Interview by Eric Hsu
Photography by Helen O’Donnell (unless otherwise noted)
I first became aware of Helen O’Donnell through her blog(www.anemonetimes.blogspot.com) where I had enjoyed reading about her gardening adventures in New England and abroad. I finally got to meet her briefly in person when she came down to volunteer at Chanticleer a few years ago, and had fun seeing gardens with her during my summer holiday in Maine last August. Helen is passionate about plants and gardens, having worked in some of the most beautiful New England gardens as a designer and horticulturist. She has taken her skills to another level as a deft propagator of annuals, tender perennials, and perennials at Bunker Farm, Dummerston, Vermont. The farm’s site can be visited at http://thebunkerfarm.com/.
Please introduce yourself.
I am a gardener, garden designer, printmaker, and co-owner of The Bunker Farm where I run a specialty annual and perennial nursery in southern Vermont.
The arts or the garden?
Both! I have worked as a gardener and farmer every season since I was 15 and I studied art in college and spent a year in Florence, Italy studying printmaking. And I have spent different amounts of time working in both fields, teaching printmaking at the Putney School and simultaneously working as a gardener and garden designer. As my art is completely influenced by plants, landscapes, and the outside world, it is hard to approach gardening, garden and plant design without art. The garden is probably the most complicated form of art, with it encompassing all the dimensions. You have 2-D and 3-D principles of design (color, form, shape, texture, light etc.), but then there is the fourth dimension of time, like music, dance, or theater. There is a performance aspect that follows the seasonal changes, as the plants are growing and changing expectantly and surprisingly. There is an audience participation that is completely out of your control from weather to microbes.
What is your earliest memory of plants or gardening?
I remember my parents sitting down with me after school once, I must have been around 8, and telling me that I wasn’t allowed to eat plants at school. I guess the teachers called home concerned because I was showing all the kids what plants they could eat in the playground. My dad showed me what plants to eat because he was a chef and used to garnish his plates with all sorts of edible flowers. I have really strong memories of foraging around outside for wood sorrel, vetch flowers, violets, and clover and finding them delicious.
You spent the first part of your career working for the landscaping company Deer Meadow in Maine. How did that professional experience shape your present relationship with horticulture?
Working for Deer Meadow taught me three main things, one was that I seemed to have a knack for gardening at age 17, two that I really liked doing physical work, and three, I learned the importance of working and learning under a serious, knowledgeable head gardener. Diana Johnson’s encouragement, enthusiasm, and knowledge about plants and willingness to teach me was inspirational. With the encouragement from my parents, (my mother is a brilliant gardener) I continued to learn under other talented gardeners who all shaped me into who I am now.
The New England region is sometimes overlooked for its gardens especially since the Mid-Atlantic and Pacific Northwest often receives attention. Beautiful gardens are always found despite climatic challenges and New England is no exception. What gardens, private and public, in your region inspire you?
Close to home, there are a few pockets of great gardening here in central New England. Right here in Putney is Gordon and Mary Hayward’s garden, where I worked for years. They have a beautiful garden comprised of English-style garden rooms, complete with hedges, axial views, evergreen pillars, woodland walks, and long borders, yet with the backdrop of New England hayfields, locust trees, and fruit orchards. Over in Peterborough, New Hampshire there is cluster of terrific gardens and gardeners. One is Juniper Hill where Joe Valentine references iconic English gardening ideas against the scenery of a classic New England house and sheep pastures. Michael Gordon’s town garden is built on a steep slope and includes three main terraces, all with highly original plant designs, incorporating self-seeders, with unusual annuals and unique shrub specimens. Maude Odgers of the Artful Gardener has a beautifully romantic garden with sweeping curvy beds filled with an array of specimen plants, in cool color tones, but filled with juxtaposing textures.
Another favorite, and one that not enough people have visited yet, is Bruce Lockhart’s Swift River in Petersham, MA. He truly has it all with meandering woodland full of great swaths of interesting woodland specimens, trees, and shrubs. As well as pleasure gardens, more typical style mixed plantings framed by hedges and paths, plus a magnificent Piet Oudolf-style meadow, with thousands of wild, blooming perennials and grasses. Add a vast rock garden full of unusual alpine and rock specimens, many that he started from seed. It is a fantastic garden and one people must visit.
