Creative Learning at University of Central Florida Arboretum

Arboreta are a highlight of many college campuses. They provide a place for horticultural students to flex their muscles and for the campus to showcase plant collections and the types of vegetation that thrive in a school’s region.

But why should this opportunity to connect people with new knowledge about plants end at the arboretum wall?

At the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Patrick Bohlen holds the unique position of Director of Landscape and Natural Resources and Arboretum.

That means he oversees not just the arboretum, whose official boundaries put it at 80 acres, but the entire campus landscape, an area that approaches 600 acres.

A campus-wide collection

The arboretum itself is a natural area that encompasses several different habitats, such as a cypress dome, an oak hammock and pine flatwoods. A series of trails allows visitors to access these lands, but a major goal is to preserve this natural area and create as little disruption as possible.

So unlike other arboreta, the goal at UCF is not necessarily to build a huge plant collection within the designated arboretum boundaries, Bohlen says.

“Our plant collection is out on campus,” he said. “We want to move toward looking at the arboretum as the whole campus.”

That’s why, if you look at the map on the bottom of the UCF Arboretum’s Plants Map profile, you’ll see that the plants they’ve labeled are clustered in the more developed areas of campus. This is intentional. Those labels are there to spread knowledge where people can see them on a regular basis.

“Having the labels out there tells people what the plant is and where it comes from, and it also puts our name out there, so they might contact us,” Bohlen said.

Labeling helps with certification

He said UCF continues to build its database of labeled plants, as it works this year to pursue certification through ArbNet, an organization that offers accreditation for arboreta.

Building a database of plants is often the most labor-intensive step for arboreta seeking certification. Plants Map’s free digital tools can be of specific use to certified arboreta or those seeking certification.

At UCF, an added bonus of using Plants Map was that it provided an affordable way for the arboretum to show the public what was growing.

“For a situation like ours, I want something that’s absolutely 21st-century, interactive and that has the ability to flow and move and change, that’s easy to use and not very costly,” Bohlen said.

Engaging the campus population is important, because the UCF Arboretum is much more than a place to come look at plants. Its mission is to be a “creative learning community” where students of all disciplines can engage in experience-based learning in a natural environment.

Getting their hands dirty

One of the most popular programs the arboretum runs is its Community Garden. This is a tenth-of-an-acre vegetable garden that has proven very productive—both in its yield of vegetables and in its ability to bring in volunteers.

Throughout the growing season, student volunteers sign up for 2-hour shifts in the garden. They prep beds, spread mulch, transplant seedlings, clean, harvest and perform all the other tasks necessary to running a productive garden.

When it’s time to harvest, the garden’s Harvest Fest brings the lesson full-circle. Volunteers take produce home and cook a dish with it to share at this semi-annual event, which provides a venue for the arboretum to thank and recognize volunteers. This and other programs, such as cooking demonstrations, help students make the connection between the natural world and health and wellness issues.

As Bohlen and his team work more with Plants Map, he sees opportunities to tell more of the story of what is going on in campus landscapes. For example, he hopes to better document a native pollinator garden started last fall on the site. He also sees opportunities to organize the many varieties of palm that adorn the campus using PlantsMap’s collections tool.

As more of Plants Map’s interactive tags are installed on the campus, Bohlen says, more people notice them. And those connections help fulfill the arboretum’s mission of promoting human connection with ecosystems and landscapes.

“Hopefully this helps connect that the plants around us come from somewhere, just like they do” he said. “Everything we grow is stuff that people could grow fairly easily. It lets them know what it is if they have an interest.”

To learn more, follow the University of Central Florida on Plants Map.

To learn about connecting with ArbNet on Plants Map visit this help article: info.plantsmap.com/journal/invite-connect-arbnet-accredited-arboreta.