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People, Plants and Habitats – a Lifelong Connection

Among the important questions botanical garden educators and conservationists grapple with are 'How can we sensitize and motivate children to care about endangered plants and habitats?' and 'How can we develop a conservation ethic in young children?' Endangered plants often finish a distant second behind students' concern for animals, yet few students will ever hold an endangered animal as they can an endangered plant.

The importance of protecting habitats and the concept of plants as foundations of healthy habitats are not always well understood by children. Georgia students are gaining personal experience with endangered plants through their work with the Georgia Endangered Plant Stewardship Network (GEPSN). This program is making important, potentially life-long, connections between people, plants, and their habitats.

Zack Williams, a 7 year old student at Colham Ferry Elementary School, Oconee County, Georgia, is one of many children who has actually held and planted endangered species. He states, 'Wow, this plant is endangered just like the whales and sea turtles. It might become extinct if we don't help. ‘Zack and hundreds of other children in Georgia are caring for endangered plants right on their school site through the GEPSN project. As the children plant, hold and care for these endangered plants, they begin to care about the larger environment and the seeds of environmental stewardship are nurtured.

The Georgia Endangered Plant Stewardship Network

The collaboration between the Atlanta Botanical Garden, Callaway Gardens, and The State Botanical Garden of Georgia has made the statewide GEPSN project possible. Working under the umbrella of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance a student endangered plant network was initiated in 1996.

To participate in this network, teachers attend a 20 hour training workshop to learn about Georgia's endangered species and habitats, propagation, and related science inquiry activities. Four GEPSN workshops have been held to date with approximately 90 teachers trained. Anne Shenk, Education Coordinator, and Jennifer Ceska, Conservation Coordinator, both with The State Botanical Garden of Georgia, developed the Green Plant Blues workshop and teacher notebook.

Students between 7 - 15 years embark on this project and become stewards for the environment by propagating rare plants from seed and by establishing these plants on their school sites. Some schools may be involved in propagating plants that will be returned to the wild during local restoration projects. Students collect data including germination rate, flowering period, pollinator visits, and seed counts and report their findings to GEPSN Headquarters.

Initially classes undertake a plant species count of their school site. Through this process they collect baseline data about the number and diversity of plant species on site. Then, through the GEPSN project, students work to increase the number of plants on their school grounds by adding common and endangered species native to Georgia. At the beginning of the school year, GEPSN teachers are sent a list of available wildflower and endangered plant seeds and then during the school year, students grow these plants under lights in their classroom to add to designated plots on their school sites. As the number of species increase, species diversity and the importance of biodiversity start to become meaningful concepts.

Prior to receiving seeds, teachers and their students must apply for a permit from the Georgia Natural Heritage Program to grow endangered plant species on their site. The permitting process provides a meaningful lesson to students on legal issues related to endangered plants and on the importance of taking special care of the rare plants they are being permitted to grow.

Endangered Plants on the School Site

In the autumn, seeds are collected from plants grown on school sites. Some seeds are saved for propagation at the school; extra seeds are sent back to GEPSN Headquarters, packaged and shared with other schools. Seeds are also collected from plants grown at participating botanical gardens. With permission from the Georgia Natural Heritage Program, additional seeds are sometimes collected by GEPSN educators and scientists in the wild.

Endangered plant seeds provided to schools include protected plants such as the Atlantic White-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), a tree threatened by over-harvesting for telephone poles and wooden barrels, and herbaceous species such as Mohr's Barbara Buttons (Marshallia mohrii) threatened by loss of wet meadow habitats. Teachers are trained to prepare raised beds and amend the soil in preparation for planting. Students are involved in designing the outdoor classroom, calculating the costs and amount of supplies needed, developing a plan for implementing the design, planting the collection, and caring for the plants. Students have overcome unattractive obstacles such as air-conditioning units and forbidding fences by planting vines to soften the landscape and attract pollinators.


A Pitcher Plant Habitat at Jackson County Elementary

t;Building pitcherplant bogs has been particularly appealing to participating classes because of their carnivorous habit. Children are surprised to learn how the pitcherplants "eat" bugs (and occasionally small frogs). Most people think of plants as passive organisms photosynthesizing quietly in the garden. Pitcherplants (Sarracenia sp.) found in eastern North America are carnivorous plants that capture prey with modified leaves through passive means (as opposed to active capture like the grasping "hands" of the Venus Flytrap). Nectar glands line the opening of the pitcher, luring insects within the lip. Once inside, stiff, downward pointing hairs force the insect deeper and deeper within. The more the insect struggles, the further it descends. The inside surface is glaucous (smooth and slippery). At the bottom of the pitcher, a pool of digestive enzymes waits to digest the prey!