Great Dixter is often cited as one of your favorite gardens overseas where you have visited and worked several times. Outside of Great Dixter, what other gardens in England and elsewhere do you like? And their strong points?
I spent a month at Hidcote Manor in the Cotswolds before my time at Great Dixter and that was my first glimpse into English gardening. For me, that garden feels mysterious; the garden rooms feel like a maze, each opening revealing a different path to take. There is an immense feeling when standing at the top of the long view, looking down the long avenue of hornbeams. It is a garden where I feel the presence of its creator Lawrence Johnson, much like at Great Dixter, where the spirit of Christopher Lloyd remains, is revered, and is celebrated still. On my last trip to England I visited Charlotte Molesworth’s topiary garden in Kent and I was really touched by that garden. I didn’t get to meet her or her husband, but to me, the garden feel wholly authentic. It was so creative and so expressive, with every evergreen shaped into magnificent birds, spirals, tiers, and minarets. The other thing that really appealed to me is that the garden itself felt completely lived in and the spaces were well used, I loved the seating areas and patios and how the garden went from highly ornamental to practical all at once. I am not sure I have ever been to a garden that felt so completely genuine, that every choice was theirs to make for the love of it.
Gardening is riding a switchback of hope and disappointment once climate adjusts your expectations. How has cold-climate gardening, complemented by mild-climate gardening in UK and elsewhere, characterized your gardening style now?
I am an optimist through and through so I really do believe that every climate has its advantages. We know England can grow incredible coveted plants, but we can grow Cleome and Echinacea! I know that sounds boring, but those plants are exciting and can be hard to grow for British gardeners. Of course I am like everyone in that I try and “push” my zone. However, growing and raising plants is more interesting than just sticking to the zone on the plant tag. I understand why most gardeners wouldn’t buy a plant not rated to their zone, but when raising things from seed and really paying attention to what works in your own garden, you can start to get away with all kinds of things. I am always surprising myself with what I can grow (and can’t grow). I have recently been experimenting with a gravel garden where I have never watered or added any compost or fertilizer. The garden is at the top of a stone wall, south facing protected from the north wind by the house, and mulched with gravel- which gives it excellent drainage in winter. I am growing all sorts of stuff that shouldn’t survive here- like Stipa gigantea (hasn’t bloomed yet, but it has survived three winters now), Knifophia caulescens, Hypericum androsaesum ‘Albury Purple, Ferula communis– none of these plants have reached their full potential yet, but they still survive and I find that pretty interesting.
Agriculture is the precursor to horticulture – once the land provided what humans needed to nourish and shelter themselves, it too became a place for ornamental use (i.e. cottage gardens). Once food production became industrialized, humans gradually lose their agricultural roots as they migrated to urban centers. Gardens and farms are different systems because the latter is more inclusive (i.e. animal husbandry and post-harvest processing). Was it a natural step for you to become a farmer while still working in horticulture?
Yes. My first job was working on an organic vegetable farm. I started when I was 15 and after the second summer the farm was given away, I then migrated over to landscaping because I liked working outside and with plants. From then on I just kept gardening. I don’t have a degree in horticulture, but I have had a very rigorous education working for and learning from the best of gardeners, all of it ‘hands on’, learning passed on through the work itself. I just kept doing it because I like it. Farming is the same way. I like raising things and I like working. And if you are paying attention and giving your work a lot of care, then you will get better at it. Whether it is flowers or cows, it feels the same.
The Bunker Farm certainly embodies the small-scale local agricultural ethos that come to define rural communities near urban centers. I understand that the farm’s goal is to be self-sufficient, sustainable, and have strengthening ties to the community. How did your farm come about within your interests?
