Arnold Arboretum

April 13, 2016
Lilac Sunday


Lilac Sunday, held this year on Sunday, May 8th, is the Arnold Arboretum’s biggest day of the year. It takes the contributions of staff from a range of backgrounds and specialties to make the day a success. Arboretum staff members Jack Alexander, Rachel Brinkman, and Pamela Thompson talk about their work for Lilac Sunday and the Arboretum’s broader mission.

Jack Alexander, Pamela Thompson, Rachel Brinkman

What do you do?

Rachel Brinkman: I'm a horticulturalist at the Arboretum, the keeper of the lilacs. I perform year-round maintenance – pruning, mulching, looking for diseases, making sure they’re healthy and happy. The lilac collection needs a lot of care because it’s one of our oldest collections. Some plants are over 100 years old.

Jack Alexander: My role is propagating plants for the Arboretum, as part of the greenhouse team. I encourage seeds to germinate and I grow roots on cuttings. A lot of the plants I work on are older or diseased and I’m cloning them – repropagating them and renewing historical plant accessions to new life. I also teach classes and lead tours.

Pamela Thompson: I am Manager of Adult Education at the Arnold Arboretum and part of the Public Programs team. I’m responsible for developing adult programs, enlisting speakers and instructors, promotion, and registration. The Arboretum is host to thousands of visitors each year. As a team, our goal is to welcome them and engage them more deeply on every visit. We want visitors to grow more curious, learn, and understand a bit more about the critical role of plants in our lives.

I am one of two leads in organizing Lilac Sunday. The event takes place on May 8 and we expect upwards of 40,000 people to attend. Kate Stonefoot (Manager of Visitor Engagement) and I are the behind-the-scenes administrators and rely on a seasoned team of staff and volunteers to pitch in during the weeks leading up to and on the day of the event.

What don¹t people know about what your team does?

Jack: It’s a bit hidden how much work goes into cultivating and caring for the collection. People don’t realize how much nurturing and care goes into maintaining the plants they see here. We’re stewards, taking care of a legacy that’s been handed to us.

Rachel: I agree – we do research and conservation work at the Arboretum, as well as being a beautiful park. The vast array of plants here were hand-collected from all over the world, from China, Korea, other part of Asia, from Europe. We’re preserving the genetic material of these plants for use in science and to preserve examples of biodiversity.

What are the professional backgrounds of your team members?

Pamela: I don’t have formal education in botany, but over my 25 years here I’ve acquired an incredible wealth of knowledge about woody plants, and I’m continually learning more. The Public Engagement team as a whole has varied backgrounds: social work, writing, coffee house MC’ing, teaching, communications, French, Spanish, painting and art history, early childhood education, volunteer management, and of course, a bit of biology. This allows us all to contribute to the department, bringing each of our varied strengths to the forefront.

Jack: I came from a family of nurserymen – my grandfather and great-grandfather were in the nursery business. I started working for my grandparents when I was six and they paid me 10 cents an hour. I earned my undergraduate degree at the Extension School concentrating in biology and taking every available botany class. I learned horticulture hands-on and, of course, during my 40 years here at the Arboretum.

Rachel: I have an undergraduate degree in plant sciences from Cornell and am working on a master’s degree at the Extension School. I’ve been working in the horticultural world since graduating several years ago.

What does success/your best day look like?

Jack: I like sharing my love of lilacs. If we have a beautiful day for Lilac Sunday and the lilacs are in full bloom, there’s nothing better. But I also enjoy educating people about early season and late season lilacs and the broader collection. They may come for the lilacs, but can learn about 15,000 other plants.

Rachel: For Lilac Sunday, I give tours and it’s a successful day if I can get a handful of people to see the Arboretum in a different light – understand the history and purpose and scientific mission. More generally, in the process of maintaining the plants, if I learn a new skill or gain new knowledge of the plants I’m working with, that’s a successful day.

What do you like best about your work?

Pamela: I personally like engaging with “my people!” These are the folks who regularly attend our evening programs, who join a Tree Mob (short notice learning in the landscape), or volunteer for us. I thrive on creative engagement and social learning with our members and visitors. I hope people realize how lucky we, and the city of Boston, are to have the Arboretum as a resource, one largely funded by private endowments. Our program offerings are highly subsidized through the generosity of past and present donors.

Rachel: I like the variety of my job. One day, I’m giving tours, another day I’m doing integrated pest management, and another day I’m digging in the dirt.

Jack: I get a lot of pleasure out of successfully replacing a plant before it dies – a successful grafting to a branch or getting a difficult seed to germinate. I get a lot of personal pleasure, even if no one is there to see it.

Learn more about this year’s Lilac Sunday.


See also: Profile