Costa Rican rambles 1: a flower-laden arrival

Traveling to countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas was a privilege I really enjoyed as part of my work in health care, gender and rights for immigrants and people living in developing countries. That frequent travel came to an end due to the circumstances of my retirement, so it was with enormous pleasure that I just participated in my first post-career trip to Costa Rica, giving me the first stamp in my most recent passport!


This was only my second time traveling as part of an organized tour (the first time was in the 1970s on a visit to the Soviet Union). While I would have liked to linger longer in some places, the accommodations and good food arranged by the trip organizer, our birding guide’s wit, our driver’s helpfulness, and my fellow travelers’ good spirits made for lots of laughter, interesting sightings and delicious, companionable meals – and it was relaxed as I didn’t have to worry about how to get somewhere and find a place to stay.

Costa Rica’s natural beauty was a daily delight, and I’d like to share some of what I saw in a series of blogs. Many blogs nowadays are short on text; my blogs will be long with lots of photos, which may be a challenge to some readers in these days of imited time (attention spans) and Internet surfing. But I hope those of you who stick it out will enjoy the descriptions!

Since this was a birding trip, the series will mostly feature avians, but I managed to get some photos of mammals, insects and reptiles, too. But to start, we’ll take a look at the abundant flora in the 10-acre Santo Domingo hotel garden where we spent our first afternoon and next morning. The Hotel Bougainvillea received the Costa Rican National Gardening Association’s award as the best botanical garden in Costa Rica and it was a pleasure to visit.

Not being a botanist and having never studied plants, it took me an inordinate amount of time to identify some of the plants; half-way through my searching, I finally understood that this garden also features tropical plants from other continents. I wasn’t able to ascertain the names of many flowers – if anyone can identify the unnamed ones, please leave a comment!

The bougainvillea were blooming and an African blue butterfly bush (Rotheca myricoides) also caught my eye.


The native Heliconia flowers were abundant and varied, appealing not only to humans strolling about the gardens, but also to the birds who sheltered among them, searched for insects there or drank the floral nectar. Some of these plants are also called lobster claws, parrot flowers and wild plantain.




Some of the 40 species of heliconias can grow up to 30 feet high; there are heliconias whose flowers grow upright and others that hang. Their bracts – modified leaves or scales that surround a flower – may be larger and more colorful than the actual flower.





I quite enjoyed the bromeliads, like this one (Guzmania lingulata); we saw them in abundance throughout the trip and it made me long for some in my own trees.

There were plants with which I am familiar such as lantanas and lilies.




I’ve seen the Angel’s trumpet in the NC Botanical Garden; all parts of this plant are toxic, as my Costa Rican friend Esmeralda pointed out. All seven Brugmansia species are listed as extinct in the wild. These flowers were either Brugmansia versicolor or insignis.


I had also seen the Anthurium and passion flowers (Passiflora coccinea) before.


One tree had me stumped; it reminded me of a mimosa but was different. It took more than an hour searching the Internet but I was finally able to identify it as the pink shaving brush tree (Pseudobombax ellipticum)! It became one of my favorites.


Another favorite, which I would love to have in my garden, is the torch ginger (Etlingera elatior). Near it were some attractive golden shrimp plants (Pachystachys lutea).


A few plants had handy name signs by them, like this mateares cactus (Pereskia lychnidiflora), which is almost extinct in Costa Rica (but abundant in other parts of Central America). It was right next to what looked like a type of prickly pear cactus.

Some of the non-Central American plants were really lovely. The bottle palm (Hyophorbe lagenicaulis) is endemic to Mauritius. The fan palm may have been a native though.


The blue-green jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys), which looked like someone had dyed it, comes from the Philippines, while the bright orange flame vine (Pyrostegia venusta) is a Mexican plant.



The lily of the Nile (Agapanthus) is native to Uganda and Kenya.

The balloonplant (Gomphocarpus physocarpus), native to southeast Africa, didn’t look like a type of milkweed to me!

There were some lovely orchids, like a purple one that could be Guarianthe skinneri or perhaps Guaria morada (the national flower) and a yellow one, which I thought was Oncidium sphacelatum.


This type of lady slipper orchid had a name tag but unfortunately I forgot to write down the name!


And then there were the ones I couldn’t figure out.





The garden also featured a couple tables with examples of geological specimens for the mineral and rock collecting enthusiasts.



One part had what I think was petrified wood.

If you visit San José, I’d definitely recommend a visit to the hotel garden. Next up –  wildlife in the garden!


Finding fungal friends!

