Festival of Plants sprouts students’ excitement

By Isabella Cano, April 20, 2021

As the houseplant trend grows deep roots in the Cal Poly Pomona community during the pandemic, ASI BEAT and BioTrek collaborated to host a virtual Festival of Plants on April 16, allowing both experienced and novice students to flaunt their green thumbs.

Led by BioTrek Curator Edward Bobich and Horticulture Technician Michelle Terrazino, the Festival of Plants consisted of a virtual tour and presentation of the university’s Ethnobotany and Rainforest BioTrek learning centers, followed by a Q&A session.

Though meant to be an educational experience for plant-loving students, the event geared toward broadening the simplistic perception of plants held by the general public.

“Some of these plants have incredible life histories and I think that when a lot of people look at them, they look at them like furniture when they’re really organisms,” Bobich said. “I don’t expect people to change everything they do or want to become plant biologists, but I’d like them to have a greater appreciation through a greater understanding of what they have around them.”

Introducing the Rainforest BioTrek center, Bobich selected a number of plants from different regions of the world and explained their physical structures, photosynthesis functions, growing patterns and genus. Some of the featured plants were dracaenas, sansevierias succulents and multiple plants in the Ficus family — all capable of growing in an average California home.

Possessing its own unique characteristics, the root beer plant, or also known as Mexican pepperleaf, is a large leaf plant known for its root beer taste and sassafras smell. Another peculiar plant discussed was Ficus Alii, which is found in Asia and India and produces latex at the tip of its leaves that can irritate the skin.

Dissecting the historic and cultural background of native vegetation, Terrazino highlighted local plants in the Ethnobotany BioTrek center that were utilized for an array of medicinal purposes in Indigenous cultures.

Herbs like California sagebrush, mugwort and California bay leaves were often infused in teas or taken orally by the Chumash and Tongva tribes in order to alleviate anxiety and migraines. Other plants, like white sage, were commonly burned in abalone shells for ceremonies and rituals.

“I try to relate everything I talk about to certain hiking trails that we have around Pomona that are kind of close by so that when students are on those hikes or outside, they can kind of look around and be able to spot these trees and plants themselves,” Terrazino said.

Throughout the event, Terrazino mentioned ethnobotanical books she drew inspiration from when preparing for the event, recommending books like “The New Wildcrafted Cuisine,” “Braiding Sweetgrass” and “Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West” for students looking to deepen their knowledge on Native American plant practices.

For event attendee and third-year biology student Nyckolaus Ledezma, the Zoom presentation offered a fresh approach to studying plants in their natural habitats.

“I feel like a lot of the time I spend in my classes is always learning about the mechanisms and concepts of plants, but we don’t really take the time to observe plants in real life,” Ledezma said. “It’s a more hands-on approach in a way because if I were to go hiking or to a nursery and I see a plant they showed us in the presentation, I would definitely remember it.”

As part of the final open discussion portion of the festival, over 40 participants were encouraged to share tips or stories about their plants at home.

ASI BEAT Student Activities Supervisor Rudy Varo, a third-year sociology student, was the first to show off the only plant in his collection so far: a jade tree succulent.

“I feel like it really benefitted me because professor Bobich was able to give me some advice on the lighting my plant was getting, and I told him how much water I was giving it. He assured me, so that was good,” Varo said. “But I think, for me, the cultural aspect of it was cool to learn about because these plants have certain features to them, and they were all used for a reason so it’s nice to know the history behind that.”

For more information on the BioTrek learning centers and their programs, visit their website.

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