, or three beds.  So each garden must be broken down in a logical fashion that can be agreed upon by all. A field team must eventually go through each place and verify which plants are in it, yet this is arduous when there are so many places to consider. That said, there is a clear end goal which benefits all: a record system that allows anyone, with great precision, to find out exactly where in Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum a specific plant lives.

Richard Bryant

Richard Bryant, from Rochester Hills, Michigan, is a second-year masters student in applied statistics. His primary areas of interest are consulting and multivariate analysis in big data. Richard is working summer 2015 as an intern in plant records and garden plans.