by Veronica Iriart (PLS Guest Editor)
Now that it’s finally spring, I am overjoyed by the rejuvenation and return of many of my favorite local plants. Outside of my apartment building there is a huge northern catalpa tree that has regrown its beautiful bright green leaves and long, finger-like seed pods. I also appreciate the newly sprung wild violets, buttercups, and daisy fleabanes who add refreshing pops of color when I take my dogs out on their daily walks around the neighborhood. By taking the time to notice these changes in the flora around me in my daily life, I am reminded of a teaching project I led last year that aimed to help undergraduate students at the University of Pittsburgh practice this same kind of plant-focused mindfulness. The project also had the added benefit of getting students to spend time in nature during a time when ‘Zoom fatigue’ rates were at an all-time high on college campuses.
In Spring 2021, when this project occurred, almost all courses at the University of Pittsburgh were taught completely virtually via Zoom or in a virtual/in-person hybrid format due to the safety precautions taken by the university to minimize the spread of COVID-19. As a result, many students, especially international ones, stayed in their hometowns and never met their instructors or classmates in-person. I was a first-time teaching assistant (TA) and lab instructor for two sections of an introductory biology lab, and I initially felt very disappointed that my first teaching experience would lack in-person interactions with students. However, I soon realized that the students had an even greater challenge: they had to learn lab techniques through their computer screens and manage teamwork through internet connection issues in Zoom break-out rooms. This lab environment, my colleagues and I thought, would exacerbate Zoom fatigue and take a psychological toll on students’ well-being and mental health. Thus, I designed an assignment with guidance from my supervisor, Dr. Nancy Kaufmann, to relieve students’ pandemic-induced blues through plant love story-telling.
To complete our plant love story assignment, students had to go on three nature walks throughout the semester and observe the plants around them. During each walk, students would choose a plant, use the iNaturalist mobile app to identify and record it, and write a brief blog post about it. At the end of the semester, students would write a final plant love story about their focal plant(s). While we encouraged students to revisit the same plant during each walk to note its changes over time, several students switched locations over the semester and thus wrote about and observed multiple plants. Ultimately, because of the remote learning environment and high enrollment (~700 students were enrolled in total across various sections), by the end of the project, students wrote about and submitted hundreds of iNaturalist observations of plants all around the world. For me, it was inspiring to learn from the students about the variety of plants they connected with and to hear their stories. Additionally, it seemed like we met our goal in supporting student well-being that spring: 63% of students agreed or strongly agreed that writing plant love stories was beneficial for their self-care and/or mental health in a post-evaluation course survey. As you’ll see below, many students reflected that the break from the computer screen and opportunity to spend time in nature was an enjoyable and relaxing experience. Similar to the goal of Plant Love Stories, students also discussed that the assignment helped them better appreciate the plants around them.
I have pulled out some of my favorite excerpts from outstanding student stories to share with PLS. Although many colleges and universities are now back to in-person teaching, these stories still serve as relevant and important examples of how taking the time to close our laptop screens, put away our cell phones, and focus instead on forming and fostering relationships with the plants in our environment can have positive impacts on our well-being and everyday appreciation of nature. If I get the opportunity to teach again in the future, I know that I will incorporate projects like the plant love stories assignment again to continue encouraging plant awareness.
Flame of the Forest
by Sarah Ahmed
I spent a large part of my childhood learning music and performing in shows for various occasions like Independence Day, Victory Day or any other national holiday. The memories from those shows and all our rehearsals are still very vivid and so close to my heart. I remember the lyrics of most of the songs we used to sing, and I remember the 'Flame of the Forest' mentioned in many of them.
In my country, Bangladesh, this flower is called Polash. Polash is widely mentioned in a number of Bengali literary works because of it vibrant orange color and the fact that it is a flower native to our land.
Most of the time, Polash appears in patriotic songs and poems to symbolize the fiery rage within the freedom fighters who sacrificed their lives to bring independence to our nation in 1971 or to mention the unique natural beauty of our land.
