Some botanical scholars have shared their stories with us. Read the following accounts to see whether their experiences match your interests. You’ll also learn about two interesting settings where these professionals work.
Longwood Gardens is located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. It is really more of a display garden than a botanic garden. Although there are many plants that could be called collections, they exist for the sake of the landscape, which is how it differs from a traditional botanic garden. There is much more emphasis on the art of the landscape than on the actual study of the plants themselves. In a botanical garden, on the other hand, the emphasis is usually on collecting plants and keeping data on them for the purpose of display and study.
Pierre Dupont, the founder of Longwood Gardens, was interested in creating a mood and a sense of place that would allow people to interact within a garden setting. Even though he had many unusual and beautiful specimens, his main emphasis was on the art of horticulture and the setting he was creating.
The horticultural division at Longwood Gardens contains a research component. Here scholars try to bring science to bear on display horticulture. The scientists use their knowledge to help the staff be efficient, imaginative, and responsible to the environment in fabricating the plant displays.
Longwood Gardens is also a historic garden. It includes an arboretum started by a Quaker family who received a land grant from William Penn, whom Pennsylvania is named for. They planted trees in the 1780s that still exist, and it was that core arboretum that was the compelling factor in Pierre Dupont’s decision to buy the property. The trees were due to be logged, and Dupont bought the land to save them, ultimately developing Longwood Gardens around it.
Dupont was an engineer who had a love of water in the garden, so he built fountain gardens that were inspired by his visits to Europe. There is a theater garden where live performances are held, and the curtain is a curtain of water jets.
There is also a topiary garden of abstract shapes, and many old trees, grand vistas, and monumental architecture at the conservatories, with bronze windows and mica-shaded lamps inside.
Rick Darke—Curator of Plants
Rick Darke served on the staff of Longwood Gardens for twenty years—eleven as curator of plants. He has a bachelor’s degree in plant sciences from the University of Delaware, and he also studied art and anthropology before deciding on his major.
Getting Started. Rick’s first job was as an intern at Longwood, and he later moved up to assistant taxonomist (taxonomy is the science of classifying organisms). He took graduate courses but ended up having the opportunity to take over a doctoral position in taxonomy that was rewritten as curator of plants. When the man Rick worked for announced that he would retire in two years, Rick had to choose between continuing in a graduate program or staying on the job and developing the skills he’d need to take over the position. He chose to stay, and it was a good decision.
The Work. One of Rick’s main responsibilities as curator of plants was to oversee the identification, mapping, and labeling of plants done by the curatorial assistants working under his supervision. Identifying and labeling every item grown is one of the most important tasks at Longwood Gardens.
Rick participated regularly on landscape and advisory committees, making recommendations and working with teams of colleagues to create and restore the gardens. His role was to suggest plants that could be used in place of existing plantings or to comment on architectural details or other design elements.
As a curator, he traveled extensively while working at Longwood. He visited Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa, Brazil, England, and Germany, bringing plants from different climates back from each trip. Longwood Gardens includes a fouracre area under glass where the staff can create specialized environments for plants from other climates.
Rick’s duties included a considerable amount of teaching. Longwood offers several programs for students, and he regularly taught a botany course in the Professional Gardener Training Program, as well as other classes for graduate students. He also taught courses for the continuing education program, including evening lectures and field trips, and led tours to native areas and other gardens.
Rick is also a writer. He contributed to the Longwood Garden’s in-house publication and wrote magazine articles about the happenings at Longwood. For example, he traveled to Brazil and worked with a landscape architect there whom he brought back to Pennsylvania. The architect created a garden at Longwood, and Rick wrote an article about it, collaborating with a photographer to publicize a celebration of the gardens at Longwood.
What Rick enjoyed most was the eclectic mix of his job and his interaction with students. There was usually an intern working in his office, and he was also regularly teaching people as they moved through the organization. Over the years, he made a strong network of friends and professional colleagues across the country and throughout the world.
