By Emily Welch
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.
Every time a school or summer group visits Matthaei Botanical Gardens we start by sitting them all on the steps at the front of the main entrance. This serves several functions. It calms the students down and allows us to divide them into groups. And it helps us start the day with two important rules. One: always let the docent or guide go first to scout for and avoid any resident eastern massasauga rattlesnakes, the only venomous snake native to Michigan. The second—and the one I am more focused on—is that the students may only touch a plant if they get the OK from their guide. This is necessary because both outside and inside, we have plants that may be poisonous or spiky and could harm the students, and we want to keep everyone safe. I found that because of the issue of cacti and small hands a lot of our docents spend less time in the arid house of the conservatory. It’s not as exciting when you can’t touch the plants.
The Sonoran Desert. Elzada Clover, a professor in botany at the University of Michigan from 1960-67, is most famous for her 1938 expedition down the Colorado River. During that expedition she planned to record and discover new plant species along the river and surrounding desert. She was the first woman to successfully travel by boat down the Colorado, at the time still largely unexplored and treacherous. (Photo by Joe Parks.)
Docents also tend to spend less time in the arid house because it seems like they have less to talk about, mostly because they don’t have as much information about the arid plants. For me, the arid house of the conservatory is one of the most important for our visitors because it shows them a type of biome they might never have experienced. In Michigan we live quite far from the nearest desert, so a visit to this biome brings the Namib, Sonoran, and Kalahari deserts closer to home. When it was suggested that we need a new educational program to add to our understanding of the arid biome I saw it as an opportunity to get our students and docents more excited about the desert ecosystem.
Much of what we know about desert plants, especially those in the Sonoran Desert, comes from Elzada Clover, a professor in botany at the University of Michigan from 1960-67. Clover is most famous for her 1938 expedition down the Colorado River. In fact she was the first woman to successfully travel by boat down the Colorado, at the time still largely unexplored and treacherous. During that expedition she planned to record and discover new plant species along the river. After her successful river run, Clover went on to become the curator at Matthaei Botanical Gardens in 1957. She became a full professor of botany in 1960. While that is a long list of accomplishments for any individual, Elzada Clover did this at a time when for the most part women weren’t accepted in the sciences. She heard repeatedly before her expedition that the Colorado River is “no place for a woman,” and she was denied any title above instructor for many years at the University of Michigan. Elzada Clover proved them wrong. And she is credited with identifying over 50 species of desert plants and powerfully influencing the future of botany.
I want to share Elzada Clover’s journey with our students because the science and engineering fields are still heavily male dominated. According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, “Women constitute 47% of the overall workforce and 28% of the S&E workforce.” While those numbers are clearly an improvement from when Clover was at the University of Michigan, it is important to encourage young girls to embrace science and engineering as viable career options. I believe that by sharing the story of Elzada Clover along with our arid plant collection, she could become a possible role model for our young students.
My hope is that this education program will succeed in two ways, both by revamping interest in our arid house and by encouraging women in science and engineering. I have been amazed by Elzada Clover’s story as I got the opportunity to view her original field notebooks and plant list from the 1938 expedition. It’s the stories like Clover’s that I hope will intrigue, amaze, and inspire students.
Emily Welch is a youth education intern working at Matthaei Botanical Gardens this summer working on educational programming and teaching youth how to be environmental stewards. She is a rising Sophomore at the University of Michigan from Livonia, MI. Emily is studying economics and environmental science, with a focus in how the two can cross over for the best interest of all. Outside of class she loves to read, hike, figure skate, and hang with friends.