Cornell Botanic Gardens

From the top of Conifer Slope, with Cornell University campus behind you, the land gently falls away at your feet to offer sweeping views of the gardens below. Lush beds of vegetables and fruits are visible at the base of the steep terrain. From there, your eye travels northeast for glimpses of elegant stonework through the birches in the Winter Garden, the orderly edge of the historic Robison Herb Garden, and the deep shade of the Groundcover Collection, then down the colorful annual trial beds lining the driveway to the verdant Bioswale Garden that filters stormwater before it enters Beebe Lake. Towering in both the foreground of the slope and the far background of your view atop Comstock Knoll are majestic white pines (Pinus strobus), their feathery fascicles of five needles sighing with the wind that rises off the lake to create waves of cool green against blue sky.
For the people of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the white pine is a powerful cultural symbol. The tradition holds that the Peacemaker came among the original five warring Haudenosaunee nations to enact a lasting union by laying out a new way of thinking, a new law and order. As a gesture to continue this practice, the Peacemaker asked them to bury their weapons under a white pine tree, whose sets of five needles represent the five original members of the Confederacy. Known as the “Great Tree of Peace,” its branches, cones, trunk, needles, and roots all carry deep significance to the Haudenosaunee people.
White pine is native to the eastern United States, dating back about 10,000 years in the Great Lakes region. Today, only 0.65% of their original density remains. Habitat loss, climate change, and invasive species continue to erode global plant and animal diversity and they are simultaneously leading to the loss of the world’s cultural diversity. As of 2018, nearly 7,000 languages were still spoken worldwide, 50% of which are endangered. Languages are disappearing at a rate of one every three months, faster even than most estimates of extinction risks to plants and animals.
To maintain biodiversity, it is not enough to solely focus on the effects of environmental threats on plants and animals. It is essential that we also consider the impacts of plant endangerment and extinctions on the human cultures that depend on them. Loss of cultures and languages results in lost knowledge of the plant world, uses of plants, and traditional ecological knowledge. Understanding – and celebrating – the link between human culture and biodiversity is necessary for the conservation of each.
How does a garden make a difference?
Cornell Botanic Gardens fights the loss of biological and cultural diversity through increasing awareness of “biocultural diversity.” As our Executive Director Christopher Dunn states, “the world demands that we engage with communities and peoples to save plants and their habitats. We are committed to raising awareness, inspiring action, and sowing messages of hope.”
Our mission is to inspire people through cultivation, conservation, and education to understand, appreciate, and nurture plants and the cultures they sustain. Advancing this mission helps us realize our vision: a world in which the interdependence of biological and cultural diversity is respected, sustained, and celebrated. This philosophy guides our programs, collaborations, living collections, plant conservation, and stewardship of thousands of acres of diverse natural areas across Tompkins County, New York.
Connecting conservation, curation, and culture
When you first set foot in the Brian C. Nevin Welcome Center at the heart of the cultivated gardens, you enter a bright, airy foyer with cool stone walls and large glass cases that house rotating exhibits. Our current exhibit, Ash Trees: A Story of Relationships, Loss, and Hope illustrates how the invasive pest emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis) has upset the intricate relationships ash trees (Fraxinus spp.) have with the world around them. Ash trees provide shade for understory plants, habitat for nesting birds, and food for over 150 species of butterflies and moths that in turn support birds and other animals, including humans.
Just as importantly, ash trees are significant to many indigenous communities in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada, including the Haudenosaunee. People in these communities use splint from black ash trees to make baskets, a fundamental way knowledge is transferred about plants, tradition, and culture to the next generation. This relationship with ash trees is vital to sustaining their closeness to the land and ancestors.
In our gardens and arboretum, we celebrate the link between biological and cultural diversity by cultivating and interpreting diverse living collections of plants. Our collections feature plants that thrive in our region’s current and changing climate and soil, demonstrate resiliency, and, where possible, even help mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. Multifaceted horticultural displays that offer both aesthetic inspiration and function – such as stormwater management – along with accessible interpretation inspire people to positively impact the health of their communities and local ecosystems. Outdoor interpretive books in the Young Flower Garden share cultural legends and lore of deeply symbolic flowers such as tulips, peonies, irises, and roses. While inhaling the sensory delights of the Robison Herb Garden, visitors learn about each plant’s use and cultural significance through intensively researched interpretive labels.
Additionally, from the gorges that cradle the Cornell campus to bogs, glens, meadows, old-growth forests, and wildflower preserves, we steward over 3,600 acres of biologically diverse landscapes that represent the full range of ecological communities found in the Finger Lakes region. Our natural areas staff and volunteers protect dozens of locally, regionally, and globally rare plants including the American globeflower (Trollius laxus) and fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) through in situ and ex situ conservation in collaboration with the Center for Plant Conservation and the Smithsonian Institute.
