Increasingly within urban, ex-urban and industrial landscapes plants are understood as dynamic agents of environmental and cultural change. In addition to providing spatial definition, visual texture and seasonal interest, the diverse abilities of plants to vitalize habitat, absorb and filter storm water, sequester carbon and phytoremediate soils are essential to sustainable development. In today’s changing cities, plants are not only scenic but are innovative tools of ecological performance, green urbanism and resonant cultural experiences.
This semester students in Kerry Rutz’s Plant ID & Engagement course are getting a first-hand look at the role of plants in Boston’s urban environment. In weekly field visits, students study the structural, spatial, aesthetic and ecological characteristics of the Northeast’s wild and urban plant communities. From a restored salt marsh in East Boston’s Condor Street Urban Wild to the horticultural history of Boston Common and Public Garden, from the living archive of the Arnold Arboretum’s Leventritt Shrub and Vine Collection to the green infrastructure of Olmsted’s renowned Back Bay Fens, students gain direct experience of how plants shape the natural and built environment. Focus topics include: native, non-native and invasive species; preservation, conservation and cultivation; the challenges and benefits of spontaneous vegetation; growth habits and associations in urban plant communities; scale, structure and seasonal characteristics.
Getting out of the classroom and into the living environment is at the heart of Plant ID & Engagement. In addition to learning plant types, community characteristics and horticultural terminology, students’ work with instructor Kerry Rutz to refine field documentation skills such as free hand sketching, photography and site notes. It’s not just about being able to identify native beach grass varieties versus invasive purple loosestrife, but to develop a personal ethic toward using these plants in a range of applications.