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Native Plant Education at the Holden Arboretum

Contributed by Paul C. Spector, The Holden Arboretum, 9500 Sperry Road, Kirtland, Ohio 44094-5172, USA

Last month, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources published the results of their most recent survey of the State's native plant populations. They found that of the 654 native plants surveyed:

  • 213 were endangered
  • 153 were threatened
  • 162 were potentially threatened
  • 103 had not been found growing in a natural setting since 1974
  • 23 had not yet been assigned a status.

This news rated about four column-inches buried in the back of Cleveland's largest newspaper.

The extent of issues facing native plant populations, and the lack of public recognition and concern, are why The Holden Arboretum feels so strongly about native plant conservation and education.

The Holden Arboretum has defined its role in native plant conservation and education through its organizational mission statement and departmental policies and programs. It has made a commitment to actively conserve the genetic diversity of Ohio's many native plants by incorporating them into the Myrtle S. Holden Wildflower Garden for continuing life-history research and public display. In addition, through our participation with the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC), the Arboretum identifies the region's rarest plants and develops research and stewardship programs that will promote long-term conservation of plant species in their natural habitat.

Complementing this research and conservation effort is a native-plant education program that addresses several audiences and levels of interest. The program has its roots in a blending of the organizational mission and the unique physical resources that comprise our 3100 acres of horticultural collections and natural areas. This combination of cultivated gardens (such as the Wildflower Garden and the Butterfly Garden) and natural areas, and the educational programming that results, puts the Arboretum in a unique position to address many facets of native plants; their natural history, use in the landscape, and their conservation.

By providing learning opportunities that promote greater understanding, positive attitudes and appreciation of the natural environment, people can be helped to make a personal connection to the natural world. This connection will enable them to have the understanding and love for native plants that are essential if they are expected to care about and preserve the diversity of plant life known today. Informal education opportunities that include brochures, signage, and exhibits and formal programs such as classes, symposia, and certificate programs, all function within the expressed mission and carry out the Arboretum’s objective of educating the public about the significance of maintaining healthy populations of our native plant species.

Below are some of the programs offered that deal with native-plant education:

  • when a visitor arrives, they receive the brochure An Arboretum Defined. This contains a section on conservation and how it fits into the organizational mission. It also provides information about the work with the CPC, the efforts in habitat restoration, and the Myrtle S. Holden Wildflower Garden
  • visitors can pick up other publications such as; Arboretum Leaves which is a quarterly publication mailed to the membership, Plants Alive which covers native plant work with the CPC, and assorted fact sheets on topics such as ‘Landscaping With Native Plants’
  • in the garden, interpretive signage draws attention to the specific plants being grown as part of the CPC participation and others that are rare and endangered within the state of Ohio. Developing an appreciation for a plant in a natural setting, and creating a public awareness of the various conservation and restoration issues, is a major step that often leads to individual action and stewardship.

These types of things hopefully begin to encourage and entice people to want to learn more about native plants and conservation issues. They then have the opportunity of participating in an adult education program. Examples at Holden include:

  • the Native Plant Certificate Program – a series of 14 core courses and 8 electives designed to provide a comprehensive foundation of knowledge and skills relative to the understanding of native plants and their communities, and to enable participants to better participate as active stewards of the natural plant communities in northeast Ohio. Classes include topics with titles such as the ‘Flora of Northeast Ohio’, ‘Wetland Plant Communities’, and ‘Conservation Strategies and Opportunities’.
  • symposia such as ‘Wildflower Meadows: a Lawn Alternative’ or ‘Natural Areas Management: a Global to a Personal Perspective’ help participants to focus more closely on plant conservation issues and to network with others to facilitate the sharing of information and action.
  • field trips to sites of unique native plants engage people in first-hand observation of habitat requirements and the conservation efforts under way to preserve both habitats and specific plant populations. Examples of the locations of past trips include; the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario, and many sites around the state of Ohio.

Scientists at the botanical gardens feel that they can work to save plants that are already endangered. However, educators at botanical gardens must work to save plants while they are still common. The vision for native-plant education is to develop and provide programs for adults and children which will empower them with the knowledge and understanding of the importance of plants in their lives, and with confidence in their own ability to contribute in some way to plant conservation. Once this connection is made, they are more likely to engage in activities that will save these plants while they are still common.

The need for us to connect with plants is summed up well in the following verse from a Joni Mitchell song written 26 years ago:

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em
Don't it always seem to go
that you don't know what you've got
till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.

(Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi, Laural Canyon, 1970)