Since leaving Longwood Gardens, Rick has served as a horticultural consultant for public gardens and landscapes. His clients include the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Rio Grande Botanic Garden, and Baltimore’s Druid Hill Conservatory.He lectures nationally on topics related to horticulture and landscape architecture and is an active freelance writer and photographer. His books include The American Woodland Garden: Capturing the Spirit of the Deciduous Forest (Timber Press, 2002), In Harmony with Nature: Lessons from the Arts and Crafts Garden (Jason Denmark, 2000), and The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes (Timber Press, 2007).
Advice from a Professional. Rick says that to succeed as a curator of plants, you need skills in addition to your love of plants. Strong writing and verbal skills are very important because you interact with many different people. He stresses that he would not have been able to do his job well without the ability to communicate clearly and to teach others.
The Arnold Arboretum
The Arnold Arboretum is located in Jamaica Plain,Massachusetts, a section of Boston, and is affiliated with Harvard University. Its mission is the biology, cultivation, and conservation of temperate woody plants and includes continuing research, education, and community outreach work. The Arnold Arboretum was established in 1874 by Harvard botanist Asa Gray. It began with 123 species of neglected woody plants and has grown to include 265 beautifully maintained acres, with approximately fifteen thousand plants in its living collection.
Chris Strand—Outreach Horticulturist
Chris Strand is an outreach horticulturist at the Arnold Arboretum. He earned his bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Colorado, Boulder, concentrating on taxonomy, the study of the different species and how they are classified.
After graduation, he won a fellowship sponsored by Longwood Gardens and earned his master’s degree in public horticulture at the University of Delaware in Newark. He worked for one year at Callaway Gardens near Atlanta, Georgia, before coming to the Arnold Arboretum.
The Work. Chris is in charge of visitor services, a position with a wide range of duties. He develops and manages the exhibits that are shown in the exhibit hall, where information is passed on to visitors through an information desk, a photographic display, and a bookstore. He trains the volunteers who are stationed in the hall to answer visitors’ questions, ensures that the bookstore buyer has everything needed for the exhibit, and sees that maps of the grounds are available so visitors can find their way around the arboretum.
Chris also teaches in the adult education program. He covers woody plant identification and teaches a six-week course on the highlights of the arboretum. He describes his students as people with varied interests in continuing education; they include retired people, volunteers wanting to learn more about the plants, and rangers from the National Park Service. (The Arnold Arboretum maintains a cooperative arrangement with the National Park Service through which interpretive rangers are taught to conduct historical landscape restoration and maintenance.)
Chris also works with a consultant on an ongoing project to improve signage on the grounds. In addition, he answers requests for information about the arboretum and requests for publications. He supervises volunteers who run a plant answer line once a week and supplies them with the materials they need for the job.
The part of his job that Chris most enjoys is spending time among the collections. “My boss has made it clear that I’m supposed to be very familiar with everything,” he says, “so I spend a lot of time going outside, looking at plants, photographing them, learning about them.We have well over eleven thousand different specimens on the grounds, and the best part is that I always have the opportunity to learn more about them.”
What he likes least is dealing with difficult people. Chris observes that since the Arnold Arboretum is a public park and does not charge admission, people occasionally disregard the rules. Some bring unleashed dogs or take cuttings from the plants.
Climbing the Career Ladder in Public Horticulture. Graduate programs in public horticulture are directed toward people who are interested in working in education or administration. Chris plans to continue working in public horticulture, hoping to eventually be in charge of a public program at an arboretum or botanical garden.Wherever his career takes him, though, he hopes to always have direct contact with the plants because they are what he loves most about his work.
Susan Kelley—Curatorial Associate
Susan Kelley is a curatorial associate for the living collections at Arnold Arboretum. Her job involves mapping the living specimens on the grounds and labeling each plant. She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music before deciding to change careers. She then earned a master’s in plant population from City University of New York and worked at the Harvard University Herbaria until she applied for her position at Arnold Arboretum.
