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Rare Plant Conservation Education for Children

Contributed by Tammera Race, Bok Tower Gardens, 1151 Tower Boulevard, Lake Wales, Florida 33853-3412, USA.

Bok Tower Gardens' mission includes conservation and education. It is located on the Lake Wales Ridge, a region of high endemism, and became a participating institution of the Center for Plant Conservation in 1986. Rare plant conservation issues are presented through a variety of programs, including tours, presentations and as part of other educational activities.

This paper will describe activities that have been incorporated into a first-grade science program, within which the study of plants plays an important part in Florida. The Gardens’ ex situ conservation collection, and its on-site rare habitat, the Pine Ridge Preserve, are teaching tools for plant science, ecology, stewardship, and conservation.

This past year, five first-grades from one school participated in a program combining a presentation and a propagation activity at the school, with a visit to the endangered plant collection and natural habitat. The first step is to orient the students to concepts of different habitats, plant adaptations to different habitats’ characteristics, and the fact that special plants grow in special places. They study a satellite map of Florida, and identify major geographic features. These features include Lake Okeechobee, the Lake Wales Ridge, the Gardens, and areas of high development pressure. They talk about how habitats might differ in these areas. At this point, the students compare different types of soil – dry sand with little organic material, and dark wet mud, such as might be found at Lake Okeechobee. They also talk about habitat loss . . . loss of special places and special plants.

Different terms are also discussed; ‘Endangered’, in danger of becoming extinct, lost to the world forever, ‘Endemic’, very unique plants growing in one special area, and nowhere else in the world, and ‘Species’. These classes have been exposed to the scientific names of plants, and time is spent discussing grouping. A deck of cards is a useful tool for demonstrating family, genus, and species. Certain characteristics at one level describe a family (the entire deck of cards). Sharing other more specific similarities describes a genus (one suit within the deck). A species is named for a very specific set of characteristics (one card within the deck).

Species are discussed in relation to a rare plants, the scrub plum (Prunus geniculata). This is the Rose family (a florist’s rose is used to convey family), the Plum genus (grocery-store plums are used to demonstrate genus), and a potted endangered scrub plum demonstrates the species. By using familiar plants, the unfamiliar rare plant is put in a more accessible context. The students also learn that this rare plant is a relative of food crops, and that it tolerates drought. When they visit the ex situ collection, they continue to discuss species, comparing rare plants within the same genus.

In the greenhouse, students are introduced to another endangered endemic species, Harper's beauty (Harperocallis flava), from a different habitat and region. Here the students examine the flower parts, roots and soil and talk about propagation, and how gardens can grow plants to help conserve species.

There are several ‘blue flag’ stops both in the greenhouse and in the outdoor collection. At these stops, a paper bag contains a surprise; a fruit, seeds, leaf material, or a photograph of the flower. A student assists by reaching into the bag, and helping to identify what he or she finds. Questions are asked like "Does this look like something you might grow in your garden?" or "What is different about these seeds?". This stop is the Okeechobee gourd (Cucurbita okeechobeensis), a rare cucurbit native to Lake Okeechobee. Students talk about this species’ in relation to pumpkins and gourds, changes in its habitat, and survival strategies. For example, the gourd acts as a boat, carrying its seeds to new appropriate habitat.

Each of the ‘blue flag’ species has an interesting story. Scrub ziziphus (Ziziphus celata) is one of our Lake Wales Ridge endemic species, thought to be extinct until 1987. The idea of discovery is stressed during the students' visit; there are still many exciting things that can be learnt about these plants. At this stop, they study leaf size and shape, spines for plant protection, and seeds. They also talk about plant geography (this species' closest relatives live in the desert southwest). Other ‘blue flag’ stops include the Florida bonamia (Bonamia grandiflora), a native scrub morning glory; the scrub blazingstar (Liatris ohlingerae), an endangered endemic; and the Dicerandra species, endangered mints which contain unique oils in the leaves.

What are the take-home messages?

  • these rare plants are unique, with interesting strategies for survival
  • some of them are very beautiful
  • they are related to plants that people use, and may be important in plant-breeding programs
  • they grow in important habitats
  • they are part of the regional natural history
  • they are rare mostly because of habitat loss
  • each person can play a role in species conservation.

How do educators ensure that some of these ideas go home with the students when they leave the Gardens?

On a hike through the Pine Ridge Preserve there is an emphasis on hands-on, touching and looking closely. Several federally-listed plant species are native to the sandhill preserve and during the hike, students see the plants growing in the habitat. What makes the habitat and the plants that grow there special are discussed as well as why these places and plants are rare.

Older students have planted a Florida endemic along the nature trail while first-graders have propagated wiregrass, a non-endangered but keystone sandhill species. These types of hands-on projects involve the students and emphasize that they are part of conservation efforts.

What of the future? The first-grade program will continue, and may be incorporated at some level on a county-wide basis. The aim is to reach out to other schools, by having activities at various levels that teachers could incorporate into classes. Such activities include traveling posters about Florida's rare plants and their conservation, and activities that familiarize students with a particular species, its ecology, and conservation.

The rare-plant-conservation education activities have dovetailed well into the first-grade science curriculum at one school. Other benefits of working with younger students include their receptivity, the opportunity to make a lasting impact, and the fact that they still talk to their parents about the activities. Many of the students have revisited the Pine Ridge Preserve with their families after their class visit and it is felt that this combination of experiencing rare plants ex situ, rare habitat, and participation, creates a positive learning atmosphere for all.



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