Inspiring Journeys of Growth and Success Through Internships at Birmingham Botanical Gardens
During the summer, nature’s most vibrant season, plants thrive and flourish, taking advantage of the extended daylight and warm temperatures to reach new heights of growth and expansion. As stewards of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, the Friends recognize the potential of this season for growth and improvement, which is why we extend two valuable internship opportunities to college students, with the aim of introducing and enlightening them on the multitude of fulfilling career possibilities available within the realm of public gardens.
In turn, our interns offer us the privilege of mentoring the next generation of horticulturists, plant scientists, ecologists, and garden lovers. Just as a gardener takes great care in nurturing their plants, a mentor provides the guidance and support necessary to help young people prosper. Both require patience, dedication, and a willingness to adapt to changing circumstances. The Friends feel a deep sense of fulfillment when we witness the growth and development of the young people who have strolled through these gardens. It is a beautiful thing to see the potential of youth realized, to see them bloom into the best versions of themselves, and to know that you played a part in planting the seeds for their future success—which is why we take immense pleasure in sharing the inspiring journeys of three former interns, who credit their success and career paths to the valuable experience gained during their internships at the Gardens.
By SEBASTIAN ORTIZ
2019 Native Plant Intern
JEFFREY’S JOURNEY AT Birmingham Botanical Gardens started as an intern in 2019, where his passion for native plants and horticulture flourished. Little did he know that this experience would shape his future endeavors and lead him to a fulfilling career as a nursery manager at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens. Through an insightful conversation, Jeffrey shared the highlights of his internship, his deep appreciation for biological diversity, and the exciting prospects that lie ahead.
Reflecting on his time as an intern, Jeffrey fondly recalled the various projects he worked on. He mentioned, “A big part of it was organizing and labeling the shaded lathhouse, taking inventory of the incredible diversity of plants we had, whether in the greenhouse or nursery stock. We focused on organizing them based on their plant families, which was a significant undertaking.”
The internship offered Jeffrey a unique opportunity to delve into different propagation techniques, including cuttings, air layering, and direct sowing. Exploring these methods proved to be both challenging and rewarding, especially when working with native plants. He explained, “Many native plants don’t have readily available data on the best propagation practices. So, it was often an experimental process, which made it even more interesting.”
One of the ongoing projects that Jeffrey worked on was the pitcher plant
bog in the Kaul Wildflower Gardens. He had the privilege of collaborating with a dedicated group of volunteers on a weekly basis, where they tackled labor-intensive tasks like replacing rotting railroad ties. Jeffrey vividly remembered this challenging experience.
“It was a full week of hard work, digging out the old ties and replacing them. Those railroad ties were incredibly heavy, making it a super difficult task.”
Jeffrey’s internship extended beyond the gardens’ borders as he embarked on field trips to the Bibb County glades, a botanical treasure trove. The Glades in Bibb County, Alabama, boast an impressive array of unique plant species. With a minimum of eight newly discovered species exclusive to this region, at least seven state records, numerous disjunct plants growing far from their counterparts, and over 60 plant taxa of conservation concern, it stands as a remarkable hub of botanical diversity in the eastern United States. During his field trips, Jeffrey conducted research on endemic plants and recorded his findings as part of his individual project.
“It’s a truly remarkable place,” he said. Later in the summer, Jeffrey had the honor of presenting his research project on the endemic plant species found in the glades at the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference in North Carolina. A rare opportunity for an intern!
When asked about the lasting impact of his internship, Jeffrey expressed, “I learned well over a hundred species and discovered the remarkable biodiversity of native plants in the Southeast. It made me deeply appreciate our natural heritage here in Alabama.”
Jeffrey’s passion for horticulture led him to return as an employee for the following summer, further refining his skills in landscape design, curatorial work, and botanical science. His dedication to expanding his knowledge in the field of natural resources inspired him to pursue a master’s degree in the same domain. ”I wanted to have a broader ecological context and understand the natural world beyond horticulture,” said Jeffrey.
Recently graduated from Auburn University with a masters in natural resources management and policy, Jeffrey proudly shared that he has accepted a position as the greenhouse nursery manager at the Yew Dell Botanical Gardens near Louisville, Kentucky. With his knowledge and expertise, Jeffrey was eager to contribute to the nurturing and growth of plants in a professional capacity. His new role will provide an ideal platform to apply his knowledge and make a positive impact on botanical conservation and public horticulture. His advice to aspiring plant enthusiasts was clear: “I would highly recommend this internship to anyone interested in plants. The experience can be tailored to suit various interests.”
