If you go to botanical gardens just to see plants, then you’re missing half the experience. The people who find themselves in a garden on a typical day are as varied, entertaining and enlightening as any flower you will find. Different people have different reasons for coming to the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens, and they aren’t all obvious.
A few years ago Paula Gross, the Assistant Director of the Gardens, received a call from a family in the Northeast who wanted to visit. They were taking a vacation and making a point of visiting one place chosen by each of their three children.
The younger children wanted to go to the usual array of places, like amusement parks and museums, but the oldest wanted something different. He wanted to meet his real-life heroes, the authors of the book “Bizarre Botanicals”: Paula and Larry Mellichamp, the former director of the UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens.
So the family came to Charlotte and received a personalized tour of the greenhouse and all of the Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, orchids and sundews they could handle, not to mention a couple of signatures for a dog-eared book that guides readers through the many weird and wacky plants that you can grow in your own home.
It would be great if everyone were so interested in just seeing the botanical garden’s plants, but occasionally a visitor is tempted to use them as a means to score a few points with a girlfriend or wife, and if petty theft is a convenient means to an end, then that’s the path they’ll follow.
Unfortunately, that was the case with a young man who decided to come into the greenhouse and pick the flower stalk off an uncommon orchid called a Cymbidium. This is not the type of flower you’ll find for sale at Home Depot! The fascinating thing about this case was the casual way in which he walked in, cut the flower stalk, and then breezed out without a hint of guilt on his face as the staff stared, too perplexed and horrified to say a word.
There are many more visitors who leave more than they take, however. Once a year a woman comes by the gardens to see what we have growing, particularly the orchid room. She lost her son some time ago and, when part of the greenhouse was destroyed by a fire, she stepped up and gave what she could to help restore it. Her son was an orchid collector and now his name and picture sit inside the greenhouse next to our largest display of these special plants.
There’s a gentleman who likes to sit off in a corner of the gardens where almost no one but the employees ever go. He’s a young man, but he never texts or even reads. He just sits there quietly and watches the birds and squirrels as they go about their business.
There’s a bench in a corner of the gardens that young couples seem to prefer. On a sunny spring day you can count on it being occupied by young lovers enjoying unusual blooms and filtered shade from exotic trees.
The gardens have thousands of stories, and the stories aren’t just about plants, they’re about the way the flowers and trees that surround us make us feel about ourselves and the world.
Jeff Gillman is director of the UNCC Botanical Gardens