It definitely felt like a very fortuitous turn of events. My husband Noah and I had been farming on a small scale on his family’s land. We had a few cows and pigs and I had a tiny greenhouse where I grew annuals for gardening clients. My sister and her husband lived across the street and we would raise chickens and garlic together. Noah and I were looking at properties hoping to find something of our own that we could continue to do similar small scale farming. We would constantly look at really run down properties and drag Jen and Mike along and start dreaming about all the things we could do together. Then Noah saw an ad seeking applications to buy the Bunker Farm through the Vermont Land Trust. This proposition was much bigger than any of us could have dreamed about previously. But the land and the buildings offered us all so much and we each had skills to fill each part of the farm. Noah worked on a small dairy farm at the Putney School for 3 years, mastering farm mechanics and cow husbandry and with 60 acres of hay fields, having cows was a natural fit. He knew enough that dairy on a small scale would be difficult, so we went for beef cows. There was born the idea to start a meat CSA, offering pork, chicken and beef. The farm also had 16 acres of old sugar maple woods that could be tapped again to produce maple syrup. Mike had worked for a few years for one of the bigger producers in our area and had the initial skills and passion to start a sugaring operation at the farm. There was a large greenhouse, standing empty, but ready for me to fill it with plants. My sister is a third grade teacher and passionate about outdoor education and works to get school and community groups on the farm. It honestly felt like the land was looking for someone to fill all these different parts, it wouldn’t really work if it was just one thing, and so in the end, the four of us were a good match.
Despite its previous 26-year-old ownership under Larry and Marilyn Cassidy, the farm still needed significant improvements before it could become fully operational. How was funding and the subsequent development approached?
The farm was actually in pretty good shape when we first moved in. The barns and structures were operational, there was power and water everywhere, and the green house was in pretty good shape too. We of course put everything we could into it in the beginning, but we started our first fall with the two cows Noah and I had purchased prior to owning the farm. Each year we have bought more cows in and started our own breeding program and we now have twenty-two cows. In our first year sugaring, we didn’t own an evaporator, which meant we couldn’t even make maple syrup from the sap we collected. Instead we focused on setting up the infrastructure, hanging all the tubing in the woods, and sold the raw sap to a sugar maker down the road. With everything, we started out small and grew each year, acquiring another piece of equipment, upgrading to better systems, etc. We all have other jobs, which took some of the financial pressure off the farm in those busy and expensive start-up years.
James Rebanks, the author of ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ commented in an interview: ‘I like the idea that people lead lives devoted to something bigger than themselves – the landscape, the folks and their continuation. Somebody like my father wouldn’t have thought his life was particularly meaningful or significant in its own right, but he saw himself as part of a community and way of life and tradition. I deeply admire that in an age when most things are about the individual and about instant gratification and consumption.’ What roles do you see yourself and your family within the historical context of Bunker Farm?
I think about this a lot actually because it applies to many different parts of a life. This idea that the four of us belong to something bigger than ourselves has really been a core value of the Bunker Farm. At the micro level, this is how four adults (two being sisters) have survived in a rambling farm house with two toddlers for the past few years, not to mention all of us running a farm business together. You always have to consider the larger purpose, that we are doing something that is more important than our daily needs or comforts. At a more macro level, we definitely feel very humbled to own, work, and live at the Bunker Farm. This is a historic farm and one that has meant so much to so many people in our community- it seems like every neighbor and every neighbors friend knew someone who lived and worked the farm. Not to mention that the farm has meant so much to the Cassidy and the Bunker families. We feel the responsibility to carry the farm forward in a way that our community can feel good about.
Vermont’s winters are long and cold, yet I get a sense that a farmer’s day is rarely quiet. People unfamiliar with farming rhythms tend to view winters as slow months. What would define your responsibilities during winters?
Sugaring season starts in late January these days, so our winters truly are very short. My winter tasks include all the plant and seed ordering, plant lists and database work, garden design work and bookkeeping. Last year I took a nutrient management course that helps our farm write a nutrient management plan (manure, fertilizer, lime applications) for all our hayfields. This program is run through a few different Vermont state organizations, but it is an effort to get small farms to comply with new water quality standards, manure and fertilization regulations. It is in the best interest of the farmers to improve their soil health and soil retention on their farms, so there is an economical benefit for farmers too.
