By Richard Bryant
Summer intern and statistics grad student Richard Bryant drills down into the details of the plant databases at Matthaei-Nichols. His efforts—for example on the Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden website—have already made the search experience better for students, researchers, and visitors seeking plant information.
Let’s say you’re interested in a specific type of black-eyed susan you’ve seen at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Through a Google search, you find its official, botanical name — Rudbeckia hirta. Maybe you’re with a design team that thinks one of these beautiful sunflowers would look great overlooking the amazing Nichols Arboretum Peony Garden. Or perhaps you’re a volunteer who wants to know the natural history of this particular plant. So you want to go into the field and find it. The first thing you do is visit the Plant Finder on the Matthaei-Nichols website, where you discover that one of these plants lives in “Bioswale.” However, this doesn’t give you much information. First of all, there are multiple bioswales! Which one is this plant in? Furthermore, the bioswales are relatively large. It would take you a frustratingly long time to go to multiple bioswales, sift through plant labels (if it even has one), and find this plant.

These black-eyed susans are beautiful!  Where are they?!
One of the projects I’ve been working on with the staff at Matthaei-Nichol this summer is a logical system that breaks large zones such as the Bioswales into smaller, digital and physical “Places.” Each “Place” will have global positioning system (GPS) coordinates. That way, one can look up the place that a plant lives in, which makes finding that plant significantly easier. Instead of having as many as 200 Bioswale plants to sift through to find Rudbeckia hirta, anyone looking for this information will know that it’s in a much smaller “place” within the “Parking lot bioswale.” Now there are only 10 plants to look through! Suddenly, the task of finding this plant is significantly less daunting.
This specificity is particularly useful with respect to the Medicinal Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The garden, which opened on August 2, 2015, features over 100 plants that are or have traditionally been used to treat human disease. For example, let’s say a student visits Matthaei while doing medical research and needs to find Ephedra sinica, a plant used for treating respiratory conditions. But the student lacks knowledge of many plants in general and doesn’t have more than a few minutes to find Ephedra sinica. But because the Medicinal Garden is organized online into the biological systems the plants are used to treat—a respiratory place, an ophthalmology place, a women’s health place, etc.—this makes for a very well organized garden.

To arrive at my system of organization, I meet with our curator and I look at each garden in isolation and not in relation to any other garden on our properties.  For purposes of illustration let’s look at the Great Lakes Garden. A first point of investigation is determining whether staff members have already created some kind of organizing system for this garden. A search of Matthaei-Nichols’ shared network reveals a highly detailed plant list. As it turns out, a Natural Areas team had already broken the Great Lakes Garden into 31 different components, and then identified which plants were in each garden already. This made my job very easy. But what about something like the Perennial Garden? Staff members installing this garden years ago may not have thought about how one “deconstructs” the information about this garden. Thus thinking about the perennial garden for my project in terms of “Places” involves sitting down with horticulturists, their interns, and the curator who oversees the entire record system, and then asking the question: “What is the most logical way of dividing this garden into distinct, useful components?”
Naturally, this project is not always straightforward. People think of gardens in different ways. A horticulturist may look at the Bonsai Garden and see it as, for example, six distinct beds.  But a student might see the very same garden as two, or three beds.  So each garden must be broken down in a logical fashion that can be agreed upon by all. A field team must eventually go through each place and verify which plants are in it, yet this is arduous when there are so many places to consider. That said, there is a clear end goal which benefits all: a record system that allows anyone, with great precision, to find out exactly where in Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum a specific plant lives.

Richard Bryant

Richard Bryant, from Rochester Hills, Michigan, is a second-year masters student in applied statistics. His primary areas of interest are consulting and multivariate analysis in big data. Richard is working summer 2015 as an intern in plant records and garden plans.