Island horticulturist blooms in job tending to a rainforest
Managing 2,000 different species of plants in a 40,000-square-foot garden sounds like a full-time job — because it is. Just ask Donita Brannon, horticultural exhibits manager at the Rainforest Pyramid at Moody Gardens.
Brannon began working for Moody Gardens in Galveston nearly 30 years ago, before most of today’s popular attractions were built. She sat in on the design team meetings when the Rainforest Pyramid was being planned and helped select the original plants in that facility. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the prominent glass-enclosed pyramid — one of three on the property — and Brannon has seen many changes and challenges over the years, she said.
Many of the hundreds of plants in the simulated rainforest are grown on the premises in a huge, climate-controlled greenhouse with misting devices. Seeds, seedlings and cuttings in pots fill the greenhouse, where they are tended to by a small staff. The rules of the garden and greenhouse are strict: no pesticides, no chemicals. Only beneficial biological organisms such as insects and worms are permitted because the plants are used in display enclosures that house animals and birds, which feed on many of the plants.
“My favorite thing about this job is I get to pick out all the plants,” said Brannon, who travels to south Florida nurseries each year making selections of unusual plants, trees, flowers and herbs that are not native to this area, but will thrive in the climate- and soil-controlled pyramid.
“We try to stay true to the region with plants and animals in the pyramid sections for Africa, Americas and Asia,” she said.
The new selections are quarantined when they arrive, before being moved into the rainforest exhibit, where they are incorporated into existing displays and labeled for the public.
Brannon, who grew up in La Marque, has been fascinated with gardens and gardening since she was a young child, she said. Her mom had a garden, and they worked as a team.
“She would dig the hole and I would plant the seed,” she said.
Her grandmother lived across the street from Seaside Nursery in the 1960s when it was on 45th Street in Galveston. She remembers the day she slipped away from her grandmother’s house to venture into the mysterious nursery because she was so curious about what was going on there.
“I just had to see what was there,” she said. “I was amazed. It was like magic: stick something in the ground and it grows.”
In high school, Brannon worked at Seaside’s La Marque nursery, where the owners mentored her and encouraged her to pursue a career in horticulture. She attended college and got a degree and then became certified as a Master Certified Nursery Professional by the Texas Nursery & Landscape Association. Because the Rainforest Pyramid also is a zoo, she is active in the Association of Zoological Horticulture, which encourages developing natural habitat exhibits at zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums and zoological parks. And she has been a Master Gardener for more than 30 years.
Brannon would like to augment the exhibits with tags noting whether the plants were used for food, medicine, shelter or clothing. About 25 percent of medicines come from plants found in rainforests, and yet only 1 percent of the rainforest plants have been discovered, she said.
“Can you imagine what is in those forests?” she said.
After Hurricane Ike hit the island in 2008 and flooded the facility with 4 feet of water, the gardens were closed for extensive repairs. When they reopened in June 2011, Moody Gardens had added walkways and other enhancements during a $25 million renovation.
Freezing temperatures in January this year had little effect on Rainforest Pyramid plants, although temperatures inside the building dropped into the 50s. Crews mulched and protected much of the flora and didn’t lose any inside. But some of the outside plants had to be replaced.
Challenges in the garden over the past three decades for Brannon include monitoring all of the various trees and plants, noting when they are “ailing” and replacing them when necessary. She also has to observe weather and sunshine to make sure the varieties of tropical plants are getting enough exposure. And perhaps one of the most distressing chores is monitoring damage done to plants that line the exhibit paths as inquisitive visitors sometimes destroy leaves and flowers.
“We have a lot of endangered or extinct plants here and things you don’t often see,” Brannon said. “We put things in here that I think that guests would like and learn about.” One such plant is a large and rare stinky giant corpse flower, Morticia, which bloomed and emitted a stench — often described as the odor of rotting flesh — not once, but twice in two years.
“Now that was rare,” Brannon said. “It is unusual for this plant to bloom but to have it bloom twice! We had cameras on it and people could watch it grow and bloom from their home. It was quite amazing.”
Brannon believes she has the best job. The Rainforest Pyramid is a special place for her. She got married there in 1993.
“I love to come to work and see something new every day,” she said. “It’s been a labor of love, but I am so lucky to have this opportunity.”