Yarb Tales - Kathleen Connole
September 12, 2016

The Heritage Herb Garden at the Ozark Folk Center graces the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas, and helps us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.

Kathleen Connole has been a key speaker during the Herb Harvest Fall Festival for many years because she is an avid plant researcher. The theme of this event, figuratively speaking, is a sojourn around the planet, portraying the useful plants that connect the world to the Ozarks. As the Heritage Herb Garden’s horticulturist for ten years, Kathleen enthusiastically participates in interpretive and educational activities.

This October 7, Kathleen Connole will present The Plant Explorers of South America—Intrepid Adventurers and, on October 8, A Natural History of South American Plants—Some World-Changing and Some Familiar. In an interview this week Kathleen shared her fascination with the journeys of plant explorers and the herbs and foods that they discovered that play botanical roles in our lives.

Kathleen's interest in plant explorers was first sparked while working for Powell Gardens in Kansas City. The garden had a large collection of exotic tropical plants and she first read the history of botanical exploration in The Plant Hunters by Michael Tyler-Whittle. Her curiosity and love for exotic plants grew with trips to the Chicago Botanic Garden and the historic Garfield Park Conservatory. All of these botanic gardens are not only beautiful displays; they educate people about the climates and soils where different plants originate. Kathleen noted that “The Conservatory displayed plants according to their native biomes.”

Then, in 2010, the Ozark Folk Center’s Heritage Herb Garden created a teaching garden for the Arkansas Flower Show using our herb collection to illustrate the theme A World of Gardening.  She reminisced that researching the interpretive signs and designing the layout of the plants according to their native regions “really got me going!”

Kathleen continued, “As I read about the plants I found stories of fearless people willing to take risks to pursue their passion for discovering botanical treasures. This has been one of the common threads. These Europeans were willing to voyage to strange lands, stay in huts with dirt floors; suffer diseases, insects and unfriendly natives—not for fame and fortune but for the pure sake of botanizing.”

As we sat comfortably sipping iced tea in the air conditioned Skillet Restaurant, Kathleen unfolded her plan for her fall programs. During the Colombian era, the plant explorers were sent by the kings to find precious spices and other plants that could be a source of economic wealth. The Age of Exploration resulted in a flood of new and unknown plants being brought back to the great botanical gardens being established all around the world by the colonial powers. Then commercial nurseries began sending these agents out to the new world to bring back exotic specimens to offer for sale to the gardeners of the Victorian Era.  The plant explorers often worked in teams with naturalists and illustrators. They watched what the indigenous people ate; often also subsisting on these same plants, and brought these food stuffs back home. (Kathleen gives a noon program at the Ozark Folk Center about Ozark foods that feature corn, potatoes, chilies, squash and beans which originated in South and Central America.) Familiar food plants brought from Europe were planted in the new lands and so the movement of crops around the world began.

Seeds, pressed specimens, and live plants were transported back to Europe, often being planted at the Kew, the world’s largest botanical garden. Scientific classification was introduced by Linnaeus. Plants were often named after the botanist who first discovered and introduced the specimen. Kathleen has found many of the stories of the early botanists through clues she found reading plant names.

 Because of this early work, South American native plants saturate our home gardens. Cosmos, zinnias, marigolds and amaranth are colorful annuals we plant every spring. Kathleen asked the question, “Does your mom have a house plant?” The common, easy-to-grow ivy, heart-leaved Philodendron is native to the South American rain forest!

Then, bringing her research home to each of us, Kathleen mused that in tropical rain forests the search for new plants continues—thousands of plants, possibly many important medicines, have not yet been identified and researched. Since the plantations were started in the tropics in the 1700s there has been awareness that man’s intervention destroys biodiversity. This issue affects everyone on the planet.

Kathleen Connole is one of the inspired teachers honing programs for the Herb Harvest Fall Festival. The schedule, menus and speaker bios may be found on the herb calendar page at www.ozarkfolkcenter.com. Call 870-269-3851 to register with credit card. If I don't see you in the future—I'll see you in the pasture!