Although I find mushrooms interesting, they honestly are not especially favorite members of the plant kingdom for me. However, they do attract my attention when they are unusual or unusually abundant after rainfall. And I do find them a tasty addition to a meal for sure. So when the non-profit Friends of Bolin Creek sent out an invitation for a mushroom walk, it seemed like a nice way to take an outdoor break from my numerous tasks and chores.


I was hoping to see a lion’s mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) on the walk – mushroom enthusiast friends had recommended this one to me and I happened to have purchased one from a fungus grower at the farmers’ market the previous day.

The walk was organized by the Association’s nature walk coordinator, Salli Benedict, and led by Van Cotter, a retired mycologist and volunteer with the University of North Carolina’s Herbarium in Chapel Hill. He still mentors students involved with environmental studies and our group included several students who were intent on adding to their collection of 25 species for a class assignment. So, the walk participants included people of various ages and degrees of fungal knowledge.*




We divided into two sub-groups and our group set off into the woods. Our first spotting was a Suillis mushroom. This type is associated with pine trees and we did indeed find three growing at the base of a tree. A mycologist in our group pointed out the veil, a membranous tissue covering the cap, and she cut it length-wise so we could see the inside. These mushrooms are also called butter mushrooms.



As we walked on, we came across a few species of fungi growing on fallen and rotting logs. A few were polypores, which are mushrooms with pores or tubes on the underside of the cap. Some of them were shelf or bracket mushrooms.


Some species look as if they have a maze of tubes underneath the fruiting body. The polypores are important in furthering wood decay, which in turn is important for cycling of nutrients and production of carbon dioxide in forests.


The tiny Mycena mushrooms have conical caps with gills and fragile thin stems. Some species are edible, but others contain toxins.



The Lactarius mushrooms, known as milk-caps, release a milky substance when the cap is cut or damaged. The undersides of the caps are gilled.

Armillaria fungi are also known as honey fungus; these mushrooms grow on rotting wood in clusters and can eventually become quite large. In fact, it is thought by some that an Armillaria in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest is the largest living organism on earth – it now covers about 2470 acres and may be about 8650 years old!


When I spotted these brightly colored Pholiota mushrooms, they were greeted with enthusiasm both by the non-mycologists and the student collectors. They only took a few and left the rest for other walkers to admire.



When we returned to our starting point, the two sub-groups laid out all their specimens and Van told us interesting facts about them. The Lepiota mushrooms are often poisonous. Because edible and poisonous mushrooms can look very similar, people without in-depth knowledge of fungi should not eat mushrooms they find growing outside. In North Carolina, for example, only about 200 of the more than 3000 identified mushrooms are common edible ones.

Few people die from eating poisonous mushrooms (7 deaths were reported in 2012), but people are hospitalized because they don’t recognize unsafe species. Some mushrooms need to be prepared for consumption in a special way to make them safe; some should not be consumed while drinking alcohol and some individuals may have personal problems with particular species.

Van also pointed out that mycologists use spore prints in identifying fungal species. The color of spore prints is particularly important.





When I returned home, I prepared the lion’s mane as recommended by those who eat them regularly (sautéing or grilling; I sautéd it). It was with great anticipation that I took my first bite, remembering how much I loved oyster mushrooms when I first tried those. Sad to say, I found the lion’s mane bland and rather tasteless, but at least I had tried it. And I did have an enjoyable time on the mushroom walk, thanks to Friends of Bolin Creek!

** Thanks to Salli Benedict for providing the group photo!

A nature walk with some history to ponder

In our area of North Carolina, various nature reserves have some background of historical interest. It may be related to the provenance of the land, the names of the reserve and its trails, or the remnants of structures still in place. A newer reserve in Orange County is the Blackwood Farm Park and it had some historical artefacts which I had not expected to see while I searched for beautiful plants and wildlife of different kinds.

The 152-acre reserve has transformed a former working farm into a place with hiking trails through fields and hilly woodlands, preserved farm buildings (barn, smokehouse, corncrib, milking shed, etc.), and meadows where hay is still sown and harvested every year. The first farmers arrived around 1745 and farming ended with the Blackwood family in the 1980s.


Dogs are allowed but supposed to remain on leash; currently, the trails are for hikers, birders and others who appreciate nature. On my last visit, a small group of dog trainers were putting canines through their paces in front of the old farmhouse, while a few people were chatting at the picnic tables nearby.

In the meantime, a chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) was extensively grooming itself in one of the shady yard trees.






As I began my walk through the woods, I heard a distinctive bird call and began searching for the scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea). Lucky me, he came into sight briefly overhead so that I could admire his handsome but fleeting appearance.

