Florida Keys Business
Sunday, May 6, 2012
Flower power
Resort's ethnobotanist studies plants' many uses

Perhaps it was a summer in the Peruvian rain forest with the Matsigenka tribe that influenced Rick Hederstrom III to become an ethnobotanist.

Or maybe it was the summer of 2008 at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, in London, where he helped with a study of ancient English herbal traditions.

It could just be that the seed was sewn when, as a child, Hederstrom would go to work with his dad, who was the grounds superintendent at the Cypress Point Golf Course in Virginia Beach, Va.

"It was being out there in the quiet of the morning in a natural microcosm inside the city of Virginia Beach. That may have gotten me started," the 24-year-old said while sitting in the shade of a chickee hut by the water at Kona Kai Resort, Gallery Botanic Gardens, where he is now the resident ethnobotanist.

Ethnobotany is the scientific study of the relationships that exist between people and plants. Ethnobotanists focus on how plants are used by humans, including their use as food, clothing, currency, dye, construction material, medicine and cosmetics, among other uses.

Starting out at small Connecticut College in New London -- enrollment about 1,800 -- Hederstrom envisioned a career in either automotive design or as an "eco-miner" who collects plants for the pharmaceutical industry.

"I took a long, hard look at what I wanted to do with my life and imagined myself as a plant explorer in search of new cures for disease. But I was about 30 years too late," he said. "Now that career is especially difficult for Americans because governments have set up extensive barriers and regulations as a result of intense exploitation."

That didn't stop him from exploring other worlds.

While still an undergraduate student, Hederstrom found his way to Peru for 3½ months on the east side of the Andes mountains in the rain forest.

"It was a good way to find out what working in the field was like," he recalled.

"I also spent time with the Quechua tribe in the Peruvian mountains. They are subsistence farmers who live on potatoes and weave native clothing to sell to tourists. They make do with so little and are very happy," he said. "Everyone should visit a Third World country."

He said he felt like he was on another planet with the Matsigenka.

"It was very surreal since there was absolutely no connection with the outside. The people still live in a very primitive state with no technology. If someone brings them a tool, they are amazed. A machete is the extent of their technology," he said.

His experience at Kew gardens seems to have helped sway him to the unusual field of ethnobotany.

"The project involved interviewing the eldest citizens of England to gather information about the herbal traditions -- which weeds and trees and shrubs and berries they used to cure different illnesses before modern pharmaceuticals. I was encouraged by this," he said.

After these diverse experiences, he began to focus on botanical gardens. That all gelled after college when he took a job at the Holden Arboretum near his family's most recent home in Kirtland, Ohio.

"After graduation I accepted an internship there," he said. "I was able to build awareness of the under-appreciated subject of ethnobotany to others."

Hederstrom was hired last year by Kona Kai owners Joe and Ronni Harris, who wanted to add a unique garden to their bayside resort.

"This is a botanic garden focused on ethnobotany, the perfect synthesis in my mind," Hederstrom said during a walk through the property's native and tropical flora, adding he has learned some useful things by coming to the Florida Keys.

"I had heard about mangroves but had never seen them," he said. "The diversity of the Keys surprised me. I'm impressed. A lot of native plants here have ethnobotanical use. In fact, everywhere you go you can find plants with value. You just have to find them."

The islands are a good fit for him, he said.

"I really love the laid-back, welcoming atmosphere here," he said. "Also the natural beauty of the water and the land. You really have to get off the highway to appreciate the Keys."

He plans to explore more of the Keys with his sights on a day at the Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park.

"I'm open to possibilities for the future," he said. "There are a lot of benefits living in the Keys and working at Kona Kai, but when I am older and more experienced I may like to be the director of a large institution like Fairchild [Tropical Botanic] Garden [in Coral Gables]. But I believe an advanced degree in business and finance would be necessary for me to take the next step."

Meanwhile, Hederstrom is proud of his accomplishments at Kona Kai -- labeling more than 100 trees and plants, compiling an inventory of the plants on the grounds, developing a successful tour that takes place twice a day during the tourist season, and maintaining a successful blog.

"We are starting a conference center for up to 36 people so we can hold symposiums -- we call them "Keyposiums" -- so we can host garden clubs, orchid clubs and just continue to teach people about what's out there in the garden."

sgibbs@keysnews.com

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