Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Finding Food on a Field Trip

by Kaitlin Henderson

A group of 200 sixth-grade students recently came to Duke Gardens over two mornings to learn how ancient civilizations found food. They went to the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants to imagine what life as a hunter-gatherer in North Carolina might have been like, and to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden to learn about the history of plant cultivation and agriculture.

In the Blomquist, students used pictures to help identify plants. These plants ranged from those you can eat directly, such as grapes and prickly pear cactus, to plants that add flavor or texture to your meal, such as mint and sassafras, and those that attract birds and animals that you could hunt, such as beautyberry and hickory.

As they stood in the woodsy environment of the Blomquist, students were surprised to learn that food was all around them. Even with a plant photo to use as a guide, most students found it hard to find an unfamiliar plant growing among all the other plants in its environment. Others recognized the plants we talked about from their own neighborhoods, but they hadn’t realized they could be used for food. Sometimes students were surprised to see things they did eat, such as ginger and onions, growing as a whole plant in their natural habitat. For example, they might have seen a ginger root in the past, but that didn’t help them identify it from the portion of the plant that grows above ground.

When some rain showed up, we wondered what hunter-gatherers would have done in that situation. You still need to eat in bad weather! Some students had the great idea that hunter-gatherers could have used the leaves of a nearby banana plant as umbrellas.

Our sixth-grade visitors left with a better understanding of what hunter-gatherer life was like. And they had a greater appreciation for conveniences such as comfortable shelters and farms and grocery stores, which get you off the hook for finding your own food in the wild.

Kaitlin Henderson is a graduate student in Duke's Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Training by Doing (and Pretending to be Third-Graders)

Training to lead the "A Bug's Life" program

By Kaitlin Henderson

Duke Gardens offers many different tours for its myriad visitors. You might have taken an adult trolley tour or have kids who have come on a field trip. If so, you know how hugely important our volunteer docents are. The staff and volunteers who lead tours of the Gardens have a wealth of information and experience to offer, all with their own perspectives.

To help volunteers increase their knowledge, we offer trainings. For instance, you may have recently seen a group of 15 adults dancing and singing about butterflies in the Mary Duke Biddle Rose Garden. What better way to learn how a children’s program really works than by going through it yourself? To learn how to lead a program for third-graders, new volunteers get the chance to imagine they're 8-year-olds for a couple of hours. I know I enjoyed experiencing the Gardens from that perspective. You don’t always get the time to bring your uninhibited curiosity about nature to the forefront, investigating insects under a log or examining what your ears and nose are telling you about your environment.

The point, of course, is to prepare ourselves to lead children in experiencing and learning about the Gardens, but it’s also a nice refresher for us adults to do the same. Plus, with a group of such diverse and knowledgeable people, you always discover new things. For example, did you know that bamboo is a clonal plant, meaning that new shoots sprouting out of the ground are actually copies of a nearby stalk? I didn’t.

If you’d like to become a docent (leader or assistant), please fill out our volunteer application here. Or, if you’d like to go on a tour of the Gardens, you can find more information here.

Kaitlin Henderson is a graduate student in Duke's Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Duke Field Trip to the Blomquist Garden

by Erika Zambello

As a teaching assistant for Duke's "Introduction to Environmental Science and Policy" undergraduate class, I was asked to organize a field trip for students that would help reinforce course material. I knew instantly where I wanted to take them: the Blomquist Garden for Native Plants. Both close to campus and an amazing place to learn about native North Carolina ecosystems, the Blomquist Garden could illustrate concepts students had learned in the classroom, such as ecosystem function, biodiversity and conservation.

The students met me at the Doris Duke Visitor Center on a cloudy afternoon. After trooping through the Mary Duke Biddle Rose Garden and to the entrance of the Blomquist Garden, we met Blomquist curator/horticulturist Stefan Bloodworth, who would lead our tour.

Right away Stefan captured their attention as he explained that he was not interested in the "beauty" of a plant but rather the way it contributed to biodiversity. In particular, he wants the Blomquist Garden to attract and support as many insect species as possible.

Of course, that means butterflies and bees feeding on the nectar and pollen of flowers, he said, but insects in all life stages need plants to survive. Butterflies may not feed on the large oak trees of the garden, for example, but as caterpillars they absolutely love them.

