Omaha Botanical Garden Combines Science and Art for Plant Education

He recalled once, while working at a different botanical garden, how it hit him on what is needed.

“I was giving some high school kids a tour of a greenhouse,” he said. There was an Easter Lily in bloom, so he started talking about both male and female parts of the flower — which in the students’ minds means sex, he noted.

“And this girl looked at me, she goes, ‘You mean plants are alive?’ And so they equated … sex with being a living thing. And it’s kind of astounded me that someone wouldn’t know. I don’t know what they thought plants were, but they did not think plants were living things.”

The Lauritzen Gardens planners felt it was important in Nebraska to show seeds from crops and not just flowers. In one cabinet displayed in the garden’s conservatory, there are jars of different seeds to compare sizes.

Jenkins said the cabinet represents a variety of things, including the diversity of shape and color and encouraging people to think of what that can become. “I think it’s really important. And I think it’s great that some are things like corn and sunflowers that you might recognize off the bat,” she said. However, people might really need to think about the other seeds — like wheat — especially if they had never seen a seed of wheat in their past, she explained.

Jenkins said it’s incredible how seeds grow, especially as people think more of what they eat, how they’re grown, while also enjoying the beauty of crops and plants.

“It’s incredibly important for kids to know how food grows,” she said. “More and more since the pandemic started, people are becoming more aware of growing their own food. And as prices of food go up, I think people are more into how to grow their own. It’d be interesting to see if we become more self-sustainable. As the years go on, I think it’s especially important to be able to show in many ways how crops grow, how different foods you eat grow, whether they’re field crops” or others.

Locklear mentioned another exhibit the garden held last fall when kids were shown sunflowers at their peak.

“We yanked a 12-foot-tall sunflower out of the ground, just a wild one. And then had some sunflower seeds, which are like, you know, maybe a quarter of an inch long. And so, for the kids to see that this gigantic plant grew in one year from a little bit of seed, that everything that that plant needed — except water and sunshine — was contained in that seed … It’s another amazing story in the plant world,” he said.

“If kids can make the connection between … farmers having to plant seed and get it to germinate and nurture those plants, that would be a great lesson,” Jenkins said.

LEARNING OF FRAGILITY

Another important part of the exhibit at the botanical garden was to stress the fragility of plants. Highlighting three ecological areas — sandsage prairie, Catherland Chalk Bluffs, and Sandhills blowout — the garden over a few months showed how plants, animals and insects adapt to and grow through seasons and even after challenging times like wind erosion, drought, low temperatures, and wildfire.

If visitors came back several times to the exhibit, they could see how plants grew and different things were added, showing how plants survive and areas bounce back. Some rare native plants were also highlighted, such as blowout penstemon.

For Locklear, it was a chance to show an area where he does a lot of work on the Great Plains. In his conservation role, although he focuses mostly on Nebraska, he travels a lot — his region covers from the Dakotas down into Kansas and Oklahoma, along with eastern parts of Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.

IMPORTANCE OF FIRE

The display on wildfires and controlled burns was timely, as this winter and early spring saw continued drought in the Great Plains and many wildfires, including in south-central and western Nebraska.

Jenkins said the display showed fires can be a natural tool to help rejuvenate the prairie and keep invasive species out and give natural plants a place to grow. “(The fire) gets rid of a lot of the woody things that, if left unburned over time, could create catastrophic burns,” she said. “We wanted to draw awareness … that fires aren’t bad, necessarily, that actually your plants are resilient.” Fire can be a natural way to manage the land and keep it healthy.

Locklear explained how in parts of Nebraska, historically, there was tension between woodland and prairie. In really wet years and cool climate, the woodland would win. In dry years, the grassland would win, and the trees would die back. However, forest woody plants have encroached on the prairie quite a bit and suppress natural plants from growing and affect diversity.

“So having fire go through there periodically opens up barriers, and you get a lot more wildflowers,” he said, adding there’s a natural progression with plants that come into a burned-out area. The natural plants produce tons of seed, which benefits birds and insects and makes for a healthier environment.

“I mean, that’s hard. You know, it’s bad when it damages private property and all that. That area (south-central Nebraska), there’s a lot of problems with Eastern red cedar trees that have invaded, particularly like the canyon areas out there in that part of the state, where they’ve come from the canyons out into the prairie.

“And so, they’ve been using prescribed burn to try to beat back this. And the ranchers do that because they want more grassland; they’re losing grazing land to the woody plants. So, the fires may help a little bit — they may invigorate. But they’ve also probably burned really high-quality pastures as well.”

Elaine Shein can be reached at [email protected]

Anita Shire

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