North American Experience (NAX) 2009 began slightly less than a week ago when we all boarded a plane in Baltimore and headed for Florida. Our landing in Miami may have been a bit bumpy, and getting our rental van a bit frustrating, but in no way did these experiences serve as a metaphor for our travels ahead. What we were about to see and experience could never have been predicted by even the best Web site or personal conversation prior to our journey. At each stop along our diverse itinerary, our hosts welcomed us with an enthusiasm for our visit and a genuine spirit of excitement to showcase their institutions… and each shined in doing so. We all listened carefully wherever we were and we engaged almost every other sense to help us remember each site. We licked the back of mangrove leaves and tasted unusual tropical fruits, experienced a plethora of fragrances from both flowers and foliage, listened to the sounds of water and wildlife most everywhere we went, experienced a myriad of plant textures, and took tons of photographs. And yet, for reasons likely attributable to our career choice of public horticulture, we would like to return again to add to our experiences!
The North American Experience does more than showcase plant collections, it showcases people; and if public horticulture leadership can be taught, then leadership by example may be one of the best teaching strategies. At each one of the sites on the NAX itinerary, the staff candidly and openly shared their success stories, challenges, creative approaches to problem solving, plans for the future, and how they viewed themselves as unique amongst other public horticulture institutions. Our hosts also shared how they “fit” within their neighborhoods and communities, whether in ways to increase their own membership or how they can enhance the educational curriculum of the local school systems. Our hosts were especially interested in the future of public horticulture, and discussed institutional survival and/or expansion in terms of financial, capital, and human resources, which indeed included roles for the students. We witnessed an infectious optimism everywhere we went, regardless of the size or age of the institutions we visited. Sources of private and public support were changing but clearly evident, volunteers provided valuable contributions for all staff and departments, and institutional relationship building was alive and well.
We owe much to those who took the time to meet with us during NAX 2009 – South Florida. We return home with a greater understanding of public horticulture operations and an increased network of professional colleagues who we hope to see again in the future!