When planning the Blomquist Wildlife Garden in particular, Stefan and the staff took every insect life cycle into account when selecting plants, as well as other birds, reptiles and amphibians. The Wildlife Garden features a small stream that is home to crayfish and salamanders, while the nearby flowers give food to bees and butterflies, decomposing logs host another class of insects and decomposers, and birds rest and feed in the surrounding shrubs and trees. With wildlife diversity as the goal of the garden, Duke Gardens has increased the insect species in the Wildlife Garden from fewer than 10 to more than 100!

As Stefan continued, I saw the students nodding, making connections from the garden to their own lives. They were especially interested when he focused on the importance not just of species diversity but genetic diversity as well. At the Blomquist Garden, the staff plants "straight species" as much as possible. What is a straight species? Simply put, a plant variety whose genetic makeup has been, as much as possible in our modern world, untouched by humans, either through selective breeding or cloning. Because they have reached their present form through natural processes, their seeds retain the largest amount of genetic diversity.

To find seeds for certain species at the Blomquist, staff members travel around the Triangle looking for native seeds to bring back. When they find a clump of plants, they follow a specific protocol. Instead of taking all the seeds they find back to the Gardens, they sample 25% of the plants, and from that 25%, they only take 25% of the seeds. In this way, they do not remove an entire plant clump's genetic material, only a sample. In addition, gathering seeds from local areas means the seeds themselves are best adapted to conditions here in the Triangle.

We walked from the entrance of the Blomquist Garden to the Steve Church Endangered Species Garden, where Stefan spoke of the importance of prairie habitats in fostering diversity. Unfortunately, true prairie habits are few and far between in North Carolina. In part to rectify this and in part to educate the public on the value of prairie habitats, Duke Gardens is planning to cultivate its own prairie ecosystem.

As our third and final stop, Stefan showed us the future location of the prairie, just beyond the Endangered Species Garden. It is here that staff and volunteers will plant a carefully researched list of both grasses and wildlflowers - also collected from local sources - to replicate a prairie.

After a few questions, the field trip ended. Though we had only been in the Blomquist Garden for an hour, the students told me how much they had learned. I agreed that I had learned a lot, too! Flowers and plants are beautiful, but it is so important to remember that they also play an critical biodiversity role in both their population, by harboring genetic diversity, and in their larger ecosystem, as host and food and shelter to insects and other wildlife.

Blogger and photographer Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Citizen Science at Duke Gardens: Project BudBurst and eBird

American witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
by Erika Zambello

Technology and the rise of the internet have allowed for the expansion of citizen science projects, in which the general public of all ages can participate in collecting data and observations. These studies are not only engaging and informative for the citizen scientists themselves, they are also a valuable way to gather vast amounts of information. Duke Gardens is both an active citizen science partner and a fun location for local citizen science projects.

At Duke Gardens, two nationwide projects are particularly popular. Project BudBurst began in 2007 as a way to monitor plants across the United States. As one of their seven botanic garden partners, Duke Gardens is an excellent place to observe both native and non-native plant species. As part of BudBurst, volunteers go out into the Gardens and carefully observe plants in different phenophases ("an observable stage or phase in the annual life cycle of a plant or animal") throughout the year. Once the data is collected, volunteers then record their observations and submit them to the Project BudBurst website.

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
Do you have to be a plant specialist to participate in Project BudBurst? Absolutely not! With easy to follow online tutorials on what to look for when observing, citizen scientists of any age can submit their observations. In addition to specialist volunteers, school classes, church groups, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, visitors to botanic gardens, senior groups and more have all contributed to Project BudBurst.

Submitting an eBird checklist is another way visitors to Duke Gardens can participate in a citizen science project. It is relatively easy to learn the common bird species, and once a birder becomes comfortable with a few varieties he or she can explore the Gardens and keep track of species seen and the observed number of individuals in each species. Using a computer or the eBird cell phone app, birders can quickly complete a checklist and voila, their data has been recorded!

Gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)
Duke Gardens is an especially good place to learn new birds and practice identifying familiar ones. The Blomquist Garden features bird feeders in its Steve Church Endangered Species Garden, as well as more feeders facing the beautiful Bird Viewing Shelter and at the President's Bridge entrance from Flowers Drive. The Asiatic Arboretum has its own feeders near the Garden Pond, complete with benches so birders can observe for as long as they want in comfort. All three locations provide great opportunities to watch feeder birds and practice identification skills, and you can quickly submit your sightings to eBird. 110 checklists have been logged in Duke Gardens so far!