Late January and February brings the seasonal ritual of tapping its astoundingly 3,300 sugar maples for maple syrup, which your brother-in-law Mike Euphrat oversees. Do you participate in the process and how is the syrup different from the others you have tasted?
A sugar bush is measured in number of taps, which is interesting since many large trees can have two taps. We have 1,200 taps on 16 acres here at Bunker Farm and we lease another 3,100 taps on 40 acres down the road from us. In a really, really good season we can make over 2,000 gallons of syrup in a year. I am on the tapping crew, so I go out and help put the taps into the tree, which is essentially drilling a hole in the tree, hammering in a plastic tap, and connecting the tap to a web of tubing that carries the sap to large collection tanks. The season generally runs when the temperatures are above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. This temperature difference gets the sap to move up and down the tree, bringing sweet sap to the emerging buds in the tree. I help check the vacuum in the woods, fixing leaks in the tubing and making sure the taps are tight. We use vacuum pumps to draw the sap through the lines and a reverse osmosis machine that takes sap at its natural 2% sugar solution and pushes it through a filtration system that takes water out and leaves us with a higher sugar concentrate. Boiling, trucking, and canning are all other parts of the operation. In terms of taste, we did win a blind taste test during the Maple Rama festivities last year out of 70 other entries. This win is due to Mike’s fastidiousness in terms of how he runs his operation. He is very clean, very precise, and he measures everything. He finds what works and sticks to it. He is very disciplined and deliberate about the operation, from collection to processing, and he produces a product that really is superior. Most people would think maple syrup is maple syrup but like anything the more you taste and know something, the more you can taste the differences- ours is rich, smooth, clean, balanced, with a slightly wood fired flavor.
February and March coincides with seed sowing and seedling pricking out. It is a crucial junction when lambing and calving season too begins. Given how the demands can be stressful, how do you balance these jobs with your team?
February and March is a really busy time for us with sugaring, it is a really intense season because during a perfect stretch of weather we could be boiling for 24hrs straight with short breaks before you are back at it again. Mike hardly sleeps at all during this time. We plan for pig farrowing end of March and April, but calving isn’t until May and June and we gave up having sheep a few years back. Every season is a little bit crazy, but our worst month is actually May. That is when Noah and Jen are still teaching, my gardening season is in full tilt, the plant nursery is at its peak in sales and watering, Mike is working at Walker Farm, chickens are arriving every two weeks, and pasture rotation is just beginning. Not to mention weeds are growing like mad and the grass needs mowing! We each have our area that we manage but we help each other out as much as we can- during the busy seasons all hands are on deck. It can be really stressful and tiring, but we have a really strong sense of shared purpose that holds us all together.
Propagating and selling annuals is an audacious business move since the everyday gardener rarely moves beyond the ‘bread and butter’ marigolds, pelargoniums, and petunias. A number of the varieties you sell do not necessarily wow upon first impression, although they will impress the jaded gardener later. How do you go about educating your customers that those tufts of foliage forecast tremendous potential?
A lot of people tell me about how hard the nursery business is, it seems like they are always going out of business everywhere. For me, I just started out wanting to grow cool unusual plants that I can’t get anywhere else for my own gardening business and my own garden and from there it has steadily grown. I have about two dozen great gardeners who buy my plants fairly regularly and they are definitely helping to get my name out there, plus existing CSA customers. My plant list seems to attract the type of gardener that doesn’t need the plant to look flashy in order to buy it, which really helps! The other thing I have going for me is my own excitement about what I am growing. Even if I haven’t grown it before, I clearly chose it because it sounded exciting. Gardeners love trying new things and a passionate sales person can help!
Each year, seed and plant catalogs tempt us with endless varieties that either are new color variants, better disease resistance, and later to flower. How do you whittle down your desiderata to realistic limitations of space and time?
