Temple University Horticulture major Autumn Ayers’ approach to plants might be a little different from many horticulturists.
Rather than propagation or cultivation, Ayers is more interested in identification and sussing out the story the plants have to tell about where they are growing, when and how they were planted and how the gardens in which they thrive came into being.
“I have a passion for plant identification — it’s an odd passion, I know — but I know that’s my calling,” said Ayers, who completed her Horticulture bachelor’s degree in December 2018 and walked in the Tyler School of Art’s graduation ceremony on May 9. “The hands-on experiences that Temple’s horticulture program provides has given me plenty of opportunities to satisfy that passion while also providing an excellent ecological background to everything we’re learning.”
Horticulture has been part of Ayers life for almost as long as she can remember, she said.
“When my grandmother passed away, her gardens began to decline. I couldn’t let that happen, so I started taking care of them in addition to going through her gardening books and notes,” she said. “She had so many books and I think I devoured them all! I read the American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Gardening cover to cover and poured through my grandmother’s notes on growing roses.”
Even with that background, however, Ayers didn’t initially think of Horticulture as a career.
“Since 8th grade or so, I knew I was particularly good at languages. I studied French and Japanese at Bennington College in Vermont. I couldn’t really get a firm grasp on where that path would lead me,” she said. “I couldn’t see myself sitting at a desk in a government job or traveling all of the time. With horticulture, I knew I’d be able to engage in my intellectual interests and be out in the field putting what I was learning to good use. I could also see the possibilities of my international skills being very helpful — there are few places in the world that don’t have gardens.”
After having gone away to college in Vermont, Ayers decided to keep her search closer to home. After taking some horticulture classes at Harrisburg Area Community College, a visit to the Temple Ambler campus was all it took for her to want to become an Owl.
“I knew I could study ornamental horticulture in this beautiful setting that has an incredible history dating back to the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women. I wanted to be part of that history,” she said. “I think the professors at Temple Ambler are very interested in cultivating your curiosity and helping you find the passion that drives you. With the Arboretum and the campus gardens, design might not be my primary interest but I can appreciate the exceptional talent that makes the campus so special. Additionally, we’re located in America’s garden capital — there is really no limit to what you can experience horticulturally in this region.”
Ayers spent three semester as the president of the Temple University Ambler chapter of Pi Alpha Xi, the national honor society for horticulture majors. During the summer of 2018, she also interned at the University of Pennsylvania’s James G. Kaskey Memorial Park.
“I was involved in an inventory of the woody plants within the park — I love woody plants! It was a great opportunity to work on something that incorporates all of my interests,” she said. “There were a handful of known plant records to work from and beyond that I really needed to apply my skills; identifying the plants, getting the spellings right, getting the nomenclature right.”
Starting this summer, Ayers will begin her dream internship. She will be the Plant Records Management intern at Longwood Gardens for the next year.
“I am very excited to be working in the Plant Records department with Kristina Aguilar, who runs the plant records office. It’s 1,000 acres and just me and Kristina,” she said. “It’s an enormous task and a real opportunity to be a part of the department.”
According to Ayers, the intern in the plant records department additionally works as part of Longwood’s education department.
“I’ll have a chance to work closely with the library information team at Longwood. Growing up, I often worked in libraries and I’m looking forward to getting back to that,” she said. “I’ve always had an interest in the educational opportunities that public gardens can provide visitors. One thing I want to do is fight ‘green blindness’ where people just see a group of plants but don’t differentiate the individual plants. I want to help people to see the labels and gain an interest in going deeper and learning more.”
Gazing out toward her long-term goals, Ayers said she’d love to continue working as a plant recorder and truly put her detective skills to good use “at a location that has never been inventoried.”
“I’d love to start from scratch; the sense of discovery would be thrilling,” she said. “There are a lot of places, some wonderful arboreta that have been forgotten. I know they’re just waiting for me to track them down and remap them!”