Student intern Wyatt Clement finds that learning about the plants at Matthaei-Nichols bolsters his list of fun facts and gives him a greater appreciation for nature with each unique plant he encounters.
By Wyatt Clement
     “Can you identify this flower for me?”
     “How do you take care of this plant?”
The Matthaei-Nichols visitor services staff working the front desk at the Gardens or in the Reader Center at the Arb encounter these types of questions on a daily basis. But as a group of people who spend significantly more time looking after inventories than collections, we often don’t know the answers. Instead, we practice the art of pointing visitors in the right direction. Usually this boils down to attempting to catch a passing volunteer or more knowledgeable staff member, making an educated guess, or, when all else fails, Googling it. In general, these approaches are satisfactory, but not exactly satisfying from my perspective. We’re supposed to be serving visitors, after all, and to me, that means being as helpful as possible.

Photos of some of my plants purchased at Matthaei. They’ve provided me with many learning experiences! (Blog post continues below photos.)

My century plant (Agave americana) today.
It’s had a bit of a growth spurt, but it’s still
very young. As hinted at by its name, this plant
can live a very long time. But, as a monocarpic
plant it only blooms once, after which it dies.

My century plant (Agave americana) when I first
brought it home. Like all the century plants we sell
at the Garden Store, it is a seedling from the
80-year-old agave that bloomed in the
Conservatory in 2014.

My aloe vera, the famous ‘burn plant’ known
for its use in soothing lotions. It may require
repotting soon as itbuds relentlessly.

My tillandsia ‘Pink Quill’ when it was blooming.
A bromeliad and the only member of its genus
that can be grown in a pot. All other species
are air plants.

Hylocereus is a genus of night-blooming cacti,
and this particular species is also a vine.
Some members of this genus also produce
a pulpy red fruit known colloquially as dragonfruit.

So, shortly after starting as a work-study student employee back in September 2016, I decided to try my hand at taking care of a plant. I figured by doing this I could learn a little bit more about some of the plants that we sell at the Garden Store at Matthaei, and thereby be better positioned to answer visitor inquiries directly. I have since built a small collection of three succulents and one bromeliad, and the experience of taking care of them has been surprisingly fulfilling. Who would have thought that I would feel so happy to see my Hylocereus sprout a new leaf, or feel so sad watching my now departed vanilla orchid wither and die?
Dragonfruit: The fruit produced by some members
of the Hylocereus genus. Both the fruit and its
seeds can be consumed, and it is often used to
make juices. (Photo by S Masters via Wikimedia
Beyond developing my green thumb, I’ve been trying to grow my knowledge base in other ways. When I get the chance, I stop to read the labels on plants in the conservatory that spark my interest so that I can identify them for visitors. I also take the time to look up new plants as they come into the Garden Store so that I know a little bit about them for when a visitor asks. All of this has done more than bolster my list of fun facts; I feel a greater appreciation for nature with each unique plant I encounter. And that’s the essence of the Botanical Gardens and Arboretum. It’s a place that encourages both visitors and staff to learn about the wonderful world around them. The summer internships open the door for this even further, by offering a wide range of learning opportunities, such as lectures and tours of the Arboretum. Furthermore, each intern is required to complete a season-long project about nearly any relevant topic, and present their findings with a poster at the end of the summer. As I move into this more education-focused internship, I’m more excited about working here than ever.
Wyatt Clement, from South Lyon, Michigan, recently graduated with a BA in Psychology and will be pursuing a Master of Science in Information at U-M starting in the fall. This summer, Wyatt is an intern with the visitor engagement team, working at the visitor centers at both the Botanical Gardens and the Arboretum. His hobbies include gaming, watching movies, and caring for his succulent collection. Wyatt’s internship is supported by Matthaei-Nichols membership dollars and by donations to the Internship Fund.