That is actually a really interesting question and one that I think about every year. My process is pretty intuitive which sounds a little naïve. I just find myself every year attracted to really different groups of plants each year. For example a few years ago I wanted to grow lots of different perennial Centaureas. It sounds a little boring and they really didn’t sell well, but I fell in love with Centaurea dealbata, C. scabiosifolia, C. ruthenica, and C. macrocephala. The following year it was Dianthus, and I grew some very cool perennial types including D. pinifolius, D. knappii, and D. carthusinorum. Last year I had terrific luck with Mirabilis so I am growing four different cultivars this year. I can imagine over the years I will have a solid list of things I will always grow and then the list of experimentals will come and go and come again. I have a feeling every year will always be different than the last.
What are some of the interesting annuals or tender perennials you have propagated and grown that you envision a bright future?
Here are some solid performers:
- Ageratum houstonianum ‘Red Sea,’ – a really nice bushy mid height Ageratum with a really good purple pink flower.
- Alonsoa meridionalis ‘Rebel’ – shocking orange red in late summer through fall, such a surprise late in the season.
- Ipomoea quamoclit – incredible fine and vining foliage with scarlet tubular star flowers.
- Pennisetum villosum ‘Cream Falls’ – a great floriferous fuzzy flowered grass in bright white. Fills a space and blooms early and long.
- Phlox drummondii ‘Cherry Caramel’ – such a nice surprise last year with its multi colored caramel pink phlox flowers, blooms well with deadheading and for a long period.
- Mirabilis jalapa ‘Limelight’ – one of my favorite annuals, sort of garish, but with incredibly bright chartreuse foliage and hot pink flowers, the plant gets big and bushy and goes all season. Good for a semi-sunny spot.
- Hibiscus acetosella ‘Mahogany Splendor’- grown purely for its foliage in our area, but in one year a single plant can get five feet tall and three feet wide. Leaves resemble a dark red Japanese maple in form, texture and color, though a little larger.
- Tropaeolum peregrinum – a lovely climbing nasturtium vine with bright canary bird flowers. Foliage is so ornate too- nice to let it scramble over and through a dark yew hedge.
In addition, you sell herbaceous perennials to complement the annuals. What are you currently growing?
I am actually growing a fair number to perennials and biennials each year. Some particularly good ones are: Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polar Summer’, a great biennial verbascum with large rosettes of enormous felty gray leaves. The flower spikes are tall and branching with a semi-snaking habit with bright yellow fuzzy flowers along the stems. Patrinia scabiosifolia is another tried and true and underused perennial around here with upright stems of bright yellow umbel flowers, sweetly scented blooming mid summer. Euphorbia oblongata is another great perennial spurge with lovely striped green leaves and bright yellow flowers, the seed heads look good all season too. Wow, all yellow flowers and all good plants.
What is your desert island plant?
Salvia confertiflora because I don’t think you could feel too lonely next to a plant like that, so big with those large pungent leaves and those long delicate spires covered in fuzzy bright red buds. Plus it would offer some shade on hot days and would bring all the hummingbirds and bees.
What would your advice for those people interested in merging horticultural and agricultural enterprises?
The very unromantic advice I have is to write a really good business plan. We did that (because we were required to in order to buy the farm) and it turned out to be one of the best things we have ever done. We have referenced the plan many times and it helped us prioritize and know where we were headed. It gave us the beginning skills to budget, make financial plans, and work as a group.
Thank you Helen!
“Just so magnificent. I love dipping in and out of these different, really quite intense worlds, which people have created within other worlds. It’s extraordinary to see how people adapt and live in these really quite extreme ways”.
~Christopher Bailey, former designer of Burberry, in Travel Almanac
Oxalis strikes fear and loathing in gardener for its weedy nature in gardens – in Mediterranean gardens, Oxalis pes-caprae (Bermuda buttercup) is the chief bane while in temperate gardens, Oxalis corniculata (creeping woodsorrel) and O. stricta (common yellow woodsorrel) challenge the most persistent and patient minds. As with cultivated plants, it takes only one or two villains to tar what would have been an attractive and well behaved group for gardens. The majority of bulbous Oxalis in South Africa which do not have the conquering tendencies as Oxalis pes-caprae make attractive winter pot subjects, disappearing conveniently during summer where they should be kept dry until September. One of the showiest species belongs to Oxalis versicolor commonly known as candy cane sorrel for its swirled red and white buds. It was one of the earliest South African Oxalis introduced to cultivation, having been featured in Volume 5 of the Botanical Magazine or Flower-Garden displayed (1791). William Curtis called it “one of the most beautiful of the many species cultivated in gardens” first discovered by the Scottish botanist and plant explorer Francis Masson in 1774. Curtis did lament the loss of brilliancy when the flowers open, preferring them closed as they do in the pic above.
