Decades ago as a child in the West Country, Jean Egan fell in love with plants on Exmoor. The rich profusion of moorland species ignited a passion that’s burned brightly all her life across three continents.
Now Jean and 20 of her fellow volunteers have been honoured at the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG) in a ceremony that recognises between five and 25 years of service, commitment and care for the Gardens across many roles, ranging from volunteer guides to staffing the visitor centre and work on the Friends of the ANBG’s volunteer programs.
“I started on March 1, 2000, thinking that it would probably be a better fit for me than Meals on Wheels,” Jean says. “I am a plant person, an orchid person and it seemed like the perfect thing for me to do.”
Jean answered a call from the Gardens at the time for herbarium volunteers, who play a critical role in fulfilling the Garden’s scientific purpose.
“Plants are really my life,” she says. “I’m a very keen gardener and I love orchids in particular. So although I’ve never worked in botany, it was an easy thing for me to move into and I’ve been working with the herbarium specimens ever since.”
When botanists are in the field, they collect wild species, press and dry them. Notes are compiled about the source of the material and it’s then chilled to kill any insects.
Volunteers mount the specimens on acid-free paper using acid-free tape and prepare them for storage that may last for centuries.
“Whenever I’m doing something messy and I need to tidy it up and make it beautiful, I think ‘Ah, it’s for 200 years. What else do you do for 200 years?’
“You definitely feel that we have to make it accurate because nobody will know who did it in 200 years’ time.”
In the herbarium, volunteers mostly work alone or in small groups and Jean comes in for half a day each week to complete the meticulous and scientifically valuable work. It’s given the professed orchid lover the chance to work with the likes of Dr Mark Clements and David Jones, two of Australia’s most recognised orchid experts.
Botanic Gardens volunteers might collect, process, prepare and catalogue seeds. They record what’s flowering, sterilise the pots and work on the orchid collection. Volunteers also assist with the school education program, market research and social media.
They also assist in the Gardens’ library, catalogue the photographic collections, stocktake the living specimens and work in the cryptogram display garden.
At the ceremony, volunteers were recognised for between five and 25 years of working the Gardens and presented with certificates and badges recognising their generosity. Voluntary workers who have assisted with Friends’ volunteer programs were also recognised.
Not that it’s been too much of a labour, according to Jean, whose own garden is jammed with natives front and back, and exotics squeezed in between.
“I’m a plantaholic, really, so I’ve relished it all,” she says.
You can find out more about the ANBG volunteer program here.