It was February, the month where many people died in the Language Movement of Bangladesh in 1971, when I was working on the second blog post for this class. I saw the Flame of Forest on my search for a plant for my blog and thought that this was the perfect plant to write about during this month since it is so intertwined with descriptions of the country I come from.
The Flame of the Forest or Butea monosperma bears its characteristic orange flowers that sometimes appear like a quivering fire when a gentle breeze flows through the branches of the tree. I personally think that if you look at the tree from a distance, sometimes the flowers look like little orange birds resting on the branches.
Before, I never really paid much attention to the living organisms around me but this project really made me more aware of them. I found using iNaturalist to be quite fun since taking picture of these plants and making observations about them made me feel more like a scientist even in these trying times presented by the pandemic. I have learned to look more closely at not only organisms themselves but also at their surroundings which do have a significant effect on them. I think I will continue to use iNaturalist and this time use it to identify animals.
How To Not Be A Houseplant
by Matt Wrzesniewski
I likely would have spent the vast majority of the spring of my Freshman year hiding
from the sunlight if it wasn’t for my Biology class. A few weeks into the semester, my Biology lab instructor assigned us an unusual task: go outside, walk a fair distance from our dorms, take a picture of a plant, and write about it. While simple on the surface, this assignment represents the antithesis of the average student’s workload. Usually, homework and assignments keep a college kid chained to a desk in the library rather than forced to take a trip outside. Initially, I begrudgingly left the comfort of my poorly lit dorm room desk. I soon found myself enjoying the process of meandering through a park a lot more than I thought I would. Throughout this time, I learned about the plants that I walk past everyday while simultaneously gaining a greater appreciation for the nature that is a short walk from my dorm room.
February 4th, 2021: While doing homework on campus, I saw a group of oak trees planted in the front lawn of the Cathedral. One, in particular, reminded me of the tree in front of my home in Skippack, Pennsylvania. This was the first tree I climbed, fell out of, and picked up leaves from during weekly chores. I decided that if I was to write about a piece of nature, it might as well be a piece that I can relate to.
March 3rd, 2021: The plant I chose for this week's assignment was the dawn redwood tree. At this point in the year, the tree has lost almost all of its leaves with a paltry amount left, clinging to dead ones around its upper branches. While the dawn redwood pictured is of a large size, it is still not yet at maturity (the adult dawn redwood can grow as large as 100 feet). It is clearly maintained by the workers of the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Both The northern red oak from the last assignment and this redwood are deciduous, meaning that they lose their leaves in the winter. As of February, neither have begun to grow them back. As temperatures continue to rise, both the oak and the redwood will gain new leaves.
March 31st, 2021: Since the writing of my second blog, the dawn redwood has experienced change in multiple facets. Small buds are growing out of the branches. I predict that as the weather continues to warm, the foliage of the tree will rapidly fill out. In addition to the new buds, the tree is producing seed cones. Two separate cones could be seen during my visit. The tree has not noticeably changed in size.
These walks were equally important for my biology grade as they were to my
enjoyment of this semester. After walking to the local Schenley Park the first time, I
realized that I was missing out on one of the best ways to center myself during a hectic
world and schedule. While likely fairly obvious to most, I was unaware of the ability for a walk along some trees and away from the stressors of everyday life to completely turn
around a day.
The Harrowing Adventures of Rocky the Rhododendron
By Anna Mathias
Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? At the start of my biology lab course, my class was assigned to take some time outside to look for interesting plants to write about.
All I could think was that we’re in Pittsburgh in January, and it was still snowing out when we had to write our first blog! How am I ever going to find a living plant or flower that has not been shriveled up and destroyed by the harsh Pennsylvania cold?
I thought my search was pointless, but then I stumbled upon this sturdy Rhododendron. The plant was definitely battling the elements, its flowers had not bloomed and it was surrounded by dormant shrubs. However, I could tell that this Rhododendron was a fighter and if any plant was going to be able to survive the winter, it was this one. Since this plant is a contender and has had to fight against the odds, I decided to name him Rocky! (I soon realized that the name, Rocky, doesn’t exactly fit a plant, but I grew attached to it so it’s too late.)
