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  • Writer's pictureMartha Keen

Shedding Light on Plant Records with Cindy Newlander

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

Cindy Newlander is the Associate Director of Horticulture at Denver Botanic Gardens. Since 2002, she has led the Plant Records team and played a key role in developing the Gardens Navigator website, which makes the information DBG collects available and searchable to to the public in the form of photos, maps, labels and a database that documents the extensive living collection. She is a co-author of the Timber Press field guide, "Wildflowers of the Rocky Mountain Region" that identifies some 1,200 species of wildflowers that make a representative set of plants spanning elevation zones in three sub-regions of the Rockies, published in 2018. Cindy has been a member of the American Public Gardens Association for decades, where among being an active member of the plant collections professional community, she is regarded highly as a generous and approachable mentor for emerging plant collections horticulturists. We want to extend a hearty thank you to Cindy for taking the time to shed some light on plant records and collections as our Featured Horticulturist for October 2019!

Cindy Newlander, Associate Director of Horticulture at Denver Botanic Gardens. Photo by Scott Dressel-Martin.

Women in Horticulture: Cindy, what have you encountered as the most common misconception about what Plant Records actually is? And on the flip side, how would you encapsulate its importance both inside a public garden and in a larger context?

Cindy Newlander: I’m not sure that I have an example of most common misconception, but I have needed to refine my 30 second elevator talk over the years to be able to quickly tell people what my role is before they glaze over! Usually when I say where I work, the common response is “You must love your job!”, which, of course, I do, but explaining what I exactly do is a bit more effort. My first job title when I was hired at Denver Botanic Gardens really added to the mystery of plant records – Taxonomic Database Manager – at least for my friends, family and acquaintances outside of the botanic garden world. Internally, I think that there is now a pretty good understanding of what the plant records staff role is within Denver Botanic Gardens. It has certainly helped since the work we do gained a public face with the launch of the Gardens Navigator website in 2013. It is powerful to have the nomenclature data, phenology records, plant images, and maps all display on one page. I and my team have also had opportunities to talk about what we do to staff, volunteers and docents and that communication has helped teach people about the role and importance of plant records in botanic gardens.

I would encapsulate the importance internally as a combination of my team serving as historian, archivist, researcher, and detective of all-things-plants and I’m ecstatic whenever we can come up with the answer to a question that no one else knows because of information stored in our plant records systems. At a more global level, I love how botanic gardens and arboreta are working together to tackle big and scary issues in our world like climate change and habitat loss; I believe botanic gardens, as caretakers of ex situ collections and the data behind these collections, have a major role to play in plant conservation and hopefully in species reintroduction in the future, while we simultaneously work to educate our local community about responsible landscaping and water use in our region.

WinH: You are an organizer and a leader in the Plant Records professional community. Do you find that there are any the unifying personality traits among you and your colleagues?

CN: As the past leader of the Plant Collections Community of the American Public Gardens Association, I found that everyone I worked with were passionate about plants, data and sharing information within our profession as well as encouraging young professionals in our field. I’ve found that to be true across plant records and curators in public gardens and feel so fortunate to have this as my career. I’ve really enjoyed the conversations held amongst my colleagues at conferences and meetings over the years and I’ve learned so much from my colleagues across the country.

Images above: Several photographs that Cindy Newlander took for the Wildflower of the Rocky Mountain Region book. Left, Telesonix heucheriformis – Medicine Mountain National Historic Landmark trail in Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming; Middle, Corallorhiza striata – Heart Mountain, near Cody, Wyoming; Right, BH15 = Balsamorhiza incana, Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming

WinH: Would you care to walk us through a DBG plant label or Gardens Navigator profile? Feel free to utilize a favorite plant!

CN: Sure, one plant that I really like for its late summer blooms that also happens to be a hummingbird magnet is Epilobium canum ssp. garrettii ‘PWWG01S’ ORANGE CARPET® (aka California fuchsia) that is a Plant Select® recommendation from 2001. On our labels, we include both common and scientific family name, scientific name with cultivar and trademark, a common name that is selected by the horticulturist whose garden the plant is growing in and nativity information if it is not a cultivar. In the case of Plant Select plants, a logo for the program is included to designate that information. The Gardens Navigator page showcases data that is held in BG-BASE for each taxon. I really like that the phenology data collected over the years displays in an easy-to-read graphical display and that images of the plants growing in the garden combined with images of our herbarium vouchers held in the Kathryn Kalmbach Herbarium all are shown as well.

A sample plant label showing how and what information Denver Botanic Gardens chooses to include.

WinH: What’s something that you learned early in your career that you feel made you a better plantswoman? Do you have advice for anyone who may be aspiring for a career in collections in pubic horticulture?

CN: Prior to studying Public Horticulture through the Longwood Graduate Program, I worked in both garden maintenance and garden design. But I think I’ve really learned the most over the past 2 decades of being able to observe plants growing in different garden settings over longer timeframes, learning about the plants that many of my co-workers are bringing back from collection trips or growing in the Gardens, seeing native plants growing in their habitats, and having my own personal garden for about 10 years to dabble in and grow (and occasionally kill) different plants that I’ve grown to love from seeing them grow in the various gardens at Denver Botanic Gardens York Street and Chatfield Farms locations.

For those interested in getting into collections management, I suggest finding one or more mentors who can help guide you as you are on your career path and getting outside and learning the plants native to your region as well as ones that are from similar regions that perform well in gardens. There are always more amazing plants to get acquainted with! Also, getting involved with groups like the Plant Collections Community and Plant Nomenclature & Taxonomy community have been extremely valuable, informative and interesting to me.

Images above: Hyacinths in bloom in Annual Display Garden in March, and Steppe Garden in late summer in South African section of Denver Botanic Gardens  

WinH: I'd love to conclude this interview with the question of balance. Do you have any practices or strategies to share that have helped you manage your time and priorities as you straddle your personal and professional life?

CN: Balancing work and home life is always a little challenging. As a mom of a seven-year-old boy, I have been striving over the past 2-3 years to try to find a little more balance. At work, I will block out time on my calendar throughout the week to work on priority items that could otherwise be overlooked. That doesn’t always mean that those items get done at that scheduled time, but if something comes up, I can move that appointment time to later in the day or the week. I also keep a small notebook where I can track day-to-day checklist of projects or tasks and their deadlines, and it feels pretty liberating when I can check off a few of the boxes. I especially lean on these 2 methods during the busiest times of the year or when I’m feeling overwhelmed. I also will occasionally use a vacation or personal day to spend at home pulling weeds in my garden, canning tomato soup or even mopping the floor to help me feel like things aren’t spinning out of control on the home front. If I can also get a lunch date scheduled with my sister or a friend for sushi, all the better!

The most difficult time I’ve had of balancing personal and professional life occurred when we were in the process of researching and writing the Wildflowers of the Rocky Mountain Region book – having a laptop made it easy to work from home, but also made it difficult to stop working when deadlines were approaching. I am fortunate to have a supportive partner who has been able to pick up our child from school and start dinner when I don’t make it out of the office as early as planned.

Images above: A peek at Cindy's backyard in June. Eremurus and Penstemon are two of her favorite genera. Left: Penstemon strictus and P. pseudospectabilis are both low water users in her garden. Right: Eremurus cvs. with Penstemon and other late-spring bloomers. Images by Cindy Newlander.

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