The Discovery Trail: Examining wildflowers at the Cornell Botanic Gardens


By Jamie Swinnerton

Tompkins Weekly


The Discovery Trail is a museum-library partnership between eight-member organizations that have been collaborating for nearly two decades to help visitors explore nature, science, and culture. Each month, we’ll be exploring one of the sites, highlighting their offerings and taking a look at their impact in the community.

Discovery Trail partners include Cayuga Nature Center, Cornell Botanic Gardens, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell, Museum of the Earth, Sciencenter, The History Center in Tompkins County, and Tompkins County Public Library.

This month we focus on the Cornell Botanic Gardens. From the beginning, Cornell University encouraged the education of nature and all that it had to offer. In 1875 the university built its first women’s dormitory which included a conservatory for growing plants. Over the years the university has started various other gardens and collected nearby natural lands across Cornell and Ithaca. In 1944 the Dean Emeritus of the College of Agriculture, Liberty Hyde Baily, proposed to call the acquired forest land the Cornell Plantations. The name was changed several years ago to reflect the diverse natural experience that the gardens provide. The 25-acres of the botanic gardens features 14 specialty gardens.

“Not all students learn in the same way; teachers need and increasingly seek creative ways to engage all students. The benefits of experiential learning –participating with all of the senses helps a broad range of learners,” said Star Bressler, Executive Director of the Discovery Trail. “Last year, 468 third graders attended the Cornell Botanic Gardens through Kids Discover the Trail! The program provides a hands-on wildflower exploration. Each student is assigned a wildflower that they learn about before the trip; then, while at the Cornell Botanic Gardens, has an opportunity to identify their flower and educate their peers. This experience allows students to connect with nature and become an expert about their wildflower.”

Before the third graders actually head to the gardens in May, the gardens come to them.

“It starts pretty much in February, believe it or not, when we’re working with volunteers that are part of this program, and we have training all winter,” said Raylene Ludgate, Youth Education Coordinator for the Cornell Botanic Gardens. “Once a week we get together and we’re sharing things and professors come in and talk and help us learn our material. Then in March and April, we’re in the classrooms.”

In the classrooms the volunteers do three different activities with the kids: dissect a flower, learn to identify underground structures like bulbs and tubers, and then putting it all together with a review of the whole lifecycle of the plant and what it does.

“Before we leave, every student gets a mission document and it’s their mission to learn about their flower and become the expert on it so when they come for the field trip they have ownership and they’re the expert on their particular flower,” Ludgate said.

In May when all the flowers are in full bloom two classes will come together to the gardens for the field trip day where students break into small groups within their classes to find their particular flower and share what they have learned about it. There are 28 different flowers in the garden so within each small group each student will have a different flower. After finding their flower and sharing what they had learned the students have lunch with their buddy from the other class. Part of the KDT! mission is about more than just introducing kids to hands-on learning, it’s also about introducing kids to their peers. After finishing lunch, the students have another mission they must complete with their buddy, working together to read a map and find certain things in the garden.

The reaction from the kids, Ludgate said, is typically very enthusiastic.

“A lot of times kids love it and they’ll even say ‘I didn’t know plants could be so interesting,’ or ‘This has been the best day,’” she said. With plants, people tend to have “green blindness,” Ludgate said, assuming that they are all the same. But when the students start to learn about the interesting things plants can do, like change their sex or live underground for 11 months out of the year, is when their interest is really piqued.

“All our reluctant naturalists have been transformed,” one teacher told Ludgate about their visit to the gardens. “Everyone now loves going out in nature and cheers when I say it’s the nature trail day.”

Working as a partner in the Discovery Trail has benefits beyond igniting a curiosity about flowers in young children, Ludgate said. Working together with a large group of other educators brings perks that the gardens wouldn’t have on its own.

“I love it because I get to work with other educators from all these other institutions and we meet three or four times a year, sharing things, what worked and what didn’t, helping each other, having more training as a group,” Ludgate said. “So, it gives us a little more clout because we’re a bigger group. Where I may not be able to spend that time or get that trainer, because there’s a bunch of us we can afford it or we can do it. Learning from other educators and being part of a bigger group.”

The gardens are free to visit and open daily. For more information visit or call (607) 255-2400.


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment