Young campers get a chance to learn about outdoor life in Louisiana

Cassandra Fulmer, a teacher at the Summer Sprouts camp for children ages 4 to 7, prepared her group for an adventure on June 12.

“We’re taking a walk up the hill, then we’ll visit the fairy tree,” Fulmer said, describing a tree with a large hole at its center, where some mornings the children at the camp can find mysterious messages. Next, they’d visit the bamboo grove, just beyond the hill, then follow the trail through the woods and back to the arboretum’s large outdoor deck.

“Remember things to avoid,” Fulmer reminded the students as they lined up for the hike around the LSU Hilltop Arboretum grounds. A chorus of voices followed immediately. “Thorns! Mud! Wasps! Poison Ivy! Ants!” the group, including Elena Kronenberg, Benjamin Ardoin, and Quinn Merchant, all 5 years old, and 6-year-olds Bella Emoet and Andrew Ferrachi, shouted before they began.

Sprouts camp teaches children about the beauty of Louisiana’s native plant life and how to identify its hazards, said camp director Cindy Peterson.

Peggy Coates, director of the arboretum, already had master gardener classes for adults and junior master gardener classes for children ages 7 to 10, she said.

Paula Dillemuth saw an opportunity to create a curriculum for younger children in 2002. “There aren’t that many offerings for children that age,” Dillemuth said. It’s a great age to introduce children to plants, and “it’s outside — it feels like a camp and is very hands-on.”

The arboretum makes an ideal outdoor classroom in that regard, Peterson said. In the span of an hour, the Sprouts had fed turtles in the pond, “and not one of them fell in,” she said, participated in a painting craft, read a story and went on their nature hike.

“Benadryl is a must-have for this hike,” Fulmer laughs, adding that the children have learned pretty quickly what can hurt them.

“There’s an ant pile,” said Emoet, pointing the ants out to those behind her in line. “Look out.”

Dylan Peterson, 12, who is assisting Fulmer on the hike, suggests a race up “the hill.”

It’s one of their favorite places, Fulmer said. “And the fairy tree, and the bamboo,” added Emoet. They look for, but never find, the fairy in the fairy tree or any pandas in the bamboo.

They did, however, come across a frog on the trail.

All five gathered around, breathless, as the frog hopped across the trail, then froze, letting everyone get a good look.

“Does anyone remember the book we read the other day about frogs?” asked Dylan Peterson. The group hopped on before the frog does, but there were many more adventures to come.

While the landmark known as “the ditch” was too muddy to cross on foot, the group came across, and successfully avoided, a stinging caterpillar, several more ant hills, poison ivy growing on one tree and bumpy thorns on another.

No matter what, the trail never gets boring, Fulmer said, and neither does the arboretum’s collection of native flowers planted in between buildings.

“It’s a stunning place, and maybe the area’s best-kept secret,” Coates said.

The arboretum is planning another session of Sprouts camp in July, Coates said. The junior master gardener class, held in cooperation with the Junior League of Baton Rouge, began June 16.

For anyone who wants to learn more about the state’s native plants, the arboretum is free and open to the public.

For more information about the camp or the arboretum, visit the center’s newly redesigned website, https://sites01.lsu.edu/wp/hilltop.