Thursday, July 27, 2017

Nichols Arboretum Community United in Nature

By Roxane Strobel

A year ago on a July day, I sat atop the summit of a mountain, bundled in fleeces and basking in the alpine sunlight. I was a summit caretaker with the Green Mountain Club, a non-profit membership organization whose mission is to preserve and protect the Long Trail, the country’s first long-distance hiking trail.  As a summit caretaker, I maintained backcountry campsites and educated hikers about native plants and sustainable outdoor practices. I chatted with hikers about the alpine plants as they nodded knowingly and shared their excitement about seeing a mountaintop that was once barren in the 1970s and is now covered with a variety of sedges, cranberries, and blueberries. 

The view from the summit of Camel's Hump in Duxbury, Vermont. This was in
2016 when I worked as a summit caretaker for the Green Mountain Club. 
My summer in the Vermont backcountry introduced me to a unique community of individuals who retreated to the remote wilds in order to connect with nature. Although many hikers traveled solo, there was a unique hiking community on the trail.  Stories about wildlife sightings and especially rugged sections of trail were swapped over rehydrated dinners and summit snacks.  I found that the one unifying factor in this varied community of individuals was a deep appreciation for spending time in the outdoors.

The Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden in July. The peony garden is a beautiful
community attraction even when not in bloom. 
No flowers but still a beautiful
view and an enticing trail through the middle that begs to be followed.
This summer, I find myself on a July day in the midst of the hot and sunny peony garden in the not-so-backcountry Nichols Arboretum. As the peony intern, I have been learning how to prepare a world-class display garden for its bloom season and care for the health of the beds throughout the summer.

The peony bloom season has come and gone, and I spend large chunks of my day weeding and maintaining the flower beds. As I glance up from the dark soil in the beds, a mother and daughter pair wave at me excitedly from a distance. I wave back, weeder in hand, and, thinking nothing of it, return to my weeding. A couple of moments later I am greeted by light taps on my shoulder. I turn and see the same mother-daughter duo, but now notice that the young girl is holding a small plastic container.  The girl quickly opens the container and enthusiastically shares her findings with me: a swallowtail caterpillar which she found and identified herself. She asks if I might know where this caterpillar would like to live in the Arb. As we search for the perfect place to release the caterpillar to its new host plant, I listen to the girl’s tales of saving this very caterpillar from the perils of a hungry bird. I complement her budding naturalist skills and together we discover a lush host plant. As the girl carefully places the caterpillar onto a leaf, a sense of gratefulness washes over me. Although I am mere steps from a bustling college town, in the Arb I feel connected to my community through nature in the same way I did last summer on a secluded mountaintop. I am so grateful to be part of the diverse community that learns, plays, and grows closer to nature in the Arboretum.

Like the backpackers of Vermont, my new Arb community is also drawn together through a love of nature.  However, unlike the lengthy trips of the backcountry backpackers, the Arb community is able to express their devotion to natural areas in the form of 15-minute breaks from the nearby hospital, school field trips, family picnics, and hammock hangs with friends. This accessibility to the larger Ann Arbor community is what makes the Arboretum so special.

A scene from Shakespeare in the Arb that took place in the peony garden. In
the background you can see the U-M Mott Children's Hospital. The Arb is on
central campus and right across the street from a busy hospital complex. A
beautiful island of nature in the midst of urban Ann Arbor.
Visitors of all backgrounds find themselves excited by being in nature. I love being greeted with visitors’ questions which range from, “What kind of tree is that?” to, “What is your view on the deer population and its effect on the Arb?” It is so neat to see the wonder on the faces of young and old visitors alike and their genuine interest in these natural areas. With each of these visits to the Arb, the larger Ann Arbor community continues to grow closer to nature.  Each time a visitor sees a woodchuck scurry across a trail, or a monarch rest on a milkweed plant, the importance of natural areas becomes more apparent.

In times where natural areas are undervalued and public lands in the United States face the danger of becoming privatized, being a part of the accessible nature community in the Arb gives me hope for the future. The Arb allows all people to have a meaningful connection to nature through exploring their curiosities, observing unique ecosystems, and even more generally just having a pleasant walk on well-traveled trails. Having the unique opportunity to share my personal enthusiasm for the outdoors with the visitors of the Arb is an experience that has brought me closer to my community through nature and has reinforced my belief in the importance of universal access to natural areas.

