Two Great Locations, One Organization

By Lara O’Brien

The Nature Academy is focused on training a new generation of environmental leaders in sustainability, conservation, and ecological restoration. As part of the Nature Academy program, each intern writes a blog post and develops a project. The project provides an opportunity to take on responsibility in an area of interest, contribute to the goals of their team, and develop a skill or area of knowledge that can be added to the intern’s portfolio. The post may reflect the project or be a nature-related topic of personal interest to the intern.

Herb Knot Garden entrance

Entrance to the Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden at Matthaei.

Throughout history, every culture from the Egyptians and Romans to medieval monks and Native American tribes cultivated herbaceous plants and used them for everything from cooking and healing to household cleaning and personal hygiene. Continuing this long tradition of respect and appreciation for these incredible plants, the Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens showcases a wide variety of herbs. Based on a traditional 16th-century English Tudor design, the garden is arranged according to use. The different garden sections include everlasting herbs (those that are easy to dry and keep their shape and color for wreaths and arrangements), as well as culinary, fragrant, and traditional North American, Mediterranean, English, and Asian medicinal herbs. The herb knot garden honors “Sandy” Hicks (1934-1991) and her keen interest in herb gardening, culinary arts, healing plants, and her enthusiasm in sharing these interests with others. Sandy was a past president of the Herb Study Group at the Gardens. Gifts donated in memory of Sandy helped fund the creation of this garden.

Herb Knot Garden

When I started interning at the gardens earlier this summer, my knowledge of herbs was pretty much limited to those found in my kitchen cabinet. I gradually found myself drawn to the herb knot garden, wanting to learn more about the histories and traditional uses of the plants. The more time that I spent in the garden, the more I discovered I was not alone in this desire to know more. On more than one occasion a visitor would approach me to ask the name or use of one plant or another. This included the peony and soapwort in the traditional Asian medicinal and traditional English medicinal sections, respectively.  

Herb Knot Garden info sign
Peony Sorbet
Soapwort

On more than one occasion, a visitor would approach me to ask the name or use of one plant or another. This included the peony ‘Sorbet,’ pictured above, and soapwort in the traditional Asian medicinal and traditional English medicinal sections, respectively.

Recognizing the need to enhance and enrich the visitor experience and to make the herb knot more accessible to staff, researchers, and the general public, I began to inventory, map, and label each of the sections and plants. Using ArcGIS software, I collected geographic coordinates for the different herbaceous plants and created an interactive online web application. With the application, anyone can locate a specific plant or plants by garden section, by Latin, common, or family name, and/or life cycle type. Once selected, each plant point has an associated pop-up window that contains more information about the species, including photographs and links to additional resources. 

This web application will be published on the main Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum website. Click here to preview the Herb Knot Garden web app on your desktop.

Screen shot of GIS map of herb knot garden at Matthaei
Detail of GIS map

Screenshot from online web application. Each plant species has a pop-up window with photos and additional information.

This fall I will continue working at Matthaei Botanical Gardens through a work-study program with the University of Michigan. My goal is to increase engagement with the Herb Knot Garden by creating a native application for use on mobile devices as well as an interactive story map. I will also be installing new plant labels with QR codes for even more information about these incredible plants.

QR code

Use a smartphone device to scan the QR Code above to learn more about the rattlesnake master plant found in the traditional North American medicinal section of the Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden.

Rattlesnake-master

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium). Located in the traditional North American medicinal section of the Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden at Matthaei. All photos in this post by Lara O’Brien, Nature Academy Intern summer 2019.

Lara O’Brien is currently a master’s student at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). Focusing on conservation ecology and environmental informatics, her studies aim to utilize GIS and remote sensing technologies to enhance conservation efforts, natural resource management, and public engagement and appreciation of the natural world.

Lara O'Brien
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