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Marsh Marigogld
Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris).

As someone who’s never known much about wildflowers or gardening, I had considerable trepidation about volunteering at the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. I fretted, for example, about not being able to differentiate among all those yellow flowers or the different types of trillium. But once I realized I wasn’t going to fail any tests or get booted out for not knowing the answer to a visitor’s question, I had some great experiences. Here, in no particular order, are my top five experiences from my first summer as a Garden volunteer.

1. Naturalist walks.

So many flowers, so little time. But the naturalists gave me identifying clues and were a font of information about plant names and histories, even if I couldn’t always keep track of them.

Yellow Lady's=slipper
Yellow Lady's-slipper (Cypripedium calceolus)
2. Kid visitors.

My mom was a kindergarten teacher for 25 years, so I have a soft spot for kids and learning. It was really touching to see how eager kids were to learn, and how great the parents and naturalists were at teaching. One time my heart sort of sank when a large group of multi-aged kids trooped into the shelter, but I ended up having a great time pointing out birds, talking about things on the touch table and helping them with crafts.

3. The blast-from-the-past visitor.

One afternoon two couples, both in their early 70s, came to the shelter. Standing inside, one of the men threw out his hands and exclaimed, “I haven’t been here in 50 years, and I remember this exact spot!” It turns out that Martha Crone had recruited him and three other adolescents in the 1950s to help her keep the bird feeders full during the winter—because she was short and had trouble managing the task in the snow. When we pointed out the centennial commemorative booklet, he looked through it and found an essay written by one of his bird feeding pals—who recently had a birding book published! The visitor has lived in Washington, D.C., for years and now directs the Johns Hopkins health sciences. For me the conversation was a wonderful little window into the Garden’s history.

Yekkow Trout Lily
Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum)
4. The Hollywood visitor.

One afternoon while I was sitting by the shelter window reading an old “New Yorker” magazine, I looked up to see a small group walking up the path to the shelter. There was a young boy and his dad, pushing a stroller, and an older couple. I thought to myself, Wow, that older guy looks a lot like Dustin Hoffman. Then I stood up, took a closer look and said, That IS Dustin Hoffman!” I raced over to tell Kristin, who was on the computer in the naturalists’ office, and she just rolled her eyes and kept typing. Then they came in, and there was no mistake—it really was Dustin Hoffman!

Yellow Trillium
Yellow Trillium (Trillium luteum)

Turns out his daughter and son-in-law live just a few minutes away in Golden Valley, and they had walked over to the Garden. Dustin Hoffman was extremely complimentary about the Garden and the coziness of the shelter (its warm fire was burning at the time!). He wanted to talk about invasive species and to know about the pictures on the wall. It was definitely an I can’t believe this is happening to me! half-hour. Best yet, he bought a tee shirt for his son-in-law and dropped a bill in the donation box before they left! After they left the shelter, I immediately called my daughter in Brooklyn, who’s always mentioning her latest celebrity sighting, and dropped this one on her. Key-CHING!

Wood Poppy
Wood Poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)
5. Naturalists at work.

Having the opportunity to watch the naturalists at work—whether preparing exhibits, answering questions from visitors or discussing the latest Garden activity—made me appreciate how much they know and how willing they are to share their expertise. I learned things all the time and hope I even remember a few of them for next year! We’re very lucky to have so many outstanding naturalists at the Garden, and we owe them many thanks for all they do to help keep it a wonderful attraction for people of all ages.

All this means I’ll most definitely be back next year. Over time, maybe I’ll even learn to tell all those yellow flowers apart.