By Shelley Cramm
Oklahoma and North Texas area GWA members and their guests recently enjoyed an engaging and informative afternoon January 27 at the Botanic Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) in Fort Worth. The program was overflowing with inspiration, from the landscape artistry of local painter Rebecca Zook to presentations by speakers from the North Texas area. Touring the marvelous herbarium and libraries at BRIT was the heart of the afternoon. This was followed with connections and conversations among area GWA members, artists, horticulturists, scientists, editors, landscape designers, and writers. And in true GWA tradition, attendees were sent home with foliage and floral display for their gardens, courtesy of Plant Development Services.
What is BRIT?
The Botanic Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) is located next to the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens in Fort Worth’s cultural district. Its library collections and herbarium began when holdings from Southern Methodist University (SMU) libraries grew too large and sprawling for the university to contain. It was time for “propagating by division,” so to speak. In the early 1980’s, the books and specimens were separated from SMU as the first two gifts toward creating BRIT as an institution in its own right.
To make this happen Barney L. Lipscomb, current Director of BRIT Press and Leonhardt Chair of Texas Botany, and a handful of like-minded colleagues and supporters, worked in a visionary manner to draw in donors and found the new entity. The organization sprang to life in converted warehouses near the downtown Fort Worth railroad depot. In 2011 BRIT was replanted to its current, sustainable campus, complete with a Living Roof.
The mission of BRIT is “to conserve our natural heritage, to deepen our knowledge of the plant world, and to achieve public awareness of the value plants bring life.” This should strike a chord with GWA garden communicators. Both local and national garden writers are encouraged to explore the botanical treasures in assembling articles, blog research, books bibliographies, etc. To search the online catalog, visit www.brit.org/library/. For in person library appointments, contact Laura Venhaus, our gracious host for the afternoon, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GWA Connect at BRIT
Ann McCormick was the first one to introduce me to BRIT’s impressive facilities. She arranged for us to meet with BRIT’s Director of Libraries, Laura Venhaus. Inspiration abounded that day. Deciding to capitalize on this tremendous venue, we made plans to organize a GWA Connect meeting, and create an opportunity for local members to get together in between GWA Annual Conferences. An afternoon of tours through BRIT’s treasures, complimented by guest speakers, would make for a complete program offering and hopefully contagious creativity.
The afternoon at BRIT kicked-off with a viewing of over 25 paintings in an exhibit entitled, “Native to this Place: Earth and Sky Featuring the Clouds and Grasses of Texas.” Rebecca Zook, local landscape artist, was on hand to speak with attendees about her work. Each piece of her artwork was accompanied by her written comments on the painting and its mood, motivation, and beauty observed.
Then the formal meeting began with an introduction to BRIT—the archives, specimens, and research materials in botany, horticulture, and natural history. GWA members and guests were shepherded by one of the lead volunteer ambassadors on a tour of these areas. He began by providing insight into the U.S. Green Building Council LEED-certified design of the building. He is one of 418 volunteers who give over 7800 hours annually to help steward the collections. His knowledge and enthusiasm were well-communicated!
The BRIT Herbarium contains over one million plant specimens, which makes the facility the largest independent collection in the United States. Our tour guide ushered us into the inner workings of the institution, where gathered samples are pressed, frozen, mounted, and recorded. We continued our journey back through the climate-controlled area containing rows and rows of floor-to-nearly-ceiling movable storage cabinets housing the specimens. They are organized taxonomically by plant family and continent. The setting gave us an appreciation for the wealth of plant variety, as well as the commitment to keep botanic records intact for researchers and enthusiasts alike for generations. The collection inventory was recently updated. Anyone interested in accessing the BRIT Digital Herbarium can click here.
Next we went upstairs to the libraries. Several libraries compose the bibliographic holdings. We lingered mostly in The Oliver G. Burk Memorial Library rare book room. The smell of old books drew us in, a cherished scent for most writers! We looked over beautiful volumes of botanical illustrations on display and browsed the spines of books from the last 150+ years of botany and natural history. In addition to these rare books, BRIT houses over 100,000 volumes in their research library, a secure, climate-controlled room of institutional book stacks which we skipped over to enjoy the more vibrant, user-friendly Burk Children’s Library. BRIT’s extensive, joyful children’s collection of titles hopes to inspire young people with garden stories and gardening basics, complete with colorful carpeting, furniture, and weekly “Bella’s Storytime.” Bella is a pink begonia, a persona created to promote the connection between science and literacy (and fun!).
After the tour we regrouped in the meeting room for snacks and coffee. Then Dottie Woodson, of Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension, horticultural sage to area gardeners, horticulturists, and home owners alike, spoke to us on extension education, from its historical roots and structure to observations on today’s changes in landscaping methods. In her frank, friendly style, she emphasized the approachability and availability of extension agents like herself, an asset to Texas garden writers.
While Woodson addressed the garden-end of things, Erin Booke, editor of the LIFE section of The Dallas Morning News (TDMN), spoke to the writing-end of our profession. She discussed the changing state of newspaper publishing, the importance of social media, and the key role of visuals in developing an article idea. We were particularly interested to hear that she was looking for story ideas that integrate with social media as well as print. She told us that TDMN, like other newspapers, was experiencing an increasing shift in focus toward the digital world, particularly video.
Finally, attendees browsed and admired shrubs donated by Plant Development Services, an old friend to GWA. These included:
- ‘Soft Caress’ mahonias for shaded areas from the Southern Living Plant Collection, with feathery, soft leaves and yellow spray of pom-pom flowers.
- ‘Lemon Lime’ nandinas, a low growing, border shrub, also from the Southern Living Plant Collection, that brightens the landscape with chartreuse-colored new growth.
- Three new varieties from the Encore Azalea line, with blooms in the pinkish tones and winter foliage interest with leaves turning to deep bronze as temperatures drop.
Like all other GWA Connect meetings, this event was a success on many levels. Longtime members enjoyed the chance to catch up and visit with each other in the New Year. Guests and prospective members were given the opportunity to learn more about GWA and enjoy first-hand the benefits of membership.
The meeting ended as we gathered around a laptop, campfire-style, and viewed the video “Welcome to GWA2017!” The Buffalo arrangements committee has prepared a warm and exciting invitation to this city. We all are eager to see the adorable, creative gardens of Buffalo for ourselves this summer!
Meet the Author
Shelley S. Cramm, is the General Editor of God’s Word for Gardeners Bible. She writes a bi-weekly blog called Garden In Delight. Shelley joined GWA six years ago with little experience and a big commission to explore the Bible from a gardener’s point of view. From her GWA membership she gained the needed education and encouragement to write, market, photograph, and speak on her work.