Ten years ago, Stephanie Mason, then working for a congressman on Capitol Hill, signed up for an evening class in general ecology at the US Department of Agriculture. The next term, she took courses in woody-plant identification followed by spring-flower identification. Soon she was hooked. Today, as a senior naturalist for the National Audubon Society in Washington, she does field work and teaches these very same courses.
Although the USDA program is based solely in the capital, other institutions around the country offer similar certification programs in natural history and horticulture. They can take two years to complete, with evening classes and weekend field trips. Some see them as a way to explore career changes or to pursue volunteer work in retirement. Others take these classes for career advancement.
This is especially the case in programs such as those offered by Longwood Gardens near Kennett Square, Pa., and the Chicago Botanic Garden, whose courses in ornamental plant materials are designed with gardeners, landscape architects, and designers in mind. Other institutions offer broader curricula such as the Naturalist Certificate Program at Morton Arboretum near Chicago and the new Naturalist Program at Birmingham Botanical Gardens in Alabama.
Anybody looking for similar programs should check local arboretums, botanical gardens, natural history museums, and community colleges.