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Plant trouble? Call Garden hotline on the double

The pink flowers that popped up by the roadside at I-75N near Tennessee were unique enough to stop one Atlanta driver in his tracks. He wondered what they were, but didn't think to take a picture.

So he called the Atlanta Botanical Garden's plant hotline, gave them a description of the flowers and asked them for an identification.

Pat Gianelloni, hotline manager can't remember what those pink flowers were, but she recalls how they found out.  "The highway department issues lists of what they plant and where," she said. "We were able to figure it out based on their location."

The plant hotline, a decades old resource at the Botanical Garden, is staffed by eight garden volunteers. All of them are master gardeners skilled at helping callers find anything they need to know about plant life in and around the metro area.

Long before former volunteer Jim Corley arrived in the mid 1980s, the Atlanta Botanical Garden was offering up advice to anyone, he said. They created the plant hotline to help answer the barrage of questions coming from visitors.

"They got so many questions at the garden that they needed somebody to answer them so they could stop referring them to members to the horticultural staff," Corley said. But lately, the questions aren't coming as often as they once did.

"People are much better at getting information from computers. They know how to ask the right questions," Corley said.

Still, there are some moments when you just need the input of an expert -- someone with the knowledge or the know how to figure out a plant problem, even without a preponderance of clues.

The types of queries that come in to the hotline vary from one season to the next, said Gianelloni, but the most common request year round is for plant identifications.

Sometimes, they get calls that are far beyond ordinary.

Once, a gardener and his attorney asked hotline volunteers to testify in court that the  poppies he was growing in his backyard were the same variety as the poppies grown at the Botanical Garden. Only it turned out the gardener's poppies were the kind that are illegal to cultivate in the U.S., said Gianelloni. Needless to say, these are not the same poppies that the Garden grows.

Another caller had an urgent question about his "knocked up roses" said Gianelloni, which must have been the alter-ego of the Knock Out Roses he was actually growing.

While the garden generally does not address poisonous plants, they once fielded a frantic call from Florida. A woman's horse had died from eating a plant in her field and she wanted to make sure to keep it away from her other horse.  A hotline member and a member of the horticultural staff were able to figure out the culprit and help the caller, Gianelloni said.

The calls are bit easier to handle when callers have questions about the plant life inside the Botanical Garden. A database, 12 years in the making of all the plants housed in the Garden, helps hotline volunteers identify an exact species of plant and tell callers where they can find it on the property.

Volunteers work by phone and email to answer questions in 24 hours or less, Gianelloni said. In past years, hotline volunteers would answer 15 emails and 10 questions per day, but that number has fallen quite a bit as gardeners have gotten better at getting information on their own, Gianelloni said.

Hotline volunteers would love to see the volume of calls increase, but their most important responsibility is to serve as a buffer between visitors and horticultural staffers. "Every question we can answer is one they don’t have to," Gianelloni said.

To reach  the Atlanta Botanical Garden's plant hotline call 404-888-4769 or email

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.