Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

Author: Sophie Cox

Leadership As ‘Groundskeeping,’ Not ‘Gatekeeping,’ and Other “Lessons From Plants”

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Dr. Beronda Montgomery, author of Lessons from Plants, recently spoke at Duke University. (Photos: Marie Claire Chelini, Biology Dept.)

Plants do not passively exist, leaving their survival to the whims of fate; they notice their environments and respond accordingly, says Dr. Beronda Montgomery, a professor, writer, science communicator, and researcher from Michigan State University who studies plants and what we can learn from them.

She visited Duke last week to talk about her recently published book, Lessons from Plants, and the inspiration behind it.

Plants perceive and respond to their surroundings in myriad ways, from turning toward a light source to reacting to differences in temperature, humidity, and nutrient availability. Even the same stimulus can cause different reactions in different situations, said Montgomery, whose research involves photosynthetic organisms, especially Arabidopsis plants and cyanobacteria. She is broadly interested in how organisms respond to and are affected by their environments.

For example, light can serve as either a “go signal” or a “stop signal,” depending how much of it is available. In low light conditions, plants invest more energy in stem elongation as they seek light. When they have sufficient light, on the other hand, plants undergo “de-etiolation,” creating shorter stems and better developed leaves.

Montgomery doesn’t just learn about plants; she learns from them as well. And in some cases, she says, plants might make better teachers than humans.

Montgomery spoke in the Penn Pavilion at Duke.

One area Montgomery has written about extensively, both in Lessons from Plants and elsewhere, is equity. As she points out, “Equal aptitude can result in different outcomes depending on environment.” According to Montgomery, “Humans, by and large, have an expectation of growth for plants,” so when something goes wrong, we look to external factors. We blame the caretaker, not personal defects in the plant. With humans, on the other hand, “We recruit people… who have demonstrated success elsewhere,” fueling a vicious cycle that can exacerbate inequities and limit opportunities. Montgomery talks about “the need to move from leadership as gatekeeping to groundskeeping.”

When students or employees struggle, she believes we should scrutinize mentors and caregivers instead of automatically attributing failure to personal defects. After all, “We would never say… ‘let me teach you to have turgid leaves’ to a plant” or tell it to simply try harder. We don’t eliminate houseplants that aren’t thriving. We ask ourselves what they need—whether it’s light, fertilizer, or water—and make changes accordingly.

“What would happen,” Montgomery asks, “if we saw things like equity as essential to our existence?” She stresses that questions like these can’t remain hypothetical. She points to a quote in Breathe, a book by Imani Perry, that captures the importance of applying what we learn: “Awareness is not a virtue in and of itself, not without a moral imperative.”

Nevertheless, Montgomery believes that “We have to live in the system we have while we transform it.” Sometimes, just as managed fires can make forests healthier and safer, there is a need for “intentional disruption” in the human world. “We seem to want change without change,” when we should instead be embracing the process of change as well as the result. “Change doesn’t mean that what happened in the past was all evil. It just means that we have to keep moving.” Moving forward is something plants do well. Season by season, year by year, they keep growing. Montgomery speaks of the tulips that helped bring her peace during a period of personal and collective grief. In spite of everything, the tulips she had planted in the fall came up in the springtime, ready for warmer weather.

Plants don’t just respond to change; they prepare for it. In the fall, when deciduous trees lose their leaves, they are “actively prepar[ing] for rest,” something Montgomery thinks we could all learn from.

Hope, according to Montgomery, means that “some things have to die, and some live,” and that “despite what’s going on around you, you have to find the power and strength to go on.”

“I aspire to hope,” she says.

Montgomery also did a book signing for Lessons from Plants which was published in April of this year.

Montgomery says her guiding life principle is reciprocity. It seems fitting, then, that she has taught her son to appreciate plants from an early age, just as her mother did for her. When Montgomery’s son was nine months old, she planted a tree in his honor with the idea that he would be its steward. Sometimes, her son was taller than the tree. Other times, it was the other way around. When Montgomery’s son was seven, the tree became ill, but they treated it successfully, prompting conversations about sickness and recovery and what it means to care for something. Throughout his childhood, her son’s tree remained a valuable conversation starter. It still is.

“He’s a second-year student in college, and he still asks about his tree.”

Post by Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

How To Hold a Bee and Not Get Stung

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Pictured from left to right are Lindsey Weyant, Andrew McCallum, and Will Marcus.

On Saturday, September 25, the Wild Ones club hosted an insect-themed outing with Fred Nijhout, an entomology professor at Duke. We visited a pond behind the Biological Sciences Building bordered by vegetation. Apparently, the long grasses and flowers are prime habitat for insects, which are often attracted to sunny areas and edge habitat. Along with several other students, I practiced “sweeping” for insects by swishing long nets through vegetation, a delightfully satisfying activity, especially on such a gorgeous fall day.

