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  • Writer's pictureCat Meholic

Jaime Frye: The energetic plant nerd

Updated: Nov 24, 2022

Women in Hort is thrilled to feature Jaime Frye of Newfields, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Jaime was nominated as a Featured Horticulturist for bringing joy and humor to her very technical work in plant records. Below she shares details on how she got to where she is while keeping herself and everyone around her smiling!

Interview by Cat Meholic (CM) with Jaime Frye (JF)

CM: Let’s just jump right in! I am always impressed by how you got your position at Newfields. Could you talk about that process of going from a volunteer to where you are now?

JF: Ha! That’s a heck of a tale. My husband, Josh, and I were friends all throughout college. The fall before he graduated (back in ye olden days when no one was employed right out of school) he received a job offer from Rolls Royce in Indiana. I encouraged him to take the job. Shortly after that we started dating. Doh! What timing!

I was headed towards The Arnold Arboretum for a summer internship. Josh moved to Indianapolis. I continued to bop around public gardens on the east coast for different opportunities while he rooted for me from afar. I fell in love with plant records and curation as I spent time at Polly Hill Arboretum and New York Botanical Garden, but when hubby and I got married in 2014 we decided that it was finally time to live in the same state after 3 years of long distance. Guess what? Engineering pays better than public horticulture does, so off to Indiana I went.

I got a part time job at a garden center in a fancy suburb of the city and spent the rest of my time volunteering for what was then the Indianapolis Museum of Art. They had never had anyone in charge of their record keeping so as a volunteer I swooped in, started tightening up procedures/data, and annoyed my now boss until they hired me two years later. It took a few years before I was doing plant records/curation full time, though. When my position was created, I spent 2/3 of my time during the growing season helping the horticulturists make their magic happen. Eventually I stepped in to help with some administrative tasks instead of garden work, which was an easy lift, and I am finally, just now being relieved of those extra duties to focus on what I’m uniquely qualified to do.

CM: What advice would you give to someone in a similar situation (as the above)? What were some of your drawbacks in the process?

JF: Honestly, I got lucky. I was privileged enough to have a partner that could support me having a part time job when I first moved out here. I stepped into a role that hadn’t existed before at the same time a new horticulture director arrived on the scene - which is a natural time for an institution to make staffing additions/changes.

My best advice is to make friends in your chosen field to create a solid network for yourself and be dogged about what you want and what you’re worth. I had mentors at PHA and NYBG that built me up and taught me the importance of curatorial work, so I knocked the doors down and was relentless about creating that role here.

I would NOT recommend making your coworkers lives so easy that they forget how to do their own database work… That may or may not have come around to bite me on the butt!

CM: Another thing I’ve always admired about you is your unbridled enthusiasm and humor that you bring to your work! Your spunk is pretty unique for a curator! What has that experience been like throughout your training?

JF: You give me way too much credit! My Nana’s motto was “always leave the world a little sillier than you found it” and I really think that’s a great way to approach things. I had some incredible opportunities to work with folks that didn’t take themselves too seriously early on in my career, which taught me to appreciate that happy people do better work.

I can be a little intense sometimes, but fortunately that intensity reads as enthusiasm to most people. I’ve always chosen to err on the side of obnoxious kindness when working with difficult people, and as one of my New York colleagues and I used to remind one another, “we’re not pulling people out of burning buildings!” That little bit of perspective helps keep things lighter for me when I’ve got a stack of paperwork to slam through piled high on my desk.

CM: One issue I run into is balancing my love for humor with my curatorial side. I feel like my colleagues think I am in a bad mood when I work through plant records details with them. Have you ever had a similar experience? Any tips for reconciling this?

JF: I just ran into my “worksona” yesterday while leading a Living Collections Policy meeting. She can be a tough cookie. I tend to ask a lot of follow-up questions and can be a bit short with folks at times, but I always try to toss in some light teasing to ease any tension that might cause. Our staff here is pretty ding-dang close to one another so that ultra-professional version of myself doesn’t need to get dusted off too often.