I really enjoyed visiting Rocky throughout the following months, and through this assignment I learned so much and I really began to appreciate the plant life of my campus! For instance, consider Rocky’s nearby environment. He was located in a very populated area of campus, right by a commonly used building. Lots of students and faculty would walk by this area, which was evident by all the litter and trash I would encounter. At first, Rocky’s only hardship was the cold and the snow, but as the weather got warmer and more people were walking around campus I would often have to pick up some of this debris to keep it away from Rocky. The plant was also located right by a trash can and an ash tray, these were just more obstacles Rocky had to overcome so he could grow and flourish. I also noticed some of the other plants around Rocky “coming back to life” as the weather got warmer.
I also realized what an interesting and beautiful plant the Rhododendron is. Rhododendrons are very desired across the world because of their bright and colorful flowers. I found this especially intriguing because Rocky's flowers have yet to bloom and I can’t wait to see what they look like when they do!
Our nature walks were a great way for me to spend my days off and connect with nature. I definitely enjoyed visiting Rocky to watch him grow and change over the semester. His flowers still have not bloomed, but he looks a lot healthier and stronger than when we began. I will absolutely come back to check on Rocky next semester. I also liked working with iNaturalist and I even started using it to take pictures of other plants I encounter every day to determine their species. This assignment really gave me a newfound appreciation for the plants and wildlife on my campus!
Family of Flowers
by Louis Fortin
Connecting with nature is something we can all do, the hardest part is finding where we connect. Much like the idea of six degrees of separation, we are all connected with nature in some way even if we don’t yet realize. I went walking around the neighborhood with my grandmother when we found this plant that she knows a lot about. Before she moved to Florida, my grandmother was a very avid gardener and so she looked up the various plant life around Tarpon Springs. This, I think, influenced my decision to take the picture of this plant. This is a Cordyline fructosa plant, more generally known as Ti plants or “The sisters” as my grandparents call them due to the common name of Red Sisters (above). Even my grandfather, who knows nothing about gardening or plants, talked like he was an expert on the Ti.
However that is not all that my grandmother has planted. This is a Japanese pachysandra (left) that was planted by my grandmother over 14 years ago. I took a picture of these pachysandra because there was a large pollutant source from two years ago that has impaired pachysandra growth and development. In two years, there has been no recovery and no growth from pachysandra even though other plants have been growing such as ivy. Despite her best efforts, my mother has had no luck in getting them to grow again. These pachysandra hold a lot more value to us than the other plants specifically because of my grandmother’s involvement in planting them so it’s very sad to see them in such a state. Luckily, we have many other plants she has planted in our yard.
I like to think that my mom too is a gardener, she has planted many assortments of plants like azaleas, tulips, and dogwoods just to name a few off the top of my head. Even if nowadays she is more of a weed disposer, my mom is following my grandmother’s passion for gardening and takes great care for her yard.
These walks made me realize how connected I am not just with nature but with the specific plants around me. Every plant has its own story big or small and every tree has its own avenue of interest you could stumble upon.
iNaturalist has its charms in helping you discover anything you want. My mom now asks me to take pictures of 'this plant' or 'that tree' because she doesn’t know its name and I can now help find out the species and tell her. The app has made connecting with nature and my mother a lot easier as there is this opportunity that it creates that I will always take.
The Maple Mystery
By Flaviana Shkoza
Safe to say, going into the roaring 2020’s I didn’t foresee myself living through a global
pandemic. As a young restless teen in my senior year of high school, I thought that the spring would bring all sorts of memorable events with my family and friends before I started college. However, instead of jamming out to music at my prom, I was instead listening to music while masked up and walking through South Park, a local escape from everyday life during the summer quarantine. My once daily walks became few and far in between so when I was introduced to our plant blog assignment in my Biology lab, I automatically knew I had to revisit the place that had been my safe space just a few months prior. For our assignment, I chose to track the life cycle of a tree near the pond that my family always uses as our meeting point after outdoor excursions.
