Conserving the earth in big and small ways requires community
Under the hot August sun, tiger swallowtail butterflies, bumble bees, hummingbirds, and other pollinators dart about among the dozens of varieties of native helenium flowers that are currently under observation in Mt. Cuba Center’s Trial Garden.
Two or three days a week, Judy Hardman can be found making her way in and out of the orderly rows of research plants, clipboard in hand, keenly attentive to all that’s buzzing, humming, and flitting among the flowers. As a citizen science volunteer on the Pollinator Watch team, she tracks which helenium flowers attract the most bees.
“It’s flattering that Mt. Cuba Center calls me a citizen scientist,” says Hardman. “It’s rewarding to contribute to real research without having to be an expert. And it’s fun!”
Some people are familiar with Mt. Cuba Center’s support for regional open space conservation, helping to establish the First State National Historic Park, and more recently assisting in the preservation of the historic natural beauty of Beaver Valley.
Others may know of Mt. Cuba Center as a renowned public garden featuring native plants, nestled in the rolling hills surrounding the former estate of Lammot and Pamela Copeland.
But fewer people are aware that Mt. Cuba Center offers a variety of educational and volunteer opportunities that allow individuals to learn about nature and participate in research and conservation efforts.
Communities in Nature
Nature is often portrayed as nothing but harsh, violent, competition for survival. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the “state of nature” as a “war of all against all,” where life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection is often simplified to “survival of the fittest.”
But there’s much more going on out there in the wild. Natural habitats are actually highly integrated communities. Plants and animals support and rely on each other in countless ways. The complex, interdependent communities of life that result are ecosystems.
In founding Mt. Cuba Center, the Copelands recognized the importance of healthy ecosystems. They saw that conserving native plants requires protecting the habitats that sustain them. And conserving natural habitats, they surmised, will ultimately require the help of an engaged community of people.
People Make a Difference
Today, Mt. Cuba Center is realizing the Copelands’ vision, motivating community action to benefit our regional ecosystem. A variety of programs provide opportunities to learn about regional ecology and assist in research and conservation activities.
Pollinator Watch volunteers help determine which plants insects prefer to feed on. “The group collects a vast amount of data,” says George Coombs, Mt. Cuba’s Manager of Horticultural Research. “That makes our findings more robust and meaningful.”
The results have real-world implications. Eileen Hazard, Mt. Cuba’s Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator explains, “Our goal is to get more nurseries to grow the plants preferred by pollinators, and showcase them to home gardeners who want to support our ecosystem.”
Citizen scientists also monitor plants in the wild. Orchid Scouts assist in surveying the status of orchid populations in Delaware. “Their data collection will help us understand whether orchid populations are growing or declining,” Hazard says. “This will help us focus our conservation efforts.”
Garden Warriors, another volunteer group, assists horticulturists with garden maintenance, and an outreach team helps spread the word about Mt. Cuba Center’s programs at local events. “We offer volunteers a variety of ways to get involved,” Hazard adds.
Mt. Cuba Center also offers a wide array of education programs. Many classes are designed for beginning gardeners and nature enthusiasts interested in understanding more about local wildlife.
“Our ecological gardening certificate program allows people to take only the classes that they want,” explains Eileen Boyle, Mt. Cuba’s Director of Education and Research. “Sometimes their curiosity grows and they complete the certificate.”
Classes equip students to improve their home landscapes, both aesthetically and ecologically. Whether you have a suburban yard or an apartment patio, “adding a few native plants provides important food sources for many species of wildlife,” says Boyle. “Our classes help students choose natives that will thrive and add beauty under a wide variety of conditions, from moist shade to full sun.”
Other classes allow students to enjoy nature while foraging for wild mushrooms, hunting for owls, admiring bald eagles, or tagging Monarch butterflies to monitor their migration.
Class participants receive a native plant to take home and add to their landscape. The hope is, if people enjoy that plant, maybe they’ll choose more native plants.
“It’s really a positive message. By adding beauty to your yard, you can also support birds, butterflies, and the broader environment,” Boyle says.
Plants, animals, people – we all play a role in our shared community. Small actions, broadly adopted, make a real difference. At Mt. Cuba Center this fall there are more ways than ever to get in on the action.
Nature’s Landscapes is a monthly column by Mt. Cuba Center, and first appeared in the August 24 edition of the News Journal. Read the full article here. Today’s article is written by Jeff Downing, Mt. Cuba Center’s executive director.