The University of Delaware exhibit at this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show will provide visitors a lesson in the inherent value of abundant plant life, with a focus on useful, edible and therapeutic plants found in the Amazon rainforest.
The exhibit, which has been prepared by students and faculty members in the Design Process Practicum class and the Design and Articulture (DART) student organization, will highlight the diversity of plants found in the Amazon and the capacity of the rich ecosystem to provide medicines for ailments.
The flower show will run Feb. 28 through March 8 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
The idea for the theme originated last spring in the interdisciplinary Design Process Practicum class, which is taught by Jules Bruck, associate professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences; Anthony Middlebrooks, associate professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration; and Jon Cox, assistant professor in the Department of Art.
Students in the class split into three groups and each group had to design a flower show exhibit for three separate clients — the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER), Duffy’s Hope, a service provider for at-risk and hard to reach youth ages 12-17, and Connections Community Support Programs Inc., which provides a comprehensive array of health care, housing and employment opportunities that help individuals and families to achieve their own goals and enhance communities. Through Connections, the students specifically worked with the Sturfels Youth Center, which provides a safe haven for boys and girls who have been arrested but who have not yet been convicted of a criminal offense.
When the professors were unable to choose a winner, they had Sam Lemheney — chief of shows and events for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS), director of the Philadelphia Flower Show and an alumnus of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) — pick the project to represent UD. He selected the project of the group that had worked with ACEER.
ACEER is committed to promoting conservation of the Amazon by fostering awareness, understanding, action and transformation, and in keeping with that theme, the UD group decided to highlight the plant life found in that region.
“We’re really going to try to highlight awareness and understanding of the conservation of the Amazon rainforest for the purpose of making sure that we have good access to medicinal plants over time,” said Bruck. “As the forest ecosystems are degraded and eventually lost through poor agricultural practices, we lose an opportunity to study species and the way indigenous tribes use medicinal plants. The students were really interested in a ‘forest to pharmacy’ concept.”
Paige Gugerty, a senior organizational and community leadership major who is part of DART and is the teaching assistant for the class, said that the forest to pharmacy concept comes from the fact that “in the pharmaceutical industry, a lot of medications that we use, and even some potential cancer fighting drugs, come from plant compounds found in the Amazon. It’s really important to preserve the Amazon because of those plant compounds and the different medicinal and religious uses of what is found there.”
In addition to having an education display, the students were also interested in having a very exuberant, colorful exhibit. To do that, they had to select plants that are both educational and aesthetically pleasing.
To choose the plants for the show, two students — Gugerty and Elinor Brown, a junior in the College of Health Sciences — traveled to Florida in September 2014 with Lemheney to visit nurseries and tree farms.
The fact that Gugerty, a leadership major, and Brown, an exercise science major, were chosen to visit Florida to pick out the flowers speaks to the interdisciplinary nature of the course, something the professors stressed is important to the design process.
“We’re highly interested in crossing disciplines and we’re always trying to get different disciplines to work together to see each other’s perspectives and understand the strengths that each perspective brings that they might be overlooking,” said Middlebrooks. “So the flower show is a perfect opportunity because there are so many details to putting together an exhibit — from the initial exploration of ideas, to generating ideas, to the creative details and the logistics for getting it there, getting it set up, ordering materials, balancing the books, and everything else.”
For their part, the students were thrilled to be selected to travel to Florida.
“I was so grateful that Jules offered up that opportunity to us,” Gugerty said. “The fact that they sent two students was really awesome because neither one of us is from CANR, but we worked together and prepared for the trip and did a lot of our research up front so that when we got to the nurseries, we were able to look at what we wanted to look at and then come back and order pretty quickly.”
Brown added that it was nice to travel with Lemheney and another exhibitor at the flower show because “they have such a connection with people down there and they’re so close. It was really nice being with them and meeting their clients and establishing a connection with them that we can use for the next few years.”
The students chose most of their flowers from Excelsa Gardens in Loxahatchee as they said Excelsa set the gold standard for nurseries and had a very accommodating staff.
The comprehensive plant list had around 450 plants in total and included bromeliads, gingers, banana palms, orchids, bananas and cocoa.
Cox, who conducted studies in Peru recently, will include in the display some masks and objects from his trip. There will also be baskets that indigenous Peruvians use to gather plants and berries in the exhibit, and ACEER is going to hand out samples of fair trade coffee and promote other fair trade products.
In addition to the plants, the display will also have little bottles hanging from the ceiling to represent the concept of running water, and a CD titled Sounds from the Peruvian Rain Forest will be played. There will also be art from Hillary Parker, an award winning botanic illustrator, with some of her paintings representing this area’s local native plants that have medicinal properties and were once used by indigenous North American peoples.
The theme of this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show is “Celebrate the Movies” and the hope is that people who visit the UD display will walk away knowing that they are in the director’s chair when it comes to conservation and that even though they aren’t in the Amazon, they can have an impact on rain forest conservation by supporting ACEER, buying sustainable products and even planting a forest garden of native plants in their back yards.
“What we want people to walk away with is that everything is connected and that our reliance on medicines derived from tropical plants reminds us to support education and research in products that help conserve and sustain these ecosystems,” said Bruck.
After the show, the plants will be sold at the University’s Ag Day, as most of the items — such as the orchids and the ferns — make for good house plants.
The exhibit is sponsored by PHS and the Hutton Fund, in memory of Richard J. Hutton.
Blake Meyers, chair of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences and the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences, also contributed to the show.
Middlebrooks said that there is an open invitation to get involved with the project. “This is not a closed project in any way. We are very true to our spirit of creativity and innovation, and anyone who wants to bring their talents or even just their energy and enthusiasm to the group — students, staff, faculty — we’re open to all those kinds of collaborations.”
Article by Adam Thomas
Photos by Lindsay Yeager and courtesy of Paige Gugerty
This article can also be viewed on UDaily.