In our accessioned collections, we grow 12 taxa that are classified as globally rare, vulnerable, or endangered, such as Virginia round-leaf birch (Betula uber), one of the most endangered of North American trees, and Quercus oglethorpensis, another endemic species of the southeastern United States that is threatened by land use changes, competition, and blight. We collaborate with other botanic gardens to collectively preserve maples (Acer spp.) and oaks (Quercus spp.) as part of nationally accredited, multi-site groups within the National Plant Collections Network. Genetic material from plants in our collections is available for taxonomic studies, evaluation, breeding, and other research. These ex situ conservation efforts help to safeguard these species from extinction.
Partnering with Indigenous communities
In June in the Pounder Vegetable Garden, the emerging tendrils of beans twine elegantly upwards on arching trellises. Sown by Steven Henhawk (Gayogo̱hó:nǫ'), instructor for Cornell’s first Cayuga Language course, these heirloom beans, grown by his family for generations, will provide not only a living laboratory for students to learn the language and culture of the Cayuga people but will provide hundreds more seeds that will be “rematriated” back to Haudenosaunee community members.
Through partnerships with Cayuga and Tuscarora faculty members, the Pounder Vegetable Garden has been home to traditional Cayuga plantings since 2016, including tobacco, sunflowers, corn, beans, and squash. We work closely with Cornell’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program (AIISP) to develop demonstrations, interpretation, and programs such as our Fall Lecture Series, which brings diverse speakers and storytellers to the stage to weave the connection between art, lore, food, and plant science.
In 2019, Sean Sherman, James Beard Award-winning chef and founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef, shared his research and insights on indigenous food cultures at the annual Audrey O’Connor Lecture. An Oglala Lakota born in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Sherman co-wrote the acclaimed cookbook, “The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen.” After noticing that Minneapolis boasts restaurants from all over the world, “but nothing from the land on which we’re standing,” he was inspired to conduct years of research into indigenous food cultures. He discovered that the best way to reconnect with those traditions is through learning more about plants.
In his lecture, “The Evolution of the Indigenous Food Systems in North America,” Sherman explored the regional differences among various indigenous cultures from around the continent, noting that each area’s geography – coastal, swamp, desert, forest – led to distinctive approaches to food. Indigenous foods play a central role in protecting biodiversity, by raising awareness of native plants and their value as foods and to the ecosystems they support. By protecting and using these vital plants for nutrition, we also conserve the cultures that traditionally have relied upon them.
Sherman’s visit to Cornell was co-sponsored by the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program and the Cornell Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future; organizations that also share an understanding of the importance of indigenous food systems to the health of people and the planet.
At Cornell Botanic Gardens, we bring these connections to life through our Cultures and Cuisines program, a partnership with local chefs featuring food from the gardens. Rich, layered meals connect participants to not only unique flavors and creative combinations, but also the history, cultivation, and use of lesser-known edible plants such as the ancient grains amaranth, quinoa, and chia.
Cultivating a new generation of environmental leaders through stewardship, co-creation, and sense of place
Perhaps the most important effort we can pursue is to ensure the fight to sustain biocultural diversity will be carried on. Cornell University students are both our audience and our allies. We strive to create space for many levels of experience in the gardens and natural areas, from NatureRx to rigorous research and everything between. Former Botanic Gardens intern Alex Schaef reflected “as the summer unfolded, the internship became an embodiment of creative liberation, a source of imaginative passion, and a landmark of personal and enlightened growth."
Like an ecosystem, our internship program is evolving. Our new Learning by Leading (LxL) program is a network of student-led teams — supported by Cornell Botanic Gardens’ staff and resources — that are passionate about environmental issues, skilled in collaboration and communication, and capable of adapting to and overcoming challenges.
Learning by Leading students are actively developing sustainable landscapes, horticultural enterprises such as plant sales that support our mission, and connecting to broader audiences through programs. One example is the new Garden Stories initiative, which invites visitors to share personal stories of their special connections to plants in the gardens, recorded via digital media to be shared more broadly with the community.
Perhaps it will be this next generation of environmental leaders who propel our rock garden forward. Like houseleeks (Sempervivum tectorum, whose botanical name literally means “live forever” and “on roofs,”), this garden has weathered many storms. Leek, and spelling variants such as leac, is an old Anglo-Saxon word for plant. Perhaps the original “house plant,” succulent Sempervivums were grown by the Romans atop their thatched dwellings and believed to ward off lightning strikes and fire, a tradition that persists today among some Welsh communities to preserve the health and prosperity of a household.
This small but enduring rock garden (which you can read about in the Fall 2019 Quarterly) is underfunded and struggling but is sustained by the generous energy of several local NARGS Adirondack chapter volunteers who join me weekly to weed and plant when we can. It is a labor of love that has strengthened bonds between us, the plants, and each other. We are currently seeking a donor to rename, expand, and renovate this garden so that we can preserve the existing collections and grow it into a demonstration that better supports our mission, enriches our programs, and connects people to alpine plants, ecology, and culture.