The Work. Mapping and labeling are an important part of the work done at Arnold. Along with being a horticultural garden, the arboretum is also a research facility. Visitors from many countries use the collections for study purposes, so maps showing where each individual specimen is located have been kept for more than seventy years.
Susan was heavily involved in the arboretum’s switch from hand-drawn maps to a computerized mapping system.Her role in this huge project was to transcribe the hand-drawn maps to the computerized versions and also to maintain current hand-drawn maps until the new system was completed.
There are two major plantings each year, in the spring and fall, when about a thousand new plants are added to the grounds. It is Susan’s responsibility to put all of these new plantings on the maps. She makes sure that every plant is labeled, a procedure that involves hanging two labels directly on the plant to provide an accession number, the name of the plant, the family, where it came from, and its map location.
Susan’s work with a plant begins when it goes from the nursery to the grounds. She prepares the labels, which are the size of credit cards and made of aluminum, by embossing the required information from the arboretum’s database onto them and then attaching them to the plants.
She also performs field checks of each individual specimen to determine its condition. She recommends replacement of damaged or unhealthy plants to the horticultural taxonomist and informs the propagator if a specimen needs to be repropagated.
Working outside is one of Susan’s favorite things about her job. “What I love most is being outdoors in this great collection of plants,” she says. “It’s one of the best collections in the world. There are very old specimens, and then we have all these new plants coming in. I also like that I have some indoor work. The computer work I do is challenging mentally. The mix is ideal.”
The only stress that Susan experiences comes from the fact that her department is understaffed. She says, “My job is extensive enough that three people should really be doing it.” She does have volunteers and two summer interns to help, but training them is time-consuming and adds to her workload.
Susan has a good way to handle occasional stress, however. “Whenever I need to regroup, I can just go outside,” she says. “I have a beautiful place in which to do it.”
Anne Brennan—Student Intern
Anne Brennan graduated from Penn State with a B.S. in horticulture and worked at Longwood Gardens as a postgraduate intern in the education division. It was a ten-month paid internship that provided a monthly stipend and free housing and gave Anne a chance to experience different career options to help her decide which path to pursue. Here are her recollections of her time at Longwood.
Anne initially considered horticultural production in a greenhouse or nursery as a possible career. However, she realized that there are so many other options than just growing plants, an observation that was reinforced during her internship, when she saw new opportunities every day.
Since botanical gardens weren’t emphasized in her college studies, Anne was unaware of the career possibilities that exist for horticulturists, educators, publicists, groundskeepers, and many other professionals. She observes that this gap in her undergraduate
education might be the result of her school’s curriculum and teachers who focus on research and academics rather than practical experience and production. Although her advisor frequently suggested graduate school, she wasn’t very excited by the idea.
Once she graduated and began her internship at Longwood, Anne saw many other options that better suited her. She worked in the
student programs office at Longwood, which coordinates the internship programs, including the Professional Gardener Training Program and an international student internship program. In effect, she worked as an intern coordinating other interns.
Anne’s internship included working on various projects that she found interesting. She responded to questions from students interested in the programs. She also helped with rewriting the promotional materials on the programs and organized the orientation program for new interns. In this capacity, she arranged for speakers to address the students, led tours of the grounds, and organized field trips to other botanical gardens.
Good communication skills were an important part of Anne’s job because she interacted regularly with forty students in the different
areas of the gardens. She attended meetings twice a month and wrote a long weekly memo that served as a newsletter to keep students informed about upcoming activities. Anne was the first person visitors met when they came to the student programs office, and she enjoyed greeting them. She also learned some management skills by running meetings.
Although uncertain about her future plans, Anne expressed interest in garden writing and education. She has some experience working for a horticultural trade magazine and is eager to learn publishing and layout. She is also considering pursuing a full-time career in the education program of a public garden.