Upon my first to the tree in February, I found a serene winter wonderland shrouded in a blanket of white shimmering snow (left). The only disturbance to be found was myself, the howling wind, and the occasional car driving along a neighboring road. The tree itself was dormant, only holding on to a few dead leaves from the previous season. However, even without leaves, I was able to get a sense of what kind of tree it was. Based on preliminary research, and some help from a local on iNaturalist, I determined the genus of the tree as Acer, more commonly known as maple. This was evident because of the branching patterns of the tree which exhibited clear opposing pairs. Although I wasn’t able to garner much else, this identification was a start.
When I arrived home, I began researching local species of maple trees. I found that the most commonly occurring ones in the area were silver maples and sugar maples. However, the leaf shapes of these two species didn’t match those I remembered growing on the tree. I decided to wait until the leaves began to fully sprout in order to decide the species. When I visited on April 14, the tree had transformed. Splotches of bright green foliage littered the branches as well as the stark contrast of a red-winged blackbird perching proudly on a bow. Finally, I was able to reference the leaf shape to identify the tree. Although I was not able to garner a confirmation of my ID from iNaturalist, I believe that this tree is an Acer negundo, more commonly known as a boxelder maple. Boxelders have a verydifferent leaf shape from most other maple trees in that it has more pinnately compound leaves (leaves that are divided into leaflets).
This assignment was a fun excuse to get outdoors and explore nature instead of sitting in front of a laptop. I felt a little bit like a detective trying to analyze the tree and the local
environment for clues on its identification. It really opened my eyes to what I could observe if I just take a minute to slow down and analyze my surroundings. I have a feeling that when I return to taking my regular walks through South Park this summer, I will continue to try and identify other interesting plants I encounter along my trail.
A Tale of Two Trees: The Story of the Plants I Took for Granted
By Aidan Carney
Why on earth would I study the random tree in my yard? Can’t I be more creative than that? Truthfully, it came down to one of my favorite aspects about our front yard tree, which was the uncertainty surrounding it. My parents recall that we were once offered a great deal of money for it and could never figure out why. I, too, was interested in this, and thought it would be a great opportunity to finally figure out what about this seemingly normal tree made it so special. Something surprising to me is that studying the tree ended up causing me to do a great deal of self-reflection, as I was able to relive many fond childhood memories that I had since seemingly forgotten about. Playing games with my sister under the tree, climbing it and nearly falling after seeing a stray bug (I never cared much for spiders), et cetera. I sent out as many pictures as I could to some other, talented natural observers (via the mobile application iNaturalist) and waited.
In the meantime, I wanted to find a tree to study that I could actually identify, so that I could do more research into its interactions with the environment around it (and, frankly, I wanted to get a bit further away from the house). It could also provide somewhat of a reference point for the study of my own tree, I figured. This is what brought me to another tree I recognized from my childhood in our local park, a Chinese weeping willow tree, Salix babylonica. This tree was the one I would have my Cub Scouts meetings under when I was in Elementary School, and thus I was immediately reminded of many fond, after-school memories in a simpler time. How could this, a random tree in my local park, ignite so many fond memories of my youth? I put that thought in my back pocket, and got to studying.
When I first began studying the Chinese weeping willow, it was still in its winter phase, meaning that there were no green leaves, and that the staple appearance of the tree had not yet fully taken shape. I learned that in the tree’s native region, China, it actually had medicinal use. This prompted a study into the tree’s ability to kill bacteria that shows that extract from the tree negatively impact the growth of several common types of bacteria. I also found a fascinating article regarding how the tree’s surroundings and interactions could actually be shaped by certain social factors. My city takes great pride in the development of its urban, majority-white areas (this particular park being one example) and provides regular upkeep to these parts of town as a result. As such, this particular Chinese Weeping Willow was very well-maintained and cared for, getting all of the nutrients and greenspace it needed easily. Other trees, especially those located in less wealthy, minority-dominated areas of the city, don’t tend to receive this same care, and as such are often overgrown or severely polluted. These findings seem to correlate well with other studies that have found a definitive relationship between social inequalities in abiotic environments and the biology of plants surrounding them.
