To most visitors, the U.S. Botanic Garden is a sanctuary for enjoying the sight and fragrance of thousands of exotic plants from around the world.
It is that and more. Executive Director Ari Novy, a walking font of plant knowledge, oversees a multitude of programs and exhibits, including a seasonal exhibit, which this year is a display of 33 lighthouses constructed from plant materials, and opens Nov. 27.
Novy and about 70 staff members participate in a global strategy to conserve plant species; demonstrate the economic, ecological and cultural importance of plants to our existence; and educate Americans, foreign visitors and Congress on the importance of plants and plant science.
Although the nation’s most visited public garden—1.2 million people a year—has the lofty goal of stewarding a museum collection of more than 10,000 plants and keeping alive a handful from the original collection of 200 gathered during a four-year expedition starting in 1838, it also teaches people how to garden at home in environmentally friendly ways.
The Landscape for Life program, Novy said, “helps people in a common sense and doable way to manage their own landscapes in a sustainable way.” In addition to being good for health, ergonomics and aesthetics, following the program helps the larger ecosystem by creating a habitat for animals, processing water better, decreasing erosion and increasing biodiversity, he said. It’s an offshoot of another sustainability program aimed at landscape architects, engineers and others who work in land design and development.
Along with managing the botanic garden’s programs and operations, Novy likes to give tours to visitors, some of whom are interested in specific plants, but others who are not. Yet somehow they are drawn—or dragged—to the institution.
“He has a real knack for what it is that connects people to plants,” said Lee Coykendall, a children’s education specialist. “He has a passion for the plant world along with a background in science.”
When Novy talks to the less enthusiastic visitors, he probes them about their hobbies.
“So many things are relatable to plants,” he said. “Almost whatever you’re interested in, there’s some connection to plants and it’s really important to help people recognize that,” said Novy, a plant biologist. He started working as a public programs manager at the Botanic Garden in 2012 and became executive director this past June.
“There are only certain ways to produce things, three substrates from which things can be produced in the world: mined materials, out of the ocean and from plants,” he said. “They are one of the pillars of materials we use to support our lives.”
In giving tours, Novy might pull off a leaf from a camphor tree in a medicinal plants room to teach that the analgesic inhaled as a vapor does not originate from Vicks VapoRub. Or he might swipe the inside of carnivorous Venus flytrap with grass to trigger tiny hairs to close the trap.
“Venus flytraps feel so exotic, but they’re from the Carolinas and that’s the only place they’re from,” he said. “We’re bringing into full view things that are already quite at home.”
The institution’s most popular attraction by far is the Titan Arum, a stinky plant known as the corpse flower. One such plant in the collection bloomed in July of 2013—for the first time in nearly a decade—attracting more than 130,000 visitors to see and possibly smell it, and another 650,000 views of a live stream. “That is extraordinary,” Novy said. “It was a record-breaking occurrence.”
Founded in 1850, the botanic garden is part of the legislative branch and administered by the Architect of the Capitol. Novy likes that the botanic garden is just downhill from the nation’s House and Senate chambers.
“To be one of the closest buildings to the seat of legislative power is a particularly salient honor of the U.S. Botanic Garden,” he said.
The institution is certified as a museum, a designation not many public gardens achieve. Maintaining a living collection presents inherent difficulties. “It often means planning on a decadal time frame with plants that are unpredictable and susceptible to diseases and all kinds of pressures,” Novy said. “It requires all kinds of expertise.”
Novy didn’t always want to be a plant scientist. His grandfather owned a flower shop, but that did not lead him to his current federal position. “I’m sure the seed was planted for an appreciation of plants, but I never considered it as a career,” he said.
Rather, while studying Italian literature in Italy as an undergrad, Novy started a gardening club at a Renaissance villa bequeathed to the university.
Later, he said, he was offered a job and was guided by a gardener who realized Novy was more interested in plant science than aesthetics. From that experience, he said, “I fell in love with horticulture.”
This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.