James Affolter’s advice to young people is similar to most others: do something you’re passionate about.

Even he recognizes the cliche, but Affolter said this advice is what has turned his passion for plants into a lifetime of adventure and achievement.

Affolter brought his passion to UGA 25 years ago when he obtained a job at the university. Since then, he has played a major role as a professor in the horticulture department and the director of research at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. 

“For me it's kind of the best of both worlds,” Affolter said. “I get to stay in the botanical garden world, but I still get to teach.”

Affolter teaches one class on herbs, spices and medicinal plants and another on plant conservation. He said he enjoys these classes because he is able to give students hands-on experience to learn about plants, as well as their uses and importance.

Introducing his students to the prospect of caring for plants and understanding their place in our lives and ecosystems is the most fundamental influence on his teachings, according to Affolter.

“You know that every semester you're definitely reaching and affecting the lives and futures of a least a few students who find the subject fascinating,” Affolter said.

His research at the university focuses on the similar subjects to what he currently teaches.

Affolter has worked with medicinal herbs since his time as a curator at the botanical gardens at the University of California Berkeley in 1986.

As part of his research on the specifics of medicinal herbs, Affolter traveled to China to visit hospitals and herb gardens. This voyage took place due to a partnership that was developed between the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in San Francisco and University of California Botanical Garden.

When Affolter returned from China, he worked to build similar herb gardens at the botanical garden in California.

Since that time, he has travelled the world learning about and documenting the medicinal uses of plants in different cultures and their anthropological development.

Affolter said that for him, the most interesting aspect of this subject is learning about the benefits and properties of the plants. The culture and belief system surrounding the plants is different from the way western medicine is viewed in America.

Affolter also works with conservation research at the state botanical gardens.

“People often think of agriculture as not necessarily supporting plant conservation; more destroying habitats as opposed to helping to protect it,” Affolter said. “But actually horticultural science has a huge part to play.”

Affolter has put his horticulture knowledge to use by helping to create the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance with Jennifer Ceska, a former graduate student of his who now works as the plant conservation specialist at the state botanical gardens.

The alliance has helped bring groups from around Georgia together to perform nature-protecting projects throughout the state. Recently, the team has been working across state lines to develop similar programs in other areas.


Correction: A previous version of this article misstated James Affolter's job title. The Red & Black has corrected his position and regrets this error.

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