Roxane Strobel is a rising senior from Spring Lake, Michigan. She is studying Ecology, Evolution & Biodiversity and Spanish. She is interested in studying environmental health and community organization. When not at work, she can be found trail running or swimming in Lake Michigan. Roxane’s internship is made possible by the Peony Garden Fund created by Martha Parfet. Martha was the surviving granddaughter of Dr. W.E. Upjohn, who donated a portion of his peony collection to the university in 1922. The Peony Fund was created to maintain the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden and make information available to peony lovers and growers around the world.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A World Menu: Edible Plants in the Conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens

By Mason Opp

Think about what you've eaten today. Now pick out the main plant-based ingredients. What do those plants look like? Wheat, corn, potato, rice, and soy: more than likely one of these crops will appear, and you probably know what those look like.
In the conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens,a pomegranate
(Punica granatum) is growing in the temperate house! 

But we live in a globalized world, where the abundance of international shipping routes makes available goods which only decades ago would have been impossible to find on shelves. Let me ask you this; what does a peanut plant look like? Too easy? How about a cacao tree? Do you know how a pineapple grows, let alone how long it takes to grow one?

Two pineapple plants (Ananas comosus) bear fruit in the
tropical house. It can take up to two years for the plants to
fruit, and another 6 months for the fruit to mature!
One of the most amazing parts of being in the conservatory at Matthaei, an indoor, year-round space featuring many plants from regions totally different than ours, is seeing plants you otherwise might not have been able to identify, let alone know that they existed. The houses in the conservatory represent three different biomes (tropical, temperate, and desert) and host a diverse collection of plants from all over the world. Species from the Americas, Eurasia, Africa, Australia, and the Pacific Islands all call Matthaei home. Additionally, the collection is made up of a variety of plants, from large and woody to small and herbaceous, and everything in between. With over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world, there are still plenty of fascinating foods to be added to the collection. Of the newest is the Jabuticaba Plinia cauliflora, which when fully grown could stand up to 45 feet tall and will be covered in fruit which resembles a cross between a grape and a cherry.

Two cashew apples dangle on the cashew tree (Anacardium occidentale).
They hold the nut which is encased in a protective layer. Fruit flies really
like them!
The plants in the conservatory are selected based on four criteria: that they are 1) notable types of vegetation in a biome; 2) a good representation of plant diversity and evolution at work; 3) at risk of extinction or found in a threatened habitat; 4) iconic plants or ones with medicinal properties. These four criteria ensure that there is always something unique to look at, and that the collection is a valuable tool when it comes to educating visitors about the world of plants. There are always opportunities to learn something new at the gardens and, for me, the best way to start learning in the conservatory is by looking for the plants you can connect to your own kitchen!

When I’m not exploring the conservatory, I work as a horticulture intern in the greenhouses, outdoor gardens, and natural areas at Matthaei-Nichols. Specifically, I care for the Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden, another wonderful place to see some of the edible plants of the world!

Ginger (Zingiber officinale). It’s officinale awesome!

Mason Opp, from Pinckney, Michigan, is entering his senior year as a Program in the Environment student at the University of Michigan studying environmental policy and law with a minor in sustainability. Mason enjoys hiking, biking, and spending time on the lake. This summer he hopes to finally land that backflip on his wakeboard. Mason’s internship is made possible by the Matthaei-Nichols Membership fund and by the Norman Memorial Fund created by Steve and Ann Norman for the care, maintenance, and study of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens outdoor plant collection.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Mapped and Visualized: Two Summers of Digitally Mapping Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum

By Xevy Zhang

As a landscape architecture student for several years now I’ve adapted to working in a group. But mostly I’m by myself, with only the company of a computer. So if you’ve observed a tiny figure working with graphics software in the storied “bullpen” (a former lab room at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, now used by interns) or the third floor of the Reader Center at Nichols Arboretum, or sometimes in the wild with a clipboard in hand—that’s me accomplishing my main summer storyline: mapping the Arb and Gardens.