A species of skipper feeding on a flower. According to Fred Nijhout, the best way to distinguish butterflies (including skippers) from moths is by looking for knobbed antennae, characteristic of butterflies but not moths.

Professor Nijhout says much of his research focuses on butterflies and moths, but the insect biology class he teaches has a much broader focus. So does this outing. In just a couple hours, our group finds a wide array of species.

A milkweed bug (left) and a soldier beetle, two of the species we saw on Sunday.

Many of the insects we see belong to the order Hemiptera, a group sometimes referred to as “true bugs” that includes more than 80,000 species. We find leafhoppers that jump out of our nets while we’re trying to look at them, a stilt-legged bug that moves much more gracefully on its long legs than I ever could on stilts, spittlebugs that encase themselves in foam as larvae and then metamorphose into jumping adults sometimes called froghoppers, and yet another Hemipteran with a wonderfully whimsical name (just kidding): the plant bug.

Professor Nijhout shows us a milkweed leaf teeming with aphids (also in the order Hemiptera) and ants. He explains that this is a common pairing. Aphids feed on the sap in leaf veins, which is nutrient-poor, so “they have special pumps in their guts that get rid of the water and the sugars” and concentrate the proteins. In the process, aphids secrete a sugary substance called honeydew, which attracts ants.

The honeydew excreted as a waste product by the aphids provides the ants with a valuable food source, but the relationship is mutualistic. The presence of the ants affords protection to the aphids. Symbiosis, however, isn’t the only means of avoiding predation. Some animals mimic toxic look-alikes to avoid being eaten. Our group finds brightly colored hoverflies, which resemble bees but are actually harmless flies, sipping nectar from flowers. Professor Nijhout also points out a brightly colored milkweed bug, which looks toxic because it is.

Sixteen species of hoverfly, all of which are harmless. Note that hoverflies, like all flies, have only one pair of wings, whereas bees have two.
Image from Wikipedia user Alvesgaspar (GNU Free Documentation License, Creative Commons license).

Humans, too, can be fooled by things that look dangerous but aren’t. As it turns out, even some of our most basic ideas about risk avoidance—like not playing with bees or eating strange berries—are sometimes red herrings. When we pass clusters of vibrant purple berries on a beautyberry bush, Professor Nijhout tells us they’re edible. “They’re sweet,” he says encouragingly. (I wish I could agree. They’re irresistibly beautiful, but every time I’ve tasted them, I’ve found them too tart.) And on several occasions, to the endless fascination of the Wild Ones, he catches bees with his bare hands and offers them to nearby students. Male carpenter bees (which can be identified by the patch of yellow on their faces) have no stinger, and according to Professor Nijhout, their mandibles are too weak to penetrate human skin. It’s hard not to flinch at the thought of holding an angry bee, but there’s a certain thrill to it as well. When I cup my hands around one of them, I find the sensation thoroughly pleasant, rather like a fuzzy massage. The hard part is keeping them from escaping; it doesn’t take long for the bee to slip between my hands and fly away.

Professor Nijhout in his element, about to capture a male carpenter bee (below) by hand.

The next day, I noticed several bees feeding on a flowering bush on campus. Eager to test my newfound knowledge, I leaned closer. Even when I saw the telltale yellow faces of the males, I was initially hesitant. But as I kept watching, I felt more wonder than fear. For perhaps the first time, I noticed the way their buzzy, vibrating bodies go momentarily still while they poke their heads into blossoms in search of the sweet nectar inside. Their delicate wings, blurred by motion when they fly, almost shimmer in the sunlight while they feed.

Gently, I reached out and cupped a male bee in my hands, noticing the way his tiny legs skittered across my fingers and the soft caress of his gossamer wings against my skin. When I released him, his small body lifted into the air like a fuzzy UFO.

I realize this new stick-my-face-close-to-buzzing-bees pastime could backfire, so I don’t necessarily recommend it, especially if you have a bee allergy, but if you’re going to get face-to-face with a carpenter bee, you might at least want to check the color of its face.

Damla Ozdemir, a member of the Wild Ones, with a giant cockroach in Professor Nijhout’s classroom.

If you could hold all the world’s insects in one hand and all the humans in the other, the insects would outweigh us. More than 900,000 species of insects have been discovered, and there may be millions more still unknown to science. Given their abundance and diversity, even the experts often encounter surprises.“Every year I see things I’ve never seen before,” Professor Nijhout told us. Next time you step outside, take a closer look at your six-legged company. You might be surprised by what you see.

