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Andrea DeLong-Amaya in the gardens
As the Center's director of horticulture, Andrea DeLong-Amaya actively educates people about using native plants to create beautiful gardens that can require fewer resources and serve as wildlife habitat. Photo by Philip Hawkins.

Lunchtime webinars newest tool in Center's online toolkit

Visitors flock to the Wildflower Center and other botanic gardens during spring, but this year there is a special offering for those who can't make it. The Center is excited to be piloting a new series of online lunchtime seminars focused on native plant gardening, botany and sustainable landscaping. The webinars are the newest of the Center's online offerings — designed to make native plant education accessible to all who want to learn.

During the first webinar on February 27 at 12 p.m., the Center's director of horticulture Andrea DeLong-Amaya will teach participants about gardening to attract butterflies. She'll cover pollination ecology, Texas native plants that attract butterflies, general garden design techniques and proper maintenance to encourage butterflies. The webinar will end with a question-and-answer session.

The Center's Education Manager Alice Nance says that webinars allow the organization to reach people outside of Austin who cannot attend onsite workshops such as those offered through Go Native U. She expects the webinars to be popular with locals as well. "We have gotten many requests to offer classes during the week from people who live locally and who are unable to attend weekend workshops. The Center is fortunate that our onsite classes are so popular, but online classes are what we should also be doing in 2012," Nance says.

Webinars aren't all that's new in the online world at the Center. With more than 4.2 million visitors to the Center's website last year, programs like Mr. Smarty Plants have surged in popularity. Last year, the twelve staff and volunteers who man the question-and-answer service fielded 1,100 questions from all over the country. That is twice as many questions as were answered the previous year.

"We are gratified by the response to Ask Mr. Smarty Plants. It really takes the Center back to its roots when as the National Wildflower Research Center its Clearinghouse educated people across the country about native plants through handouts by mail," says the Center's collection manager Joe Marcus, who oversees Mr. Smarty Plants.


LEFT: Queen butterfly on Gregg's mistflower (Conoclinium greggii). Photo by Bruce Leander; CENTER: Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the Center's Ann and O.J. Weber Butterfly Garden. Photo by Bruce Leander; RIGHT: Onsite education is an important component of the Wildflower Center. Photo by Philip Hawkins.

Nance says the website has been essential to offering some of the Center's hard-copy educational resources in an electronic format. K-6 grade teachers, for example, can now find the "Exploring the Native Plant World" curriculum online, and a number of how-to gardening articles that first appeared in Wildflower magazine are now available to gardeners on the website.

The emphasis toward educating people online is only part of the story of the Center's enhanced online presence. By becoming more visible on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, the Center is reaching new people who have an interest in our mission. Thanks to the website, the Center was able to host a truly national wildflower photography contest in 2010 and 2011 — and even experienced double the number of entries between the first and second year. A family of six newsletters educates people on a weekly basis with Center news and offerings, and one newsletter — Wildflower Watch — features a column called Grandiflora focused on native plant education for children.

The Center has even chosen to conduct some of its fundraising exclusively online. Supporters gave more than $86,000 in response to a drought appeal e-mailed them last summer. The organization's end-of-year campaign — typically conducted by traditional mail — also was administered online and via email. This saves paper, printing and postage and helps ensure that more of the money raised goes toward the Center's conservation and education initiatives. The Center also is creating opportunities for other partner organizations through its online National Suppliers and National Organizations directories where groups like the Fredericksburg Nature Center host their plant list. There are constant updates being made to the website's image gallery as well as to its plant database. The former now is home to nearly 27,000 images and the latter to information about more than 7,200 North American native plants. A gardener can even search by climate, region and desired plant characteristics to find appropriate plants for a particular site.

"At the Center, we are always seeking ways to reach as many people as possible who want information about native plants. The web makes that possible," says the Center's webmaster Philip Hawkins.

Additional webinars focused on botany and sustainable landscaping will be held throughout the spring. Visit www.wildflower.org/webinar for more information.

By Christina Procopiou