Bird viewing shelter. Photo by Orla Swift
Whether you're partial to plants, birds, bees, frogs, or other nature creatures, there is a citizen science project out there for you. Do you have a different citizen science project that you love? Tell us about it! We'd love to feature it on our blog.

Blogger and photographer Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Fall Plant Sale Preview: Duke Gardens plants

Musa velutina

By Kaitlin Henderson
Photos by Beth Hall

As we prepare for tomorrow's 2014 Fall Plant Sale, we thought you might like to see another preview of some of the plants we'll be offering. It's one thing to see them in their plant pots -- even more fun to see them out in Duke Gardens, where you can get a better idea of how they could enhance your own garden. So have a look below at some beautiful plants that grow well in this region. The sale is from 9 a.m. to noon, with a member preview sale at 8 a.m. (and you can join on site). Parking is free.

The first plant, pictured above, is a fun one that I featured on this blog earlier - the pink velvet banana. It’s a hardy tropical banana plant that’s deer resistant. It grows in full sun to partial shade, and grows up to 8 feet tall and wide. It produces white flowers and pink fruit, which makes a great tropical impression in your garden. You can find it already growing here in the Doris Duke Center Gardens.

Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’

The osmanthus is a great ornamental evergreen that you can see in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum. It has holly-like, variegated leaves and is deer resistant. It grows up to 3-5 feet tall and wide and has an amazing fragrance when in bloom.

Sambucus nigra

The purple-leaved elderberry above is a gorgeous ornamental shrub that gets up to 8 feet tall and wide. In the late spring to early summer it produces deep pink or purple flowers over its dark purple leaves. You can find some in the Historic Gardens to get an idea of what it looks like.

Sedum tetractinum

Chinese sedum is an evergreen ground cover that grows in sun or shade. In the summer, it produces small yellow flowers. It’s great for path edges or garden borders. Here in the Gardens, it’s abundant in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum.

Tinantia pringlei

This is Mexican spiderwort, a deciduous perennial with beautiful purple accents. You can find it in the Historic Gardens. Its leaves are green-purple in color with purple spots. The purple-white flowers bloom throughout summer. It likes full sun to light shade and grows 1-1.5-feet tall and wide.

Aster taraticus

Taratian asters are great pollinator perennials. They grow 3-4 feet high and are spreading, so they're perfect in the back border of gardens. Purple and yellow flowers emerge in the fall, which you can catch now in the Historic Gardens. They need full sun to partial shade.

Callicarpa americana

The American Beautyberry is native to the southeast U.S. (including here in North Carolina) and you can see plenty of them in the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants. It's a large deciduous shrub that likes full sun and will grow up to 8 feet tall and wide. In the summer it produces small lavender-colored flowers, which give way in the fall to the bright purple berries you can see now. They're great wildlife plants - birds love to eat the berries.

Camellia sinensis

This beautiful plant is also very popular for a practical reason: the tea camellia is used to make tea! It's native to China but grows very well here, as you can see in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum. It gets 6-8 feet high and wide, with white and yellow flowers in the fall. It's very versatile, growing in full sun to full shade.

Eurybia divaricata

White wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) is another plant local to this area of the U.S. It grows best in woodland shade settings and makes a fantastic border or path edge. In the fall it has numerous dainty white flowers, which you can see in the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants.

Gymnaster savatieri

The Japanese aster produces these cheerful, light purple flowers with a bright yellow center in the late summer through fall. They grow 1-2 feet tall and are wonderful border plants. You can check them out in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum.

Hedychium coccineum

This stunning and unique looking flower is the hardy ginger lily. The orange-peach flowers bloom in the late summer to fall. The plant gets up to 4 feet tall and likes to be in full sun to part shade. It adds a beautiful tropical accent to any garden, as you can see in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum.

Tricyrtis macropoda

The spotted toad lily has a fun name and an equally fun look. You can see it growing in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum. The uniquely shaped purple-pink flowers bloom in the late summer to fall. Its leaves have subtle purple spots. It grows to 1-2 feet tall and prefers woodland-like environments, shady and moist. 

Now that your appetite is whetted, we hope to see you Saturday morning to see these plants in person and take some of them home to your own garden! For more information, check out our previous blog post on the plant sale and our plant sale preview video. Duke Gardens' curators and horticulturists  will be there to answer any questions you have about the plants and growing them. You can become a Duke Gardens member anytime before or during the sale to get access to the 8 a.m. preview sale, to get first dibs on the plants you want. Enjoy!