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

Carrying On a Legacy of “Whimsical” Gardening

A contorted hardy orange tree (Poncirus trifoliata) in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. The brightly colored structures in the background are pollinator houses.

On Wednesday, September 15, the Sarah P. Duke Gardens hosted a drop-in event in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden, an area near the main entrance with a focus on organic and sustainable gardening. This part of Duke Gardens is almost ten years old, but Wednesday’s event, led by curator Jason Holmes and horticulturist Nick Schwab, showcased what makes it unique.

The entrance to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is marked by a lovely arbor draped with vines. Inside, the winding paths are lined with flowers, fruiting trees, and beds of herbs and vegetables. Bees and butterflies flit here and there, bright against the rainy sky.

Holmes finds me admiring a display of carnivorous plants. He introduces himself and shows me around.

Flirting with danger: a fly perches on a Venus flytrap. The Venus flytrap is a carnivorous plant native only to parts of the Carolinas.

One of the first things I notice is the array of pollinator houses scattered amongst flowers and attached to wooden structures. Many plants rely on pollinators to reproduce, and the pollinator houses can help attract native species like mason bees and leaf-cutter wasps, but Holmes says they have another purpose as well: bringing awareness to the importance of pollinators.

Along with the pollinator houses, which are designed to attract native bees, the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden has beehives for honey bees. Though honey bees are not originally native to the New World, they are important pollinators, and their populations are declining. Like many native bees, honey bees are threatened in part by habitat loss and pesticide use, but gardeners and landowners can help.

The Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is only about an acre in size, but exploring it feels like walking through a museum, a new exhibit around every corner. Over here, raised beds of hot peppers, organized by level of spiciness. (“I don’t do spicy,” says Holmes, but even Schwab, who has sampled the garden’s hottest peppers, tells me he often finds the less spicy ones to be more enjoyable.) Over there, clusters of pumpkins. Despite the steamy day, the pumpkins are a reminder that fall is coming. I’ve been noticing subtle hints of fall for weeks—brisk mornings, breezes that send dry leaves skittering across pavement—but despite these tantalizing harbingers of autumn, some days still seem distinctly summery. As it turns out, this garden is experiencing a similar transition.

A recipe for “Peri-Peri Sauce” within a display of hot peppers. Peppers are common in many cuisines, but they are originally native to tropical America.

Holmes and Schwab, along with other dedicated gardeners, are in the process of phasing out summer vegetables like okra, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, and eggplant and planting crops like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower in anticipation of cooler weather.

Change is something of a constant in the garden. Holmes likes to tell everyone who works with him that “every day’s going to be different.” When I ask if he has a favorite season in the garden, Holmes mentions two: “I love the cool-down of fall, and I love the rebirth of spring.” As for winter, Holmes describes it as a period of much-needed rest—for both the garden and the gardeners.

Potted succulents and clusters of bright orange pumpkins add to the garden’s whimsical feel.

The Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden is a fully functioning garden, donating most of its produce to the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, but it is also a space for discovery. Since its inception in 2012, the garden has sought to foster curiosity about gardening and the natural world.

The garden also houses a chicken coop, which Holmes says is constructed out of recycled materials from local factories. Holmes picks up a white silkie chicken, holding her gently before prompting her to join the others in the enclosure outside. He tells me she’s acting “broody,” exhibiting a tendency to behave as though she is incubating eggs.

Jason Holmes with one of the chickens. Holmes also cares for chickens at his home, but not because he wants to eat their eggs. He considers them “companions” instead.

When I ask Holmes about Charlotte Brody, he describes a woman who lived in Kinston, North Carolina, and invited kids to her home to learn about organic gardening and discover its joys for themselves. Holmes says Brody had a “whimsical, free approach” to gardening.

“Whimsical” describes this garden well. Tiny, orange spheres dangling from bushes. A tree frog peering out from a pollinator house. Hand-written signs nestled amongst peppers, offering recipes for “Peri-Peri Sauce” and “Hot Honey.” Everything from cacti to chickens to oranges coexisting peacefully in the same garden.

Before I leave, I linger under the arbor. The sun streams through the dome above me. The frog is still hiding in the same pollinator house as before. Looking around, I see more than a small garden. I see the legacy of a woman who devoted her time to gardening joyfully and sustainably and teaching others to do the same.

The arbor at the entrance to the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden. Despite the rain earlier in the afternoon, the sun had come out again by the time I left.

Jason Holmes, Nick Schwab, and the many workers and volunteers who have put their time and effort into this garden are continuing that legacy. Holmes hopes that visitors will find inspiration here, whatever that means to them. I know I did, and next time I come back, I’ll wander the paths and notice the changing seasons, ready to be inspired again.

By Sophia Cox, Class of 2025

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