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Whether cultivating roses or studying cassava, Black botanists are in the spotlight this week

Whether cultivating roses or studying cassava, Black botanists are in the spotlight this week

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Daria McKelvey knew she wanted to work with plants from a young age. Kevin Cox Jr. thought he wanted to be a pediatrician until he learned that plants get sick, too.

McKelvey, a supervisor at the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening, and Cox, a postdoctoral fellow at the Danforth Plant Science Center, are among the St. Louisans being celebrated on social media during Black Botanists Week, which ends Saturday.

The social media conversation started after a racially charged confrontation between a Black birdwatcher and a white woman in New York’s Central Park. Twitter users started celebrating African Americans who love birds, and veered into recognizing other professionals who work with nature.

“Black Botanists Week is a really great way to say: ‘Hey, we are here, we exist!’ and to show younger people that this is a viable career option for them,” said Kiona Elliott, a graduate student who works at the Danforth Center in Creve Coeur.

St. Louis is home to some of the most influential centers of plant biology and conservation in the world. Danforth Center is the world’s largest nonprofit, independent plant research institute, and the sprawling Missouri Botanical Garden is the nation’s oldest botanical garden in continuous operation.

Both centers attract world-class botanists and other plant scientists, some of whom happen to be Black.

“Growing up and in school you learn a lot about animals, but plants don’t get much attention,” said McKelvey, 30. “They don’t run and talk or produce sound, but there are so many intricacies in how they grow and function.”

McKelvey coordinates a team of more than 70 volunteers and runs the Horticulture Answer Service, among other duties. “I love being able to talk and share knowledge about plants with others,” she said.

Cox, 29, found his calling when he took a part-time job at the Danforth Center at the end of his junior year in college. “There are so many ways a plant can defend itself against pathogens, and yet there are so many ways a pathogen can overcome that defense,” he said. “It’s kind of like a chess match. It’s a never-ending question, but if we get to figure out how they talk and communicate it is going to help the world so much.”

Elliott, 25, and Taylor Harris, 23, are graduate students at Washington University who also work at the Danforth Center.

Elliott uses genetic tools to understand why cassava plants, a staple crop in much of Africa, east Asia and South America, are susceptible to diseases that cause them to rot and die. Harris is studying how bacterial pathogens work together to cause bacterial blight disease in cotton.

“The part that I’m most excited about are all the questions that I don’t know the answers to,” Harris said. “I really like science,” she laughs. “I like doing experiments, it doesn’t feel like work!”

Unlike Cox, Elliott and Harris, who spend most of their time in the lab, Matthew Norman works outdoors. Norman, 25, started working at Missouri Botanical Garden last April as a rosarian, or person who cultivates roses. He says it’s been a wild ride ever since.

“I make the joke myself: It’s not always roses,” Norman laughed. “It has its ups and downs and I really enjoy the challenges that it brings. It’s not only a physical, environmental, mental challenge, it’s even emotional, too.”

Norman lights up when talking about his favorite rose, the shrub variety known as “Queen of Sweden.”

”It’s small and light pink. It’s got this particular shape where the bloom is cupped, and it’s got this scent … ,” he trails off. “It’s very light and refreshing. Almost really hard to describe.”

The botanists agree that this week has been special.

“It wasn’t until this week that I found out that there were Black people who consider themselves botanists and work in this field of study,” Harris said.

“I have rarely encountered Black botanists in my life,” McKelvey echoed. “Until this week I have met less than 10 Black horticulturists, none of them female.”

These professionals say they often feel the sting of prejudice, however.

“Sometimes when I’m working and I see people from afar, people will just turn around and walk the other way,” Norman said. “I get that a lot. I feel like people are afraid of me, and it is very hard to ask why.

“All too often, I get questions like ‘Do you really work here?’” he said. “I worked really hard to get where I’m at. Don’t demean and degrade that by your backhanded compliment or just because you haven’t seen anyone else (who looks like me) do it.”

On the other hand, Norman feels rewarded when he sees groups of African American children at the garden. “They see me and I see them, and then it clicks,” he said. “Seeing a Black man working in the garden makes them think: ‘This person is doing it, why can’t I do it?’”

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