Kaitlin Henderson is a student in Duke's Graduate Liberal Studies Program. Beth Hall is Duke Gardens' Paul J. Kramer Plant Collections Manager.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Species Spotlight: Pink Banana

Photo by Kaitlin Henderson
By Kaitlin Henderson
You may not have noticed this this big-leafed plant earlier in the year, but it’s drawing attention to itself now. It’s a banana plant (Musa velutina, the pink banana or pink velvet banana), and the pink areas are its flowers and fruit!

Photo by Kaitlin Henderson
The pink banana is native to Southeast Asia, and you can find it in Duke Gardens' Culberson Asiatic Arboretum. Despite being pretty far north of the tropics, it grows very well here in Durham. The plant dies back in the winter and grows back every spring, producing the bright flowers and fruits you can see right now. 

The fruit will be on the plant until the first significant frost, so you have some time to get out and see it – I definitely recommend stopping by, as it’s eye-catching and fun to look at. If you come back earlier in the summer next year, you can try to catch the earlier flower that precedes the fruit.

Photo by Paul Jones
The fruit is quite different from the regular grocery store bananas you might be used to. They are small and nearly filled with pea-sized seeds, making them generally inedible. Some people here at the Gardens have tried them despite that. Asiatic Arboretum curator Paul Jones described the taste as not inviting but not repulsive, either. Hope Wilder, assistant education program coordinator, said the fruit was very starchy and a little bit sweet, but she didn’t much enjoy how seedy they were. That’s probably why they’re mostly used as decorative plants rather than for food.

The Pink Banana is one of the smaller banana plants. The other ones grown in the Gardens are three or four times as large. The Asiatic Arboretum has several other banana species, including the hardy Japanese banana (Musa basjoo) that you can see along the path through the Japanese-style gate as you enter from the Rose Garden.

Blogger Kaitlin Henderson is a student in Duke's Master of Arts in Liberal Studies (MALS) program.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Fall Plant Sale Preview

By Erika Zambello

The 2014 Fall Plant Sale is only a few weeks away, and here at Duke Gardens we're gearing up for one of the best sales ever. To give you a preview, curator Jason Holmes selected some of his favorite plants that will on sale Saturday, Sept. 27, from 9 a.m.-noon (with a preview sale for Gardens members from 8-9 a.m.). Adding to the allure of this sneak peek, all plants featured in this article have been propagated from Duke Gardens!

First up, the toad lily. We will be selling multiple varieties with different coloration patterns, such as white with purple spots, purple with white spots, and variegated and unvariegated leaves. Toad lilies are shade lovers, and they will bloom in late summer and early fall. They are excellent attractors for pollinators, but they are also attractive to rabbits.

toad lily

This year Duke Gardens will also sell an unusual sage, which is shade loving and produces yellow flowers. Japanese yellow sage (Salvia koyamae) grows to about 2 feet high, and it will bloom throughout the summer.

Japanese yellow sage (Salvia koyamae)
The garden mums at the Fall Plant Sale are another unusual variety. They're perennials and will bloom in the fall year after year. The mums grow in full sun to light dappled shade, and they can grow to 2.5-feet tall. There are multiple colors available for sale, including pink, off-white, purple and yellow.

garden mum
The ginger lilies at the sale are difficult to find in regular greenhouses. Duke Gardens will sell two varieties, Hedychium greenii and Hedychium coccineum. The former has rare red flowers as well as reddish underleaves, and it will bloom throughout the fall. Reaching a height of 3 feet, this variety is a hardy plant. By contrast, the latter can reach impressive heights of 6 feet, with orange-red blossoms. Both grow in full sun to partial shade and are perennial species.

ginger lily
Last but definitely not least, the plant sale will include the iconic American beautyberries. These trees reach 8 feet tall, and in the fall they feature gorgeous purple berries. These berries are not only beautiful, they are magnets for natural pollinator and bird species.

American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

The Fall Plant Sale will feature these fun plants as well as many more. Stay tuned for further updates, and come check it out for yourself!

Parking is free during the sale, which will be behind the Doris Duke Center. If you'd like to get first dibs on plants by attending the member preview sale, and you're not yet a member, you can join in advance by calling 919-668-1711. You may also join on site the morning of the sale. Membership information here.

More information on our website.