Although nursery catalogs list Oxalis versicolor as being hardy as north as Zone 7, this hardiness rating should be viewed with suspicion. Bulbs would rot in our cold and wet winters, and one would be advised to grow in pots under lights (winter sunlight do not equal the summer sunlight this Oxalis would have enjoyed in South Africa). For the best effect, the corms should be planted tightly as possible in a pot. Oxalis versicolor may be trigger the collector’s compulsion to seek out other species.
Interview by Eric Hsu
Photography by Aviva Rowley (except credited otherwise)
A born and bred-Brooklynite, Aviva Rowley studied fine arts in Cooper Union during which she worked as a florist and continued to do so after graduation. Desiring something less temporal, Rowley turned to ceramics as a medium for holding flowers. She builds her vessels backwards, using her floristry background as an inspiration, and because her work is handmade, no piece is uniform and one of a kind. Texture and shape dictate her style while the matte black glaze unifies it. Please visit her site (www.avivarowley.com) or IG: @avivarowley.
For someone whose taste tends towards macabre, your ease and preference with clay as an artistic medium seem worlds away because clay, once fired, does not project rigor mortis. Clay feels alive and vital within one’s hands, hence why did you elect to work with it?
I never really thought of myself as macabre necessarily. It’s funny because clay, while it is alive and vital in one’s hands while wet, once you fire it, it definitely does project rigor mortis. Frozen in time. A huge part of why I started to make ceramics was the experience of building these huge events as a florist, just to watch everything die within a day or two. I wanted to create something more permanent and unchanging as a vessel for things to grow, fade, eventually die…
My parents have been a huge inspiration to me throughout my life. My mom is a psychologist and self-taught ceramist as well. I grew up playing with clay, and water and plants and weeds and dirt, with the backdrop of the wild city skyline. My father is a brilliant painter and scholar, who definitely leans towards the darkness. They both have been an incredible influence in my life as a creator. I grew up in Brooklyn and my kiln is still at my parents’ house, in the house I grew up in, next to my mother’s wild overgrown flower garden.
Constance Spry, perhaps the fore runner of the wild untamed floral style popular now, worked closely with Fulham Pottery in London to design and develop a series of ceramics for floral work. How did your florist training shape your perception towards ceramics, and has it influenced the form you prefer to work with?
It has completely changed how I think of the “vessel,” I consider what goes in my vessels while I am building them. I like to create lips and shapes that will speak to flowers. Some of my favorite forms I’ve built dictate the way the flowers fall – the slit vase, for example, lets flowers fall in a really elegant mohawk.
There needs to be a conversation between the vessel and what you put in it. Our mutual friend Phil has been one of my biggest inspirations. He would hate that I’m saying this, but he’s really been my muse for the past few years. I make vessels thinking about how he would use them, I add snakes and handles and knobs and gaps for him to twist around. While my own floral work is very simple, when I build a vessel I imagine so many possibilities – yet I’m always surprised how different florists use them.
Many of my dearest friends are still florists, which is a fascinating resource. I am working on a collaboration with another of my floral friend Sophia Moreno-Bunge. She lives in California so we have been doing a snail mail back and forth. Making vessels with her in mind has been such a fun experiment, and I’m creating forms that I never would have imagined otherwise.
In addition, you have started a Keiki-Club “to create an open social community for friends and flora fanatics to come together and grow plants, share knowledge, and trade collections”. Does this exposure to different plants and individuals besotted with them inspire your work in interesting directions?
One of the first ceramic pieces I built was a hanging saucer because it was an answer to a plant problem that had not been answered before. Being a part of such a positive community, where people can get together and tell stories, and introduce one another to new things… I never thought of it as an inspiration to my pottery, but now that I think of it, it is. I tend to like older plants, ones that have a past, and have been growing and adapting to their environments. I like to imagine my vessels as homes.