The meadows were filled with flowers, including Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), with its distinctive white and purple flowers, and beautiful moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria), which some botanists consider a weed and rip out in glee when they see it (this happened a few days ago when I was volunteering at another reserve!).



Butterflies, like this American lady (Vanessa virginiensis), were investigating the flowers like me and sometimes feeding on the ground.





The trail through the woods is partly level and then leads up and down hills and across small streams. Some sections are alive with bird sound and others are fairly quiet. Small signs indicate where the reserve property abuts nearby privately-owned farms.

As I came nearer to the forest edge adjoining a meadow with a pond, I came across an unexpected reminder of history. A sign at the entrance to a clearing announced that it was a burial site for slaves who had been owned by farmer Samuel Strayhorn from 1817 to 1847 and visitors are asked to observe the site with appropriate respect.


Archaeological surveying has identified 34 graves, including adults and children; some are marked by stones and others are now indicated by small metal tags.


Oral tradition relates that not only the slaves but some of their descendants were buried here after the Civil War. It is a sobering reminder of a shameful time in the history of this country, but it is good that the site has been preserved and that further historical research is being done to learn more about the enslaved people who lived here.


After spending some time in contemplation and wondering how the slaves’ descendants are faring now, I wandered on, emerging into the pond area where numerous dragonflies were flitting about.




Male blue dasher dragonfly                      Female widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)

(Pachydiplax longipennis)

          Banded pennants (Celithemis fasciata)


A couple of amorous damselflies were also in evidence.




Leaving the pond, I entered the woods again and witnessed a pair of six-spotted tiger beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) engaged in mating, but it was not with mutual consent. The iridescent blue male jumped on the greenish female, who did her best to escape. He literally tackled her and at one point had her on her back as he kept hold of her.


She continued trying to escape but he was persistent and finally managed to mount her. She periodically engaged in vigorous shaking, obviously trying to dislodge him but he hung on.


Finally, after some time, she bucked a bit like a horse at a rodeo and threw the male off so that she was able to streak off with great speed. The male remained behind, alone.


A little further on, a black and yellow millipede (Boraria stricta) trundled along the forest floor, its antennae exploring the ground ahead and identifying which obstacles (twigs, stones) it could surmount and which ones it needed to skirt.



At one point, I pondered a tube hung on a tree by someone who was probably doing a study of some kind, rather than making an artistic statement (I hope).




When I left the reserve, a Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) was flashing its wings near a picnic table, undoubtedly looking for insects as a meal to enjoy there.

My walk that day didn’t result in a wide variety of wildlife spottings, but what I did see was interesting. Coming upon the cemetery was an unexpected educational experience that made the visit well worthwhile. I hope the researchers uncover more information that can be shared with visitors in the future.


The sad spring saga of Sassy squirrel

cape-may-warbler-i77a5989-maria-de-bruyn-2resSpring has come early to North Carolina, leading to some early bird migration (like this Cape May warbler, Setophaga tigrina, on its way North), avian courtship and nest building, as well as spring blossoms already emerging in profusion. My garden has seen some lovely flowers, both cultivated and wild: daffodils (Narcissus), crocuses (Crocus), winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis).

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My camellias ( Camellia) bloomed in much greater profusion than ever before.

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The shrubs and trees also sent out their buds weeks “ahead of schedule” – since the past month was the warmest recorded February in this area, my plants advanced their springtime blossoming, including the serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), viburnums, dogwoods (Cornus kousa and Cornus florida) and common elderberry (Sambucus nigra).

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My new blueberry bushes burgeoned with delicate little flowers, but the past two nights I had to cover them up so that they wouldn’t shrivel up as the temperatures dropped below freezing.



It wasn’t only the plant and bird life responding to the unusually changing season, though, as I discovered when I finally noticed the altered pillow on my front porch rocking chair. I first saw that the cloth covering the pillow had been torn; upon closer examination, I saw that the pillow had been opened up with its filling tufting up in places.



eastern-gray-squirrel-i77a0093-maria-de-bruyn-resWhen I began watching the rocker in addition to the bird feeders, I discovered the culprit – an industrious Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), whom I named Sassy as she shows no fear, just a little caution.

Sassy is quite bold, coming up onto the porch even when I’m seated there. She keeps an eye on me but goes about her business in a calm and confident mood. This was also the case for her nest building activities. She perched on the pillow and used her teeth to tear out the insides.

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She then manipulated the tufts with her paws and teeth to form them into neat little oblong packages that she could easily transport in her mouth.

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Sometimes, she added some dried leaves to the mixture.


When her mouth was filled with enough material, she left to transport it to the nest that she was constructing – as it turned out, high in a loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) in a neighbor’s front yard. As I followed behind her, she stayed aware of my movements.