A few days ago, I checked the iNaturalist application once more. I was happy to find that many other observers in the area had since visited the Chinese weeping willow tree and were confirming my identification. More excitingly, however, was a response I received from another member of the community regarding my mystery tree. They provided me with a few speculations, but believed it to be a Japanese maple tree, Acer palmatum. Excitedly, I did a bit of research and found this identification to be spot-on. I assume that my parents were offered money for the tree due to its (relative) rarity in this area, and stunning red leaves in the fall and spring seasons. A family mystery going back to my youth was finally solved.
To provide a closing thought to this escapade, I can confidently say I found it to be a valuable opportunity for a myriad of reasons. Not only did it provide a chance for me to expand upon my knowledge of the natural world, but it also gave me a greater appreciation for the nature around me, and the secrets it can hold. Personally, I am excited at the prospect of visiting more sites from my childhood and seeing what the nature there (trees or not) can remind me of. Additionally, it exposed me to more of the local nature observation community via iNaturalist, which is something I will always be grateful to have discovered, as it provided me a chance to contribute to its already-extensive database and helped me solve a mystery that was decades in the making. Overall, for these reasons, I would say that I greatly enjoyed this assignment, and would encourage anybody with even a passive interest in nature to do a bit more searching, and not take the plants they see every day for granted.
Evergreen and ever present – a blog star is born.
By Anvay Raje
Being from Colorado, it’s almost mandatory to be a big outdoor person, and my parents definitely did their part to help me love being outside. No matter the time of the year, I was always outside--hiking, skiing, playing basketball--there was always some reason to be in nature. The coronavirus pandemic made this difficult, and a stressful first year in college at the same time really took its toll on me. Documenting a plant throughout the year turned out to be my saving grace, a way to deal with everything in a healthy and very enjoyable way. There it was, the Plant Blog Project was born!
I started this Project the same way I started my semester: back home in Colorado. At home, I noticed that everywhere around my neighborhood were various species of trees that stayed green or blue/green throughout the year. As a kid, I wondered how they were able to stay colorful during the winter months, especially when the other trees in the area all seemed dead and barren. I soon learned in Biology classes that they stay green because they don’t need to use as much energy to keep their thin, narrow needles as the trees with the flat, broad leaves did. Their ability to maintain their color and leaves throughout the year gives them the name ‘evergreens’. Still, it was still fun to think of crazy reasons these trees stayed green for so long. It was this curiosity that led me to choose the evergreen tree close to my house as my plant for the Blog Project, the Picea pungens (above). When I moved back to campus in February, I was able to find another evergreen tree. The star of my Blog Project was chosen, the Pinus resinosa, or red pine (below).
Finding the exact name for my new star was definitely a challenge. I certainly don’t have the experience to look at a tree and know its exact genus and species. The only reason I knew the exact name of the Picea pungens was because we had the same tree in the backyard, and they knew exactly which plant it was. But after moving to Pittsburgh and finding the tree on one of my walks around the campus, I uploaded an image of it to iNaturalist, hoping that someone on the app might recognize the tree from my picture. Much to my enjoyment, within a couple days someone had suggested the Pinus resinosa, or red pine for my tree. After looking up some information on where the Pinus resinosa naturally occurs, I realized that the tree that I had found was indeed the red pine, and I labeled it on iNaturalist. That was probably one of my favorite parts of this whole experience, that there was such a large community on iNaturalist that helped people out. After being stuck online for so long, this was a very nice change from all the negative things that I had started to associate with the pandemic.
I realized that everyone in the world was still connected during the pandemic in some way, even in the form of bonding over trees in the wild.
I think using this Blog Project as a way to get back outside and away from everything that was going on really gave me an appreciation for nature in general. Especially the fact that nature is often unaware of the small changes to humans in the world. I also realized that taking care of a plant, even in a simple manner of checking in on one once in a while, really served as a way to take a break and relax, even just for a second. I got to reunite with nature, although in a very different city, state, and environment. I always find myself feeling the best when I’m outside, and this project definitely served as a reminder of that.