Carol McDonald, a teacher at Jackson County Elementary School in Danielsville, Georgia, found that the students could not understand how the insects could be trapped within the open tube. They repeatedly asked ‘Why don't they just fly out?’ After dissecting a pitcherplant leaf from their bog garden and discovering the stiff hairs and smooth interior, they soon understood.

McDonald finds the GEPSN project a valuable experience for her students 'The children are taught that plants are unique and special, just like people, and they need to be cared for.' She believes the students gain a fundamental understanding and compassion for the environment because, '...they are a part of the solution, protecting the environment; it is easy to tell them about conservation, but when they actually see they make a difference, they learn these concepts better and this has more influence on what they do in their lives.'

High School Project Enhances Team Building and Leadership Skills

At Oconee County High School in Watkinsville, Georgia, an endangered plant bog was planned and developed using a team of students as leaders. The students divided themselves into committees. The first committee was in charge of the greenhouse. In the fall of 1997 this team sowed seeds of bog species and monitored their growth. During the winter of 1997/98, the design team planned the bog, drew the plans, and purchased materials. Then the installation team along with members from other committees constructed and installed the bog during the spring of 1998, while two more committees took responsibility for community education.

'I feel using the student leader approach gave the team ownership in the project' says Paul Dallas, science teacher and project facilitator. 'Being owners of the bog, the students take pride in their accomplishments and demonstrate enthusiasm in educating the school and community. Now that the project is completed, it continues to provide the team with challenges. Unforeseen events such as strong winds and hail as well as rodents and weed eaters have threatened the bog; but since the team considers the habitat their own, they have accepted these challenges with enthusiasm.'

Storytelling and Puppet kits

Plant storytelling is another effective tool used in the GEPSN project to sensitize children to the plight of plants. Stories serve as a 'hook' to draw young students into the objectives for a lesson. Children meet plant personalities such as Richard Pitcher Plant and his friends who sing the 'Green Plant Blues' and describe their exciting lives as well as their problems. Grandpa Cedar (an endangered Atlantic White Cedar) speaks of his relatives who were cut down for use as telephone poles. The Trillium Triplets (a woodland genus that has lost much of its habitat in the southeastern U.S.) tells a scary story about the day that Sucks, (Japanese Honeysuckle - an invasive, introduced species in the southern U.S.) invaded their habitat and stole their home.

As problems are presented in stories, the door is opened to content learning and problem solving needed to help the characters. Some plants are admirable characters that provide humor and innocence. Donna Rosa, a Pink Ladyslipper orchid, is portrayed as a well known beauty queen who asks visiting reporters, 'Have you come to admire me? You can look but do not touch!' She encourages people not to pick her since overcollecting is a major threat to her species. The children identify with the plant characters and their emotions and concern are engaged. They want to help these plants which might otherwise seem like obscure weeds.

Plant heroines convince children that they can make a difference through their work. Richard Pitcher Plant speaks lovingly of the kind human who rescued him from the tyranny of a bulldozer in a plant rescue and carried him to his present home in a botanical garden.

GEPSN Science Kits (currently under development) include puppets and scripts for teachers to instruct and entertain young students. Teachers will perform the endangered plant puppet shows for, or with, their children. High school classes and upper elementary students will carry puppet shows to classes of young students and pass on their concern and knowledge for endangered plants to these children. Puppet and story characters can help young children become stewards of our plant communities.

Project Support

Ongoing teacher support is an important project component. The GEPSN web page and newsletter (The Green Plant Blues News) provide information to support GEPSN teachers. The information includes a current seed list, notices about upcoming workshops, background on protected plants in Georgia, and booking information for the GEPSN Endangered Plant Science Kits. In summer 1998 funding was secured to hire an intern to help coordinate support services to teachers including a GEPSN plant hotline.

Jim Affolter, Chair, Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, and Director of Research, State Botanical Garden of Georgia, states, ‘The GEPSN project makes learning about endangered plants fun and stimulating, for both teachers and students. Because there are so many facets to the program - teacher training sessions, field work and gardening projects on the school sites, puppet shows and study kits - everyone has a chance to participate. Coupled with the program's well conceived teaching philosophy and strong follow-up support, this approach provides a recipe for success that could be repeated in many communities, wherever teachers are searching for ways to engage young students in issues and methods of plant conservation.’

The project has been supported with funds from the Eisenhower Plan for Math and Science Education, the Georgia Initiative in Math and Science, the Turner Foundation and The Garden Club of Georgia.