Sophia Paul
The Visitor Engagement team at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum plays an important role in the organization by ensuring that visitors have a positive experience. We greet visitors, answer questions, and generally create a welcoming environment. Working in a position that directly engages with visitors means fielding a lot of questions. Sometimes I can answer them, other times I need to redirect them.
The most common question I get is about parking, and the most unusual question came from a person who wanted to know if they could bring their goat to the Arb (no). I’ve gotten a lot of questions, but here are some of my favorites to answer.

What is this flower?? The flowers of the tulip tree
are striking and when the tree is in bloom, people are
about what they are. The flowers do look like
tulips. There are
 tulip trees in the Arb and the Gardens
including one near the Medicinal Garden at Matthaei.
I just saw a really cool flowering tree/blue butterfly/yellow orchid. Do you know what it is?
I don’t always know the answer to this kind of question, but I can usually connect someone to resources. More than that though, I get excited by people’s excitement about all the cool things at Arb and Botanical Gardens. Sometimes people will show me pictures that they took out on the trails and I love seeing them. It’s as much an opportunity for me to learn about what’s going on in our gardens and spaces as it is for our visitors to enjoy!
What should I go see today?
A blooming bonsai azalea at Matthaei. Since the plants bloom
for a relatively short period of time, catching one of these amazing
azaleas is a treat for visitors. This display would be a must-see
recommendation from anyone working the front desk at Matthaei.
(Photo by Scott Soderberg.)

The answer to this question is almost always that it depends on where you want to go. However sometimes people ask what’s in bloom and/or looking particularly neat. Both the Arb and the Botanical Gardens contain plants that bloom, set fruit, turn color in the fall, or play a particular role in the ecosystem. This diversity means there’s something exciting to see throughout the year. For example, in early June, Matthaei Botanical Gardens hosted a display of blooming bonsai azalea on loan from donor Mel Goldstein. The azaleas bloomed for about a week and are one of those plants whose bloom season is relatively short. So the bonsai are a must-see and when they bloom, provide a standout experience for visitors.

The model of the massasauga at the
Matthaei front desk is real but no longer
living. It is a valuable display, however,
because visitors can see what a real
massasauga looks like.

This is an eastern massasauga rattlesnake (Cistrurus catenatus)
photographed at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. Most people
are surprised to learn that a rattlesnake lives in Michigan! This
native snake is shy and avoids humans but visitors do see them
occasionally at Matthaei. 

Is this snake real?

We have a model of an Eastern massasauga rattlesnake at the front desk. It is real, and while not alive, it is very eye-catching. I enjoy the chance to talk about this rare native species that many people aren’t familiar with. In southeast Michigan, the massasauga lives at Matthaei and several other places. Talking to visitors about the massasauga is an opportunity to educate them about this. If you see one at the botanical gardens, report it to the front desk staff or online at the Michigan DNR’s Eyes in the Field observation reporting page. If you’re out on the trails, be aware that this snake does live in Michigan but is also quite shy. Keep your distance and don’t try to play with or disturb the snake. It’s a wild animal, after all, and should be left alone. Click here to read information about the massasauga on the Matthaei-Nichols website.
Where should I go to eat?
Some people from out-of-town or out-of-state come to visit the Botanical Gardens or the Arb and many of them want to get a bite to eat on the way out. Many of them know where they want to go already (and I’m happy to give directions), but others are looking for suggestions. Since I think Ann Arbor has a lot of excellent restaurants I love the chance to provide recommendations for people with different tastes, interests, and budgets.
Yes to dogs (on leash) in Nichols Arboretum No to dogs at the botanical
gardens. For sure—no goats allowed at either place!

Can I bring my dog to the Arb?

First: no goats allowed! And while dogs are not allowed at the Botanical Gardens, the Arb is open to all dogs on leash and I certainly enjoy the chance to meet them while I’m working there! Here’s a picture of a runner and his dog participating in the fall Run for the Arb 5K.

The air plant, or Tillandsia, is a genus of plants in the bromeliad
family—same family as the pineapple and Spanish moss. They
are a popular purchase at the Garden Store at Matthaei
Botanical Gardens.

What plant should I buy?
The Garden Store at Matthaei is always stocked with an array of succulents, house plants, and air plants. I’m always happy to chat about plants and give recommendations. The air plants are often an object of particular fascination. They’re bromeliads and evolved in tropical climates to get the water and nutrients from the air in canopies. Since Michigan generally isn’t as humid (or as consistently warm) as the tropics, air plants do need to be periodically misted or soaked. If someone is looking for a plant that thrives with minimal attention, I’m always excited to recommend the purple shamrock. I had one all throughout undergrad and while it didn’t always thrive when I neglected it; it is still going strong now that I’m taking better care of it.

Sophia Paul is pursuing a master’s degree from the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, with concentrations in environmental policy & planning and environmental justice. Sophia is originally from Northeast Ohio and enjoys cooking, eating, and cycling around Ann Arbor.Sophia’s internship is made possible by Matthaei-Nichols members and individual donors.