Christopher Dunn

The Cornell Botanic Gardens step into summer with a new name. Formerly the Cornell Plantations, the gardens will kick off seasonal events with a title that embraces diversity in both the cultural and biological senses.

Executive Director Christopher Dunn finalized the name change this past October, completing a nearly 10-year-long process of brainstorming, proposing, changing and planning. The word “plantation” — along with its denotation of a field growing a single type of plant — is often associated with American slavery and black oppression, which does not reflect the cultural history the Cornell Botanic Gardens highlight.

“It seemed that the time was right to look at the name,” Dunn said. “It doesn’t really fit for what we do, nor is a plantation a botanic garden. … Any botanic garden is about diversity: it’s about showcasing the rich diversity of plants that we can grow in this area.” 

Honing in on diversity, summer events begin June 17 with guided garden and gorge trail tours. The gardens integrate both cultural and biological diversity through different plants. Each flower, herb, tree or any other plant in the garden has a story that talks of the plant’s roots — both in the literal and metaphorical sense.

One of the highlighted plants, the peony, grows in the garden before a book display. In this book, the peony is described within the context of cultures in countries such as China, Japan and Greece. The same flower exists in several parts of the world, and each display connects these cultures through botanical sciences.

“Sometimes you see these beautiful blue and white porcelain vases from Japan that depict peonies on them,” Dunn said. “So we can interpret the peony — not only in terms of its horticultural value or where it came from — but how it has been used by different people and different cultures. We get people to appreciate plants not just for their own sake but also for how the plant is important to them.”  

Sonja Skelly, director of education and communications, says each person can have a connection to a certain plant. She asks visitors about their favorite flowers and for their stories behind them. Perhaps one person favors tulips because of family memories of gardening while another can favor tiger lillies because those were the flowers received after each school play growing up. Each plant has a rich history.

After the community becomes acquainted with the gardens, participants can begin learning and volunteering. Community members can take part in “weeding therapy” Tuesday evenings beginning July 11, where Ithacans can help keep the garden in order while simultaneously learning about the plants and gardening techniques.

The botanic gardens also plan to celebrate invasive species week. The gardens work to combat pests in the natural areas, and this summer the hemlock woolly adelgid will be highlighted. Hemlock trees line the gorges, and the trees are often in danger of hemlock woolly adelgids taking over and killing the plants. The goal of the hike is to educate Ithacans on the efforts they can take to fight the invasive species.

“We’re working to protect the hemlocks: they’re part of our nature’s flora,” Skelly said. “They’re these little woolly bugs, and they cover all the trees and kill them basically. If we lose the hemlocks, it’s really going to disrupt the ecosystem.”

Rounding out the summer events will be photography and illustration workshops. In addition, the gardens will host a book talk from local author Linda Spielman regarding her latest book on animal tracking. On July 27, the annual Booze and Botany cocktail party will take place in the herb garden. Cornell Botanic Garden members will sip on drinks featuring herbs from the gardens and cocktails provided by Agava restaurant.

Each of the events aim to bring the Ithaca community together while also broadening the community’s understanding of cultural and biological diversity.

“If you live in a particular area of the world and you don’t move around much … when you see these things start to change around — birds disappearing or plants aren’t flowering the way they’re supposed to, thing of which you have no control — these changes start to cause cultural shifts,” Dunn said. “These communities that have been in tact with their environment for thousands and thousands of years are now being shattered. … We’re doing this for the survival of humankind and human cultural diversity.”

The gardens are open each day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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