Then she crossed the street and scurried up the tree, where she deposited her “mattress stuffing” among the leaves and other materials lining the nest.

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Since Sassy was so very industrious and the pillow was no longer salvageable, I left it out for her. She returned for several days, systematically dismantling her found source of nest material and carrying off her little woolly trophies.

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When the stuffing began to disperse with the wind, I finally gathered it up and threw out what was left, figuring she had had plenty of manmade contributions to her home.

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Then a couple days later, I was dismayed on her behalf to see that the new neighbors had decided to remove the tree where her nest was located. The landscapers said Sassy’s nest was not a factor in their decision; they just thought the tree was in the way. I watched with sadness as Sassy’s tree was dismantled and her nest plunged to the ground.

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I didn’t see where Sassy was during this event but am sure she was watching from some other vantage point. I felt badly for her – all her innovative and dedicated work was destroyed. Of course, people lose their homes, too, to flooding, fires, tornadoes, etc.  and that is horrible. But I still regretted that this hard-working mammal had lost her home as well.

I presume Sassy has been building a new nest elsewhere. And given her boldness, I’m fairly certain that she was the squirrel I saw yesterday afternoon who had decided that she likes dried mealworms.


As my feline companion Moasi watched from her cat tree perch in the living room, Sassy was busy on the other side of the window chowing down on the worms in a new window feeder that I had actually bought for the Carolina wrens and chickadees, who often perch on the chair in front of the window.




Sassy didn’t seem to mind Moasi watching her and she wasn’t fazed when I approached either. It was only when I knocked on the window that she finally descended to the porch and then left for the yard. I like to think that Sassy has made a new home and is now busy getting extra nutrition for the babies to come. And spring continues to unfold with temperatures varying from 24 to 70 degrees and above!

Pulling privet, banishing buckthorn and mimicking Mother Nature

The (somewhat) varied life of a Mason Farm Biological Reserve volunteer


Today marks the third anniversary for my work as a Green Dragon – volunteers who help maintain the 367-acre Mason Farm Biological Reserve in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. On Tuesdays, a small group gathers to carry out tasks assigned by Neville, who is the Land Manager for this and two other preserves managed by the North Carolina Botanical Garden/UNC.


Neville, string-trimming Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum)

winter-wren-i77a8901-maria-de-bruynWhile we work, we can listen to the songs and calls of lovely birds, like the winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis), and if we’re lucky, we can see wildlife like painted turtles, raccoons, opossums and coyotes (Canis latrans).







Being outdoors and helping keep the Reserve a peaceful and beautiful area for research and enjoyment of the natural world provides me with a feeling of civic contribution, as well as satisfaction, chances for discovery and learning, and well-being. So I’d like to share with you a bit of what we do in a lengthier blog than usual.

sign-img_0076-maria-de-bruyn-res sign-dk7a2339-maria-de-bruyn-res

wisteria-cutting-img_0427-maria-de-bruyn-resOne of our major tasks is helping make a dent in the eradication process for invasive plants. Some have found their way to the Reserve through natural dispersal mechanisms (seeds carried by the wind and wildlife), while others were unfortunately introduced by humans who didn’t know at the time just how destructive the plants would become in overshadowing native vegetation. Cutting down Chinese and Japanese wisteria vines (Wisteria sinensis, W. floribunda) is a recurrent job.

Some invasives are really beautiful and it’s easy to see why they are still sold in some garden shops, like oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and porcelain berry (Ampelopsis glandulosa); they are really attractive plants – nevertheless, we remove them when feasible. Autumn and thorny olive (Elaeagnus umbellata and E. pungens) are two others that grow as vines or shrubs.

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buckthorn-i77a2455-maria-de-bruyn-signed-resAnother botanical foe is buckthorn (Rhamnus species), a shrub which can grow into a small tree when unchecked. It has nasty thorns which can pierce clothing and shoes and when it gets older and larger, a weed wrench and extra manpower may be needed to get it out of the ground. On the other hand, pulling up the “baby” buckthorns, especially after rain, can be much easier, though unkind work for your back.


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Volunteer Pete wields a weed wrench; the small buckthorns can be pulled by hand

marbled-salamander-img_3320maria-de-bruyn-resWhen digging holes into some areas, you may come upon salamanders – this female marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum) was guarding her eggs when we uncovered her (and quickly covered her again).

The buckthorn produces prolific black berries which are a great favorite of the cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) – flocks will descend to enjoy the sweet treat.