Over the years I’ve really valued catching those plant records flies with honey instead of vinegar. I keep my desk in the middle of our office, even if it’s inconvenient for meetings or focused work time. I always keep candy nearby. Proximity to staff gets me more information than hounding them for it ever will. I’m lenient with our horticulturists on how they give me information. Some prefer to call me on the radio and tell me what they’re doing with plants as they’re doing it, one writes me little “love” notes and leaves them on my desk, another sends me information by e-mail poetry. Whatever they will consistently do is good enough for me. We’re working on slowly building a culture of good record keeping/curation and I want to keep folks excited and willing to work on it!

CM: Your pretty much world famous now with your work on the “Potentially Problematic Common Names” project being published! Could you sum up what that project is and where people can access it?

JF: World famous is an exaggeration! It was a huge lift from over 50 volunteers to make this work happen, so I don’t deserve all the credit here.

I was so fortunate to be in a leadership position in the Plant Nomenclature & Taxonomy (PNT) community of APGA in late 2019 when a post came in looking for resources to identify problematic/offensive common names for plants. I had a tendency to sucker our community leaders into big projects (see our labeling project) and this one was no exception.

The PNT community teamed up with The Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries (CBHL) to collect common names data from 30 public gardens, scrubbed that data against a list of 1700 potentially problematic words/phrases, and then whittled those down to words/names we think might be worth addressing. Kathryn Downing with CBHL did some serious research into the words, where they come from, and the cultural/historic ties to them that could be perceived as problematic. She’s the real hero here!

It was a hefty project with a lot of gray area to navigate. If you’re interested in reading the report, you can access it here, but for goodness sake, please read the report before skipping to the words/phrases! There’s a lot of critical context in there.

I happen to be in a position to promote and speak about this super cool project, and that has led to many worthwhile conversations and engagement opportunities.

CM: Why do you think that project is important and what do you hope will be done with this work in the next 5 years?

JF: I think that it’s important to look at DEIA work through an additional, focused lens, especially in my line of work. Public Gardens and botanists have a long history of being agents of colonialism and empire, systematically co-opting biological organisms, language, heritage, and knowledge for financial or cultural gain.

This document helps stress the importance of looking at where our colloquial plant names come from, and who they may impact regardless of intention. The resource also helps give gardens a launching point for their own language-centric DEIA projects.

The one bit of credit I will give common names over botanical names is that we, as garden professionals, have incredible agency over them within our own institutions, and can make decisions to change them as deemed appropriate.

CM: Over the course of your training and career what types of mentors have you had and what impact of they had on you?

JF: So- I responded to this entire section with a list of the amazing bosses that I’ve had who encouraged me to be myself, but upon editing realized that they were almost all men. In one respect that hurt my soul to think about how this is a blog about inspiring women in horticulture and I had blathered on about all the men in my professional life.

However, it encouraged me to think outside the “boss” if you will. I have worked with some amazing, bad-ass women in my career in public horticulture – they are all forces to be reconned with. My college roommate, Katie Dickson creates incredible floral art but can drive a piece of equipment as skillfully as anyone I’ve ever met. I’m blessed to be connected to a legacy of fiercely intelligent Polly Hill Arboretum students that are some of the most gifted, passionate women I’ve ever met (looking at you Cat, Emily, Tory, and Amanda!). I have so many women that I look up to in the curatorial and plant records fields that I get to commune with at annual conferences and would surely accidentally leave someone out if I tried to list them all. There’s such a strong network of people that are quick and willing to support one another. I don’t think I’ve ever had an unanswered question or have had a hard time finding someone to get advice from. Find your fellow nerds, people!

CM: Are you in a mentor/co-mentor/mentee relationship right now? How did you connect with this person? What positive things have come from this relationship?

JF: I try to make friends and stay in contact with folks that travel in and out of our little plant records world, and always want to offer help to people just dipping their toes in.

My most formal mentee relationship is with the two horticultural fellowship students we hire every year here at Newfields. To me, the best part of managing them is helping them sort out who they want to be as a professional someday and getting them ready for their next career experiences.

I’m so grateful for all of the great folks that helped “raise” me as a public garden professional that it has become a personal mission to pay-it-forward.

CM: Thanks, Jaime for your time sharing your story! Any closing thoughts you’d like to share with Women in Hort?

JF: Life is too short to be anything but yourself. Find a career niche that makes you feel like the best version of yourself, follow that path, and don’t be afraid to change course along the way!

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