Rowan Nygard joined our team in September as an intern and will be helping with horticulture tasks as well as cataloging discoveries and rare finds in the garden. Rowan recently graduated from the Professional Horticulture Program at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania.
Congratulations on your graduation this summer! What was your time like at Longwood?
I was there for three years, and in my first year, I worked in the woody plant nursery. It was my first plant job, and it was such a fantastic environment to learn in. It’s a specimen tree replacement nursery. They study all the old, beautiful trees and propagate them in case something happens and also for posterity, to preserve the legacy of Longwood. For example, we might take 10 seeds from a tree and try 10 different ways to propagate it. There was a lot of room for growth and discovery. I feel really fortunate to have been exposed to so much there. They took us to Italy and all over the United States, and my perspective changed drastically. I learned I’m interested more in conservation horticulture than in public gardening. I want to be part of a small team and find a balance between education and conservation.
What sparked your interest in the world of plants?
My family. Growing up along the Eno River. We had a little yellow house that sat in what seemed like a cloud of daffodils — diligently planted and divided by my mom for 25 years — at the mouth of the Eno River State park in Durham, North Carolina. We spent every summer either camping on Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina or puttering through the mountains of Western North Carolina in my dad’s beat-up 1991 Volvo station wagon.
My grandmother, Margaret Nygard, was the driving force behind protecting the Eno River watershed in the 1960s when the city of Durham planned to dam it for drinking water. What she set out to protect is now more than 8,000 acres of federally protected land. I’ve put so much significance on my grandmother’s image in my mind my whole life. She died before I was born, and when I got to be 20 years old, I thought, “I don’t know who this person is even though I feel so connected to her.” Three weeks ago, I got to visit the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where her papers are collected. I got to open boxes and look through photos and letters. I knew she was an activist and cared very deeply about nature and the environment, but I discovered she was also a fantastic botanist. She was writing articles about Venus flytraps, and she knew about mycorrhizal fungi. It was cool to find out that I hadn’t just arbitrarily carried her with me my entire life.
What brought you back to North Carolina?
A few years ago, a friend I met at Longwood brought me to Nantahala and Pisgah. He said, “Do you want to go see a rainforest in North Carolina?” I said, “What do you mean, a rainforest?” We drove the entire Blue Ridge Parkway and camped, and it was really my introduction to botany. It changed the way I thought about the world. I’ve been lucky to work alongside experts in tropical plants, propagate epiphytic orchids from Vietnam, transplant endangered Cycads endemic to South Africa, but I find myself time and time again thinking of home. Now, I drive through my hometown in Durham and think, Why have I never walked that power line? What’s over that hill? What plants are here? The answers you get are wonderful, but there are always a million more questions. And what you find out is the questions are the best part.
Where do you see a horticulture career taking you?
I see gardening as an opportunity to illustrate the beauty of our state’s regional ecology and highlight some of the niche habitats that might be preserved for future generations. I’m interested in mycology and photography, specifically macro photos. The first time I looked through a microscope, my brain exploded. There’s so much we don’t know right under our noses, so much to be explored. I’m 25, but I still feel like a child. I try to celebrate that, and that’s how I move through the world and study nature.
We’re in this age of mass extinction, but at the same time, there’s so much life around us that nobody knows anything about. And you can go out and enjoy it right now. That’s what they should be teaching kids. I’ve never been more rewarded in my life than when I can teach someone something. When I was first working as an educator, I would bypass the surface level stuff, the lady slippers, the turkey tail mushrooms — I’d think, I’ve seen those a thousand times. Then I would turn around and see people’s faces who had never seen them. I learned I should have that wonder every time I’m there. It’s not about a checklist. It’s about enjoying and sharing it with others.