Our hard-copy archive.
Before we initiated the project there was already a collection of hard copy blueprints, Google map clips, and hand-drawn maps. But they all presented some issue that made them less than ideal for archiving or daily use. For example, over time, many of the blueprint maps became outdated and no longer accurate. The ink fades and the paper ages, making the blueprints too vulnerable to be written on or used in the field. And it takes a relatively large amount of time and money to update the blueprints whenever changes are needed, and it’s not worthwhile to make a whole new map when only a small part of the garden is altered. Likewise, for keeping archives for the gardens during different years, scanning seems to be a plausible way, but making changes for updated information makes the task difficult and time-consuming.

With these challenges in mind, my supervisor---Matthaei-Nichols Field services Manager Jeff Plakke---and I concluded that creating a whole new set of vector-based digital blueprint-style maps using graphic software such as AutoCAD, and storing them on the staff-accessible drive so that future changes can be made, is the best way to replacing the existing paper maps. These digital maps can easily be exported to any size PDF and used for a number of purposes. In addition, we decided to create a set of colorized display maps.

When I started the project in May of 2016, I was shown the large collection of existing files—both paper and digital—that the Gardens currently holds. Most of them were created years ago. They were beautifully archived but in such great numbers and multiple versions that I felt a bit overwhelmed at first. Could I finish the job? I decided that the way to go would be to learn the mapping language from the existing files while striving to be graphically expressive, with a goal of making the maps detailed, precise, easily readable, and—most challenging of all—tidy and beautiful. Here’s a rough idea of what I do:

With the help of Google Maps/Earth, a GPS or a GPS smartphone, previous maps, and GIS data, I outlined the general frame of the gardens.
The frame and lineworks of the Matthaei Botanical
Gardens display gardens. Red color represents boulders,
rock walls, and buildings.

Then outside I go!—to mark down the trees and their names, benches, rocks, and other details.

Major trees and names added,
diameter of tree crowns almost to scale.

I found a useful way to use the Google map app in the process (see photos below). Try it yourself. Log into your Google account; click and hold a point on the map, then click label (I’ve crossed out the Chinese characters on the images and written the instructions in English). After labelling those points, open the Google Map web version and. . .  behold! This is how I get a general location and info on something outdoors without having to print it out, bring the print out, write it down, and then copy it again. A great timesaver!

Here’s how I operate on my phone. Not just for mapping, this function is also very useful for marking down places and taking notes while you’re out exploring.

How the web-version map looks like with those points.
Add annotations and labels in AutoCAD, and trying to figure out a way to arrange them --- legible and adequate for readers to get a general idea of what they are but not overwhelming.

Lay out in a proper scale, add legend and titles, and export
(into grayscale) as blueprints (though not blue).

The layout view of the Gateway Garden in AutoCAD.


Gateway Garden map, after being colorized.

The coloring process uses Adobe Photoshop, and while coloring one can increase or reduce the level of detail as need according to the scale and main function of the colored map. For example, if the map shows the whole Great Lakes Gardens and is only 11" x 17," it would be better to leave the labels of tree names out as they would in that case be too small to recognize.

It’s been great joy to work in the gardens on this program and to see that some of the maps have already helped the team! Nearly the entire Matthaei Botanical Gardens property (including trails) will be mapped by the end of this summer, as well as some zones in Nichols Arboretum. I hope that these maps will be helpful as orienting tools for garden installation and maintenance. Combined with the help of programming and GPS locationing, they could even be developed into a detailed interactive guide for visitors!
For the field services team at Matthaei-Nichols,
a printed and laminated map that can be drawn
on with a dry-erase marker.

Xevy Zhang returns to Matthaei-Nichols for a second summer internship. She will enter her last semester in fall 2017 at the University of Michigan to complete a master's degree in landscape architecture. Xevy loves plants and nature, as well as drawing/painting, cooking, and sci-fi. She's been working on mapping the gardens with CAD, Photoshop, and visualizations. Xevy’s internship is made possible by the Research Endowment Fund created by donor Marjorie Alpern to promote and support research in botany and related studies that will enhance the scientific basis for wise management of the environments of the earth.

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.