BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — As part of our seasonal ‘so long’ to the One-Day ND Destinations travel column, we sent our digital columnist on a trip to the International Peace Garden at the border between North Dakota and Canada. During the first part of this super-sized finale, the garden’s Visitors Services Manager Jennifer Beard guided us on a trip through the most iconic sights throughout the area — including the Peace Chapel, 9/11 Memorial, Sunken Gardens, and many more.

Now, for a closer look at the more modern side of the area, we spoke to Johannes Olwage, the establishment’s Curator of Living Collections. But before getting into our discussions, it’s important to ask: what exactly does that title entail?

“Living collections are managed in the same way as others,” he explains, “in that it’s similar to a library. Everything is assigned a number, and you keep track of them — but at the same time, you have the variability of these being living organisms. You can’t shelf them away — you have to keep them alive and in optimal conditions.”

While the curator’s job pertains to some more structural assets, his main focus is chronicling and caring for the plants in the garden — a job which is not only busy considering the sheer number of different species on display throughout the grounds, but also extremely rewarding for someone with a love of all things green.

“There’s a lot of value to each plant’s genetics,” Olwage notes. “Knowing which plants you have, making sure they’re the right species, and seeing if you can share them with other botanical institutions to preserve their genetic material.”

During part two of our visit to the peace garden, Olwage taught our columnist about some of the most recent updates and additions to the International Peace Garden — and in this concluding column, we’d like to share these new and upcoming features with you.

Children’s Nature Play Area

Although the main new attraction at the Peace Garden will soon be debuting inside the Conservatory, there’s another recent addition to the area outside of it. Just south of the main building lies the Children’s Nature Play Area — a large set of structures and play zones that provide a place for kids to both have fun in nature and learn more about the nearby wildlife populations. Rather than be placed on a flat or cleared plane of land, these structures are built into the forest near the Conservatory — meaning that children can not only experience these unique activity centers, but nature itself while exploring the play area.

According to the Peace Garden’s website, each animal “play zone” at the garden is native to the Turtle Mountains where the Peace Garden is located, and has some sort of spiritual significance to the Native American residents of both the nearby American and Canadian territories. Here are a few shots of some of the animal-based areas that one can find throughout the park’s latest activity center, as well as brief descriptions as to what one can expect to see there.

Turtle: This area — which focuses on climbing to the top of a hill resembling a turtle shell — is a favorite of many of the Peace Garden’s staff. There are multiple ways to ascend the elevation, including a rock-climbing wall and a series of nets around the sides. Interestingly enough, wild mint plants are nestled underneath the nets, allowing climbers to experience a pleasant odor as they traverse the shell.

Beaver/Muskrat: In many cases, this section of the play area is one of the first that visitors come across. The Beaver and Muskrat zone features a large dam, a tunnel underneath a bridge, and a series of tools that allow children to play with water as it flows down a small creek.

Hawk/Eagle: The Hawk and Eagle section of the park allows visitors to climb into a series of gigantic nests — the sticks and grass of which are all woven by Peace Garden staff. If they aren’t as keen on heights, guests can instead rest in one of the many egg chairs located nearby.

Wolf: This section of the Play Area primarily consists of a series of twisting rocky outcroppings, which can be navigated and climbed on. A small two-way speakerphone in the area allows children to talk to one another from across the play zone. Notably, the Wolf Zone also features a full fire circle and sitting area, which will allow for storytelling sessions from First Nation representatives that will help share their culture with Garden visitors.

While each of these structures is unique and interesting in its own right, the Peace Garden still intends to add more animalistic aspects to the playground, and in fact, many of these future additions have already been thought up. Olwage notes that there are multiple themed play areas from the original design concepts — such as zones themed to foxes and prairie dogs that were not able to fit into the first construction plans — that the Garden intends to add to the Nature Play Area in the future.

Conservatory and Interpretive Center

The Conservatory and Interpretive Center is the largest building in the International Peace Garden, and serves as its “main hub.” In addition to meeting rooms, restrooms, a lobby, and a series of informational pamphlets, the building is also home to a horticultural library, as well as the area’s cafe and gift shop (both of which were sadly closed for the season). The most important aspect and the one worth particular mention, however, is the Conservatory area, which is currently in the process of preparing to house the Vitko Collection — a truly unique display of cacti and succulents from around the world.

While the collection has been a part of the Peace Garden’s catalog for over a decade now, the organization is currently in the process of moving it into a renovated and expanded space within the center — which will allow Garden staff to better care for the plants and showcase them to the public. The exhibit is not scheduled to open for some time, but for the purposes of this column, KX News was granted permission to enter the gallery, and provide our readers with a brief sneak peek at the many different cacti and succulents one will be able to encounter inside the Conservatory’s larger space.

The Vitko Collection

The story of the Peace Garden’s cacti collection, despite what the plants themselves might imply, begins here in North Dakota — as they all stem from the collection of a single man from Minot. Over the span of 50 years, city resident Don Vitko cultivated a massive collection of both cacti and succulents with his own two hands, which is all the more impressive when one considers the spiked blossoms are typically not associated with the cold climate of the state. While Vitko did not personally journey to the ends of the planet to gather each specimen himself (many of the plants come from seeds he purchased), he would frequently add new cacti and succulents to his collection over time. Eventually, this resulted in Vitko caring for over 5,000 different species of plants at once.

