By Ashley Winters
If speaking to Daria McKelvey about horticulture and botany be prepared to be schooled because she has the knowledge and skill down to a science.
A horticulturist/botanist at the Missouri Botanical Garden [MoBot], McKelvey serves in a supervisory role, and is a recent recipient of the Emerging Horticultural Professional Award.
According to the American Horticulture Society, the award is “given in the early stages of an individual’s career and recognizes significant achievements and/or leadership that have advanced the field of horticulture in America.”
According to Zippia data, men outnumber women by 38% in the botany field. In addition, 76.2% of botanists are white and only 2.5% are Black. Nearly 70% of horticulturists are white and 11% are Black.
McKelvey has been a horticulturist/botanist for 10 years. A graduate of the University of Texas – Austin. She majored in plant biology and ecology. She then earned her master’s degree from Texas Tech University after studying in its horticulture program.
McKelvey has worked at MoBot for four years after searching for a dream job that combined horticulture, ecology, and teaching.
“It was the call I had been waiting for, for so long. It was just perfect, a perfect fit. I love the culture, the people, and what the garden is trying to accomplish,” said McKelvey.
So, what is a horticulturist/botanist?
A horticulturist is an expert in garden cultivation and management. They can help increase yield and improve the vigor, size, and taste of plants. They are “producers and providers of plants.”
A botanist studies the biology of plants, fungi, and other organisms, such as lichens and algae. Botanists can record the impact of human activity on the environment, the way plants breed and grow, as well as the structure and genetic make-up of various species.
“I think that’s why a lot of us choose horticulture because we get to play in the soil, we get to get our hands dirty and be outside like kids,” McKelvey said.
If you combine horticulturist and botanist, you get Daria McKelvey. She is darn good at what she does.
McKelvey gives much credit to her junior high and high school science teachers who sparked her interest in learning the science of plants. She thought her teachers were nerdy, but cool.
“They were very passionate, and I guess that rubbed off on me,” McKelvey said.
“Most people really don’t take an interest in plants, they don’t think about plants, they just walk right past them.”
Even though it’s not common for Black girls to have an interest in plant science and trees, McKelvey received support from her family and friends. Her interest became a hobby, and now a profession and passion.
“I got pretty lucky, it became a part of me. It was a part of my personality and they were totally on board with it,” said McKelvey.
However, in a predominantly white male industry, McKelvey says she has experienced microaggressions and push-back from some colleagues. It makes her wonder if she hadn’t been a woman or Black would she be going through these types of challenges. Would she have to constantly prove herself as deserving.
“They just didn’t like having a young Black girl coming in telling them what to do,” said McKelvey.
And over the years she has experienced “Imposter Syndrome,” when she questioned her skills and talents. She wondered if she belonged in that profession.
However, hashtags like #BlackBotanistWeek is a catalyst on social media highlighting, celebrating, and inspiring Black botanists.
Last July MoBot let Daria take over its Twitter account to participate in #BlackBotanistWeek. She put out tweets about being a Black botanist, took photos showcasing her work, and engaged with other Black botanists.
“I was amazed, I was so surprised,” said McKelvey.
She felt empowered because she was a part of such a groundbreaking national conversation. Many Black horticulturists/botanists only have George Washington Carver as a reference for someone who looks like them in their field.
“We don’t have that many Black botanists in history. I’m sure there are some, but their work wasn’t recorded or considered,” said McKelvey.
McKelvey hopes to find ways to educate Black communities about horticulture and botany. She wants to show Black kids that these types of jobs are available to them too. Also, that working in the soil is nothing to be ashamed of, as it provides freedom.
“Our ancestors cultivated the land, that concept of our history has been tainted and has been warped. We have to take that back, we come from gardening, we do belong. And that is a part of our history,” said McKelvey.
Like many professions, wage gaps are a factor in someone choosing a career or not.
Zippia data shows that Black botanists on average make $54,621, which is the lowest compared to any other racial group, Asian and Latino botanists’ salaries are nearly $60,000 a year.
This might explain why McKelvey never met a Black male botanist until she started working at MoBot.
Matthew Norman has been a horticulturist/botanist for 10 years and worked at MoBot for the last four. His area of expertise is in Rosarian, he cultivates the rose gardens.
“I want to be seen, so people know they have a role model to look up to,” said Norman.
He says that some Black people equate working in the soil to slavery, and he knows those negative connections are trauma from slavery.
But Norman is breaking down those barriers through education and mentorship. He created a network with the St. Louis Public School District.
Through advocacy, McKelvey, Norman, and #BlackBotanistWeek can be that bridge to bring more Black people into the space of horticulture and botany.
“I just want Black people to think about plants and trees in a whole different way,” said McKelvey.