Leatherleaf Love Letter
By Kira Lear
I was a bit of a wild thing growing up. I would wake up early to escape the North Carolina heat and escape into the woods, meeting up with the other cul-de-sac kids to plan our daily adventure. Some days we searched for the fairies that I swore on my Life I saw in the bushes. Other days we gathered sticks and forgotten pieces of plywood to build little houses and shelters, creating society out of oak trees and our childish imagination. I never outgrew this habit, spending most of my middle school years exploring the different seclusions of forests that surrounded my neighborhood. Unfortunately, houses did need to be built, and the woods that I had grown up in shrank to almost nothing. However, small patches still remained, and when I was asked to go find a plant for my biology lab project, I knew just where to go.
In an area hidden behind the last man-made lake left in the neighborhood, there is a thorny olive plant, also known as Elaeagnus pungens. It is advised you take the designated path that leads to a walking trail to find this plant, but if you are impulsive and like to almost fall on your face multiple times, there is a small, steep trail just off the road that will lead you straight to it. It will be growing close to a small trickle of water that I suppose constitutes as a river. Lots of moss surround this plant, along with many weeds and overly curious birds that look down on you from the tall oak trees. I chose this plant because it reminded me of a similar plant that I had studied when I took horticulture my freshman year of high school. I obviously didn’t remember as much as I thought I did from that class because I was thoroughly surprised when iNaturalist identified the plant as a thorny olive. After closely observing the speckled leaves and bell shaped fruits of the thorny olive, I determined that iNaturalist was indeed correct and silently thanked god that I wasn’t a botany major. Unfortunately, I needed to leave soon after taking my picture because I had a chemistry class, but I was pleased with newfound knowledge of thorny olives and I walked home with a smile on my face.
After two stressful plane flights and a 30 minute car ride, I was finally back in Pittsburgh for the spring semester. Of course, it didn’t feel like spring as I pulled on my snow boots to go find a new plant to continue this project. I was wandering around near the Westinghouse Memorial Pond, considering making the descent into Panther Hollow, when a patch of green among the grey slush of melting snow caught my eye. It was a small bush, its leaves a vibrant green, with what seemed to be little white flowers hanging off of it. This surprised me because I knew the plant was probably an evergreen due its green leaves in the middle of winter. I decided that I wanted to know more about this plant and promptly chose it for my project. After taking my picture, I looked around at the environment I found my plant. It was sandwiched between a busy street that was covered in road salt and a walking trail that wound around the Westinghouse Memorial Pond. There were few wildlife around except for a few dogs that seemed a little too excited to be out in the cold. Most of the surrounding plants looked dead or dormant, and the pond behind it was completely frozen over.
Luckily, when I visited this plant for the second time, a lot had changed. The pond had melted and was sporting several green aquatic plants, and there were even two ducks swimming around! The street next to the plant was no longer covered in salt and it was a little busier now that all the ice and snow was gone. The surrounding plants were poking out from piles of dead leaves and there was overall a lot more growing than the first time I visited. My plant had more flowers blooming than the last time I was there, and the flowers were bigger as well. The size of my plant stayed relatively the same, but there were some new growths at the bottom of the plant. Using iNaturalist I easily determined that my plant was a leatherleaf viburnum, also known as Viburnum rhytidophyllum. This plant is actually part of the elderberry family and is native to China. Through later research I found that the leatherleaf viburnum is actually highly resistant to the viburnum leaf beetle, a natural predator of these plants. I felt a little swell of pride that the plant I had chosen had evolved such a favorable trait! Even though this project is over, I will likely go back to visit this plant to check up on it.
Overall, I highly enjoyed this project. It was a good way to get me out of my dorm and explore the Pittsburgh campus. I have always been aware of the plant life around me. Not only did I spend a large amount of time in the woods growing up, but I am also a writer and I like to observe of the world around me in case anything sparks inspiration. Spending time in the wilderness again felt healing to me. It had been a long time since I was able to romp around in the woods like when I was young, and this project brought me back to those peaceful moments.
Veronica Iriart is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh studying the effects of sublethal pesticide exposure to plants and pollinators. She also is now a serial Plant Love Story Poster, and you can read her own Plant Love Story "The Pansy Face" published back in 2019. Follow Veronica on twitter at @veroiriart.
As a Guest Editor for this collection of student plant love stories, Vero worked with students to curate their stories for our blog. Thank you Vero!