Some ceramicists experiment regularly with glazes because they feel that the functionality, which underwrites the vessel form, is an artistic limitation. You have deliberately kept your glazes to a matte black or a weathered beige despite how varied you have manipulated the forms.
I’ve always created intentional limitations in my art. I chose the gun metal / matte black glaze because it really speaks to flowers, and definitely lets me experiment more wildly with my shapes. When you see my vessels in person, there are a lot of slight imperfections in glazes; I’ve actually been experimenting a lot with different textures while keeping the black as a basic language.
I like how they appear as silhouettes, and work well on their own… when you add plants or flowers it adds a whole other dimension which is generally out of my control.
If an Aviva Rowley ceramic was a plant or garden, what would it be?
I would be an undiscovered underwater ruin, left alone for so many years and enveloped in overgrowth. My partner said I’d be Psychotria elata… look it up!
Thank you for the interview Aviva!
Interview by Eric Hsu
Photography by Phillip Huynh
** Her exhibit “T: Exploration & Experience of the Teabowl”- with Romy Northover (pictures featured here) goes until November 26 at FLOATING MOUNTAIN 239 W72nd St, New York NY 10023. Pieces are available for purchase and can be viewed at https://www.floating-mountain.com
` Photo Credit: Alana Wilson
Swimming brings one’s body with the water’s buoyancy, yet the process of molding and shaping clay is an anchoring force with hands. Where do you see the cross dialogue between the two activities?
Both are very meditative, predominantly done in solitude and combine physical movement and awareness of the body with a required mental acuity to work through a repetitive process. Both connect with a natural element – earth and water – which I find quite calming and humanly intrinsic. Over time, the wiring between brain and body becomes so ingrained that you can let your mind wander whilst the body is in automatic mode of a learnt technique. Both activities require a sense of technique, which is similarly soft, efficient, streamlined, responsive to the least amount of touch, and both techniques rely on a sense of flow and refining the surface resistance of the body against the elements.
Your work belies the exacting but unpredictable process of overlaying different substances and glazing. What do you find fascinating about the alchemy?
There are endless parallels between the ceramic surfaces and surfaces and textures that exist in nature. Of course, ceramic materials all exist and are derived from natural resources but the process of firing results in a more compacted environment with the kiln’s heat and the firing speed. Scientifically, all of these ceramic results exist somewhere in nature that have occurred through varying means and all natural surfaces and materials will depict a chemical story of creation and destruction, as do the ceramic pieces.
As a child I would get lost in observing rock pools full of geological and marine life, collecting seashells and interesting rocks to study. This childhood fixation has informed my interest in the minute details of elemental decay and natural observation. Over time I have come to recognize stronger analogies between the natural destructive process and environments comparative to those in the medium of ceramics.
Within the ceramic process there are numerous aspects left to chance and susceptible to variation. Different materials will have specific reactions within the firing – how it transforms through heat exposure, how fast it is heated, its melting point, vaporisation point, oxygen content in the material and the atmosphere and its reaction with the other glaze ingredients it is mixed with.
In its elemental form, the vessel projects functionality that people have difficulty divorcing when it comes to appreciating ceramics as an art equal to painting or sculpture. How do you hope to have someone see your piece beyond its basic purpose?
I used to look at this viewpoint as a hindrance, always trying to prove something with the vessel. There is an inherent conditioning when dealing with the vessel throughout anthropological, art, and social history. Functionality not only alludes to a use but also to a relationship to the human body and human life. I now embrace the steadfast connotative functionality of my work and prefer it over purely conceptual art (in terms of what I create myself, not necessarily as to what interests me as a viewer).
Having a pre-conditioned utilitarian context allows a certain scale of intimacy for the works to intersect the viewer’s perceptual / experiential process on a different level. Sociologically the viewer forms some sense of connection to it and hold it in a perceptual realm relative to their everyday life as opposed to a more conceptual work, in which they may feel separate from in terms of anthropological connection and conceptual understanding.
