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February 19, 2002

Providing Nourishment for a Growing Devotion to the Plant World

By Kirsten Fields
Staff Writer


February 15, 2002

article main image By Mallory Davis
Peter White, who has been the director of the Botanical Gardens for 15 years, stands next to his favorite tree, a Walter's Pine.
Peter White has something of a green thumb.

White, the director of the UNC Botanical Gardens and a professor of biology, first discovered his penchant for plants as a young child on family trips to a lake in Maine.

And while White hosts a Bob Dylan theme party every year with guitar in hand and experiments with his newly acquired digital camera, everything takes a back seat to his passion for plants.

He said he has always loved spending time in nature and appreciates the beauty and complexity of all things flora.

College, White found, was a place where his interest could blossom. "I just couldn't believe I could get credit for (learning about plants)," White said. "I thought I wanted to become a doctor, but I just wasn't passionate about it."

After earning his doctorate in plant ecology and pursuing post-doctoral studies, White arrived at UNC, where his energy has driven him to influence the botanical world both locally and nationally. As director of the Botanical Gardens, White oversees three areas on the UNC campus: the Botanical Garden, the Coker Arboretum and the Mason Farm Biological Reserve.

He regulates the research and the learning opportunities within the three areas and helps to acquire half of the gardens' budget, occasionally taking walks into the garden to relax. "I basically try to keep everything going," White said.

Johnny Randall, assistant director of the Botanical Gardens, has worked for White for the past four years. "He's an excellent director at the garden; he has a clear sense of its mission," Randall said.

Working in other areas of the botanical world, White focuses his energies on the potential problem of introducing new species to an area.

White said plants such as Kudzu, introduced to the South from Japan, threaten to choke out native species and can be expensive to eradicate.

"The ones that do cause a problem cause a huge one," White said.

While other botanists merely talked about the issue, White decided to take action. In December, he and three colleagues at other universities organized an international conference to discuss future options concerning introduced species.

"We decided to address how to turn down the volume of pest species," White said.

Locally, White developed his principles and called them "The Chapel Hill Thesis." The thesis recommends removing invasive species and replacing them with noninvasive alternative ones in order to better the ecological system here at UNC. "It sets the standards of what should be done here," White said.

After the thesis's completion, he nailed it to an invasive tree in the Botanical Garden. The move not only drove a nail through pesky plants -- literally -- but also alluded to Martin Luther's historic nailing of his "95 Theses" to a church door, a gesture that amused White.

Even when he's not writing about or working with plants, White's mind is still never far from the garden. When designing a cake for the UNC Herbarium's 90th birthday celebration, White decided to make it in the shape of "Vascular Floor of the Carolinas," a book commonly known among the botanists as "the Bible of N.C. and S.C. Botany."

"It was fun to work with the caterer on the cake and to see people's reactions at the party," White said.

He said the Botanical Garden keeps him busy, but he enjoys his work.

"There's always more to be done than could possibly be done in one day, but I suppose that is true with anyone who's passionate about his job," White said. "It allows me to continue to deal daily with nature and plants and to have it be a part of my life."

The Features Editor can be reached at features@unc.edu.

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