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The cedar waxwings also really like privet (Ligustrum sinense and L. japonicum), which produces numerous black berries a little smaller than the buckthorn. The privet also produces many offspring but when they are very young, they are quite easy to pull up. The privets that grow into trees, however, pose the same challenges as the large buckthorns, calling for multiplied manpower to extract them from the ground and resulting in exhaltation when success is achieved.

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While working on invasive eradication, we often come upon smaller wildlife, like American toads (Anaxyrus americanus, formerly Bufo americanus), bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus), green and gray tree frogs (Hyla cinereal and H. chrysoscelis/versicolor), spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and rat snakes (Pantherophis obsoletus).

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The many brush piles dotting the landscape in the Reserve, both in wooded areas and fields, are the result of our labors – providing birds and small animals with ready-made homes and hiding places.


Volunteer Giles and Neville pile up privet and buckthorn

A second major task is planting native plants in various areas of the Reserve – seedlings and young plants are provided by the Botanical Garden and Land Manager and may include flowering species such as Hibiscus and cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), fruiting shrubs like common elderberry (Sambucus nigra Canadensis), and varied grasses.

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bill-resting-sore-back-img_0284maria-de-bruyn-signedWhen we do this in summer, the temperatures can get quite high early in the day; water breaks are welcome, as shown by Mason Farm Green Dragon supreme – Bill, who has been volunteering since 2004!

We put in flags to mark the new plantings in case they will need some watering to thrive. When the weather is hotter and drier, watering takes place right away to give the young vegetation a better chance at survival. It’s a real pleasure to see the plants take hold and flower!

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flame-i77a0237-maria-de-bruyn-resSome plants are fire-dependent, meaning their environment must be burned with some regularity if they are to survive and thrive.

Prescribed burns are therefore done at Mason Farm to mimic the natural fires which took place centuries ago before development took over many areas. Woods and fields are burned every few years and great attention is paid to the weather, taking care that no high winds are predicted that could carry embers far away to start fires in unwanted areas. The Green Dragons helped clear fire lines last week for a recent burn – raking away leaves and twigs and bark from areas where the fire will normally die out.

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neville-i77a0232-maria-de-bruyn-resMembers of the fire team receive instructions on their roles – the fire starters ignite the leaves and grasses in stages, pausing to see how fast the fire is moving and how the wind is blowing.



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Several people will serve as spotters, watching the fire lines to ensure that any escaping embers are put out and some team members clear areas around trees and snags that will be protected against burning (e.g., because they provide homes for woodpeckers).


Where the leaf litter is not 100% dry, some areas will burn and others will remain untouched.


Dry grasses can catch quickly and the spreading fire generates intense heat as the flames spread rapidly across a field.

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broad-tipped-conehead-katydid-neoconocephalus-triops-img_1403-maria-de-bruyn-resMy concern is always that not all animals will make it out in time. Fellow volunteer Giles spotted a broad-tipped conehead katydid (Neoconocephalus triops), which he carried to a safe spot. I hope that the Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina) have dug down deeply enough to be unharmed by the spreading fire. We saw grasshoppers and bugs fleeing the field being burned this past week and I was happy to see a pair of hispid cotton rats (Sigmodon hispidus) rush out.

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After the fire is mostly burned out, the team walks the edges to tamp out still burning places. The next day, the woods and field look mostly gray, black and sere but experience has taught me that in a few weeks they will begin turning green again.

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There is one more task we carry out which is less frequent but also important – aiding in construction and some clean-up in the Reserve. When funding was received for a boardwalk to make a bog area more accessible after rain, volunteers associated with the Botanical Garden and New Hope Audubon Society as well as Green Dragons built the sections of the board walk, transported them to the site and installed them.

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flooding-img_1936-maria-de-bruyn-resVisitors were very happy with the new walkway but it turned out that the flooding which occurs when Morgan Creek overflows its banks with heavy rains can sometimes be strong enough to lift up boardwalk sections, necessitating repairs. When funds are available, a new solution will be sought to hold the boardwalk more permanently in place.


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The researchers who make “temporary” structures when conducting their studies (e.g., bird blinds, platforms, etc.) unfortunately do not always remove these when their research is done. When time permits, we have helped clear away some of this garbage. We also helped repair a sign and the entry road and parking lot after flooding.

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Our volunteer crew is usually a small group of retired persons and a couple students (2-5 people). We’d love to have more people join us so we could get more done and have more input for our conversations covering a range of topics such as botany, geology, wildlife observation, music, sports, travel and current events. The volunteer time of Tuesday mornings unfortunately rules out people who have jobs requiring their presence there on weekdays but we remain hopeful that new volunteers will join us. If you live in the local area and are interested, contact the volunteer coordinator at the NC Botanical Garden!