Campus Roots

Jenn Yang '12 stands among plants in the Global Flora greenhouse.

Photo by Lisa Abitbol

Photo by Lisa Abitbol

“When you start to recognize plants, I think you really start to feel like there’s family around,” says Jenn Yang ’12, associate director of the Wellesley College Botanic Gardens and Friends of Botanic Gardens. “You start to feel like a place is home.”

Yang has fond memories of reading under trees during her childhood in New Hampshire. It wasn’t until her undergraduate time at Wellesley, though, that she started to “learn the language” of plants (along with the languages Spanish, German, Chinese, and Russian while she “explored across the curriculum” as a biology major).

Yang became interested in climate change and its effect on plants used for food and fuel. She found mentors in Alden Griffith, then a botany fellow, and Kristina Niovi Jones, director of the botanic gardens, and eventually became a student intern in the botanic gardens.

She remembers that on her first visit to the greenhouses, she came across an osmanthus plant. “My family’s from Taiwan, so that smell of the osmanthus flowers just brought me back to this very popular plant that’s used in tea and in food and in all sorts of things,” she says. “I started to realize that we had this incredible botanical community, including plants from the subtropics, from all different countries, with real cultural meaning to people right here on campus.”

After graduation, Yang pursued a Ph.D. at Penn State. She came to believe that there is too much focus on monocultures and trying to improve specific plants, rather than “the more difficult, complex work of understanding a diversity of plant species and how they can contribute collectively and be grown together in community to advance nutrition and health and sustain us,” she says.

Feeling disenchanted with academia, Yang was applying for farm jobs when she ran into Jones at her fifth Wellesley reunion. When Yang graduated, the botanic gardens’ Edible Ecosystem was brand new. It had since grown, and when Jones shared that it needed a caretaker, Yang jumped at the opportunity. She came back to Wellesley as a postbaccalaureate fellow for what she describes as the best three months of her life.

“What an incredible transition from working on corn for five years, getting then to research and learn about 50 edible species of plants with all different tastes and flavors,” she says. During that time, Yang reconnected with both the plants and the people on campus. “It was such a welcoming environment to be back here,” she says. “I grew personally a lot at Penn State, but Wellesley has always kind of allowed me to be me.”

Yang was subsequently hired as a botany fellow, with skills she’d learned earning her Ph.D. proving useful during the creation of the new Global Flora Conservatory at the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses (pictured above) in 2018. It was a full circle moment: “As a student, I was mentored by the botany fellow here, and then I became the botany fellow, and then I was mentoring students,” she says. When Yang was a student, the greenhouses employed two or three undergraduates. Today, there are 30 students performing various roles at the botanic gardens mentored by garden staff.

With Global Flora and the outdoor botanic gardens now open to the campus and the public, Yang views them as places for community building. “We need spaces like that to connect, to build trust, and to learn in a welcoming environment that doesn’t presume that you know certain things,” she says. Being around the plants of the botanic gardens sparks new questions and brings back memories of places and foods, sights and smells, that visitors may not have experienced in years. In the gardens, Yang says, “we can start a conversation about those things that matter to us.”

At this year’s plant giveaway during orientation—a botanic gardens tradition to connect with first-years—Yang was blown away by the “pure enthusiasm” from incoming students. She heard stories about how they had grown closer to plants over the pandemic, taking care of their parents’ house plants or falling in love with plants while they were stuck inside during lockdown.

“People are really into plants now. It’s a very interesting phenomenon, and I hope what we can do is provide some education so that plants don’t just become a commodity, and don’t become another status symbol like they tend to be under colonialism and empire-building,” says Yang.

That’s how Yang sees her job: “to make sure that we’re connecting people with plants, and that we are thinking critically and responsibly about how we relate to plants.”

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