2021 Native Plant Intern
TRENT GILMORE, A RECENT alum from the University of North Alabama, spent this past summer working as a seasonal botanist for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska, and is now a graduate student at Clemson University.
“My time at the Gardens was the reason that I decided to do my grad school studies, studying plants and specifically native plants,” he said.
During his internship, Trent made a significant contribution to the Gardens by working on public information systems for different sections of the Gardens. “I worked on making QR codes that provided data about the plants in particular sections, including Sonat Lake and the Kaul Wildflower Garden,” said Trent.
Trent’s QR codes continue to inform thousands of visitors each year with botanical information of the plants in the Gardens making plant knowledge more accessible for all.
Reflecting on his time at Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Trent recalled, “I have a lot of good memories. The thing that I enjoyed most was working with all the volunteers in the Kaul Wildflower Garden and going on field trips. But working with everyone in the office as well was pretty fun.”
Trent also shared how the internship helped him focus his career aspirations. “I was interested in plants beforehand, but the internship really got me settled on where I wanted to shape my career,” he said. “The experience just kind of sparked my interest.”
The summer after his internship, Trent applied and received a position as a seasonal botanist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. In his role as a seasonal botanist, Trent was responsible for conducting biodiversity surveys in the wetlands and ensuring there was enough forage for the wildlife. “My main duty was going out to these wetlands and doing a survey of what the abundance of certain grass species were out there that feed them, to see if there was enough forage for them to be reintroduced into the wildlife refuge where I was working,” he explained.
One of the most significant moments of his time in Alaska was the opportunity to see the wildlife from an aerial view. “My job required me to fly over the refuge in a helicopter. So I got to see a lot of Alaskan wildlife,” he said.
Trent is currently a graduate student at the University of Clemson University studying plant ecology, looking at how plants interact with other biotic factors in their environment, specifically, fungus and microbes and their roots.
As an environmental steward, Trent is interested in learning “how plants will adapt to climate change and how maybe we can use that information to better protect valuable plant ecosystems,” he said.
2022 Rotary Club of Shades Valley Intern
A CURRENT UNDERGRADUATE student at the University of West Alabama, Mandrell’s journey as an intern is one that leans towards a bright future in the world of conservation and field biology. For Mandrell, his internship was an unforgettable experience. “The internship really opened my eyes to a variety of possible career options, and aided me in gaining knowledge and skills that were not previously known,” said Mandrell.
While he worked on various projects with the Friends, it was his personal project of developing a propagation method for the Tutwiler Spleenwort (Asplenium tutwilerae) that stands out the most.
“The Tutwiler Spleenwort is arguably one of the rarest plants in the world, and only found in Hale County, Alabama,” said Mandrell.
Since his internship, Mandrell’s career aspirations have expanded, but he is not entirely sure of his path. “I feel as though the world of ethnobotany is calling my name, and I’m almost positive that’s where I’ll end up, but I haven’t solidified that yet. Working with Kaul Wildflower Horticulturist Keith Turney, and seeing how passionate he is about the Kaul Wildflower Garden and his work ethic have made me consider horticulture as well.”
Most recently, Mandrell worked on a field collection project for his Field Botany class. The project required him to collect 100 different plant specimens from at least 40 different families, while ensuring that specific criteria, such as the presence of flowers and fruits, are met. Afterward, he pressed them and made labels, including the family, genus, and species, locality, and other essential details. The specimens will then be shipped to herbariums across the country, and possibly the world.
“The most exciting part is getting hands-on experience with learning how to properly collect specimens for herbariums and then also learning how to properly key plants out in order to have them identified. It’s also exciting to know that one day your specimen might be pulled and used by someone else in order to compare it to a specimen they believe is the same, or even being used in order to distinguish if a new species has possibly been discovered,” said Mandrell.
Mandrell’s passion and dedication to his work are evident in his current project, and it is this dedication that will lead him to future success.
From planting and pruning to data management and public education, the opportunities for learning and growth are endless. Interns have the chance to explore a wide range of horticultural specialties, from rare and exotic species to native plants and sustainable gardening practices. And beyond the hands-on experience, interning offers a chance to connect with a vibrant community of like-minded individuals who share a deep love of plants and the natural world. All of this is possible through the generous support of our members, donors, and volunteers! Thank you for helping us grow a greener tomorrow!
APPLY FOR OUR 2024 INTERNSHIP!
The Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens is excited to offer internship opportunities to college and high school students to expose young people to the possibilities of rewarding careers in public gardens.