“We like to say that some people have a green thumb,” he states. “That they have a gift when it comes to making things grow. Mr. Vitko didn’t just have a green thumb — he had two green hands. If he took care of a plant, it would grow. It’s as simple as that.”

After fifty years, however, the time came for Vitko to donate his collection to someone who could continue showing it the same love he did through the decades. And as luck would have it, the Peace Garden, only a few hours away, was in the market for a unique collection like his.

“The Peace Garden, on its side, already had the aim of providing a year-round facility and horticultural attraction,” explains Olwige, “but the plants weren’t specified yet. Then, they learned of Mr. Vitko’s collection, and things spiraled from there. In between that, many things happened — we almost lost the collection in the Minot Flood of 2011, and the greenhouse we stored it in for a time wasn’t really wasn’t made to deal with the long-term climatic conditions in North Dakota. Now, finally, we have a building that can not only create a suitable environment for the plants and people, but also one that will last many, many decades. It’s a huge responsibility, because it’s such an amazing collection. We have some of the rarest plants in the world in our care.”

In general, when one thinks of flowers and plants that provide comfort and beauty to their areas, cacti are generally not highly regarded for their beauty or soft textures — but as Olwage states, this exhibit provides one with a completely different view of them. Although modern depictions of the desert tend to focus entirely on the Saguaro cactus, the truth is that as a whole, cacti are extremely diverse — and the various species across the world vary tremendously in size, shape, and color. Vitko’s collection includes everything from small barrel or bulb cacti to towering plants so large that they must be supported by wooden beams — many of which have unique patterns of both floral blooms and types of needles.

“We know that plants make us happy when we’re around them,” he explains, “and it doesn’t matter if they’re ‘pokey plants’ or not. Cacti are, for sure, the last group of plants you’d expect to see up here. However, the incredible diversity of succulents and cacti we have at the Conservatory offers people a vista of textures and colors, and even if you don’t love cacti, there’s something here for everybody.”

With such an assortment, however, also comes a significant amount of work and caretaking that needs to be done to meet the needs of each individual plant.

“It’s a constant learning experience,” Olwage notes. “We have plants from all over the world. You have to watch them to see if they’re behaving the way you want them to, and adjust the schedule accordingly. Juggling them all is pretty tough, but learning about where a plant is from gives you a good indication of its needs throughout the year. The one thing that you can control is water and fertilizer. We hand-water every plant individually, which allows us to control an individual separately from others next to it. They all have different needs, and different periods in which they go dormant, so you need to keep an eye on them frequently. It’s a full-time job — in summer, two people water the plants full-time, and one in the winter. The physical plant care reduces in winter, but in summer, we do quite a lot of cleaning in the public space, which you normally wouldn’t associate with the idea. We end up cleaning up the cacti with large tweezers or vacuum cleaners, getting rid of old plant material to reduce disease and keep the plants beautiful.”

As one might expect, the combination of Vitko’s cultivation and the Peace Garden’s care has given these at times rare plants space to grow, survive, and thrive, even in a climate like North Dakota’s. The end result is a series of succulents and cacti that are truly unique among the world’s plant displays, and a testament to one man’s love of conservation.

“It’s hard to explain the worth of this collection to people in words,” states Olwage. “I personally have a botany background, so I’ve been a plant geek all my life, and I’ve always loved dry land plants. When I first became aware of Mr. Vitko’s collection, I really kind of scoffed at the idea. I thought that there was no way that it could be so amazing — after all, it was a cactus collection. And then finally, I looked at it, and my jaw just dropped. I realized what this man had done, and to what magnitude and extent he went to collecting this genetic treasure trove. There are more species in these 15,000 square feet than you could find in some countries.”

The Peace Garden is scheduled to host the Cacti and Succulent collection’s “soft opening” at the new space in December 2023 — where the massive room will be opened up for public viewing and walk-throughs. By the time the exhibit is opened to the public, Olwage states that the cacti and succulents will be arranged and sorted by their different areas of origin, providing a unique look at the different kinds of plants that grow in specific parts of the world. Eventually, they even hope to create a series of codes throughout the exhibit that can be scanned to learn more about every single item in the collection. This unique display, as odd as it seems, is one that the Garden believes is a perfect example of the unexpected wonders that can be found in the natural world — and in a sense, helps to promote their message of peace and care for all living beings.

“Collections like these play an important role in terms of conservation by hanging on to things that are rare and making sure they don’t go extinct,” Olwage states, “but also to tell North Dakotans about the areas that these plants are from. They’re not just stories of the plants — they’re stories of the world, and the people who live near and use them. There are many, many layers of stories behind the collection, and at the end of the day, we want to provide future generations with a learning experience, and a sense of awe for what we have on this planet.”

If you’d like to learn more about the International Peace Garden, visit their website here. Note that while a passport is not needed to visit or enter the Canadian side of the area, it may be needed for your return trip — as the area’s exit lies on the Canadian side of the border.

With this final sneak peek of things to come, it is time that we bid farewell to One-Day ND Destinations… at least, until the weather warms up again. If you’re still searching for the biggest moments and exploration opportunities in North Dakota, though, have no fear — KX’s Weekend BRB and Destination Dakota columns will continue to deliver the event and location news that you’ve come to expect. For now, though, One-Day ND Destinations thanks you for reading, and looks forward to returning in the future.

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