Though not a typical classroom, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia is one of the University of Georgia’s richest learning environments.

The 313-acre garden was graduate student Melissa Ray’s first stop when she came to Athens and now she spends about 20 hours a week teaching, studying and taking classes there. That includes a weekend workshop she recently led on “Medicinal Herbs of the Southeast.”

“I was surprised this place existed,” Ray said. “It’s a constant source for my classes or workshops. There’s so much available through the relationship with UGA.”

Ray’s workshop was the final step in earning the Advanced Training for Environmental Education in Georgia certificate. It’s another step toward her goal of getting into environmental education after she completes her master’s degree in natural resources at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

The four-hour class drew 10 students, including a first-time visitor from Valdosta, a pair of UGA students and a teacher from Atlanta.

“We want to connect people to nature,” said Cora Keber, interim director of education for the State Botanical Garden. “Different programs will bring in different people. I think one of the beauties of a university garden is we have access to resources like professors, researchers and students like Melissa.”

Keber tagged along for the class, which began with a lecture from Ray before moving outside to the garden’s trails. Instead of a test, Ray created a scavenger hunt for her students. They found nine plants that can be used in medicines.

Nancy Bedeir, a dietician from Valdosta, was planning a visit to the Athens area when she discovered the class online. It was her first trip to the State Botanical Garden.

“It’s mind-blowing,” Bedeir said. “I’m in the medical field and I didn’t know how many medical herbs there were in Georgia.”

The workshop was beneficial to even the more experienced plant enthusiasts.

“The garden is an awesome resource and a great place to practice plant identification,” said Rachel Smith, a horticulture major in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “It’s great learning tool.”

The day wrapped up back in the classroom, where students heated beeswax and some of the plants they discovered on the trails to create a salve.

“It’s fascinating,” said Marty Ledenham, a resident of Watkinsville. “We’re learning to take care of (ourselves) with plants instead of all these pills.”

Interested in learning more? Join us on Nov. 7 for the Herbal Creams and Salves class.

For more upcoming events and classes at the garden, click here.

Writer: Christopher James,, 706-542-3631

Contact: Cora Keber,, 706-542-6156