The difficult concept to divorce from the vessel is its ability to hold something, therefore an empty vessel is often perceived as incomplete. I seek to highlight the emptiness and twist the conception to depict the potential to be filled, within which there are various possibilities – both physical and conceptual ‘fillers’. The depiction of the unused or empty vessel allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions based on their individual conditioning. In a sense this conditioning (towards an utilitarian object such as a vessel) is on a different level to the conditioning to comprehend conceptual or abstract art.
Throughout this consistent questioning within my own work, I have looked at and questioned other forms of art, architecture, design etc and its relativity to humankind. I am interested in its ability to intersect with the everyday life of the everyday person, to not exist only in the vacuum of a white box gallery or as a material commodity, financial investment, or interior decoration. Within my work I aim to honor the history of the vessel and the different historical values – emotional, cultural / historical, technical, conceptual – that all correlate to the final result.
There is a consistent duality of logic vs reason, cultural vs individual; but in the sense of attempting to draw attention to the importance of humanity and humankind there is the critical requirement for communication, which is community. The viewer’s perception is a moment in time, yet can be long-lasting in terms of their recollection of reality and how it affects them. The majority of viewers would not be aware of their own perceptual process to this extent but I find the relationship between functionality, physicality, conceptual understanding and conditioning an extremely interesting area to observe and study in relation to my work, art and life in general.
Pot Plant, which was curated by John Tebbs for the Garden Edit, and Lilies of Forgiveness, placed your work in relation to ephemeral plant material. Did either exhibits re-center the focus on how florists utilize your ceramics?
As discussed in the above answer, I primarily look for highlighting an emptiness and the potential of completion based on societal conditioning towards and empty vessel. However, I love working with ephemeral plant material as it truly represents natural beauty and its decay, and takes away that sense of ownership or forever-ness that so many people crave. These ideas are constantly embedded within my work, so with the right people who appreciate these ideas I am always keen to collaborate. John Tebbs from The Garden Edit, Simone Gooch of Fjura, and Alia & Ezra from Regime des Fleurs all create beautiful work, utilizing nature as creator and transcending nature as decoration or pure product.
There is an old Chinese saying ‘滴水穿石’ which translates to ‘dripping water eats away the stone’. It alludes well to how your pieces bear the corrosive effect of water almost to the point of close disintegration. Is it a mediation on the transience of humankind and material goods?
Absolutely. More so an exploration of the innate impermanence of everything and attempting to break down the societal attachment to completed or beautiful things; to encourage an acceptance of the process of continuous transformation and inevitable decay, in all things – physical and otherwise.
The marine environment is unforgiving to terrestrial plant life, but what would be an Alana Wilson ceramic personified as a plant or garden look like?
This is an interesting question, and each ceramic piece has its own identity in a way … possibly a rockpool or reef, could that be classified as a garden?
Thank you Alana for the interview!
Interview by Eric Hsu.
Currently the ceramicist-in-residence at Saipua, Red Hook, Brooklyn, Simone Bodmer-Turner has been turning beautiful singular pieces in earthly tones and with natural imperfections. The irregularities of their shapes and textures give her ceramics an idiosyncratic feel not replicated in commercial, wheel-thrown pieces. Simone’s first forays into ceramics began with jewelry sold through independent boutiques, and her creative evolution into full-sized ceramics felt destined. Her local artist residencies have been based in Massachusetts and upstate New York. Simone has refined her skills in Onishi, Japan and Oaxaca, Mexico where the differing cultural perspectives towards ceramics has influenced her work, as well as the selection of clay and the process of shaping and firing. Simone’s work has a loyal following, and is found in private collections. Her recent show at Saipua, pictures of whom feature here, was successful, and several pieces sold out within the first hour. For more information, please visit her website (www.simonebodmerturner.com) or IG: @simonebodmerturner
Clay is a metamorphic medium that either can be generous or unforgiving under a creator’s hands. What is it about clay or the processing of shaping ceramics you appreciate over other media?
The romance of using a medium that is created by the intense pressure of the earth compressing rocks, minerals and decaying matter is an act I find endlessly poetic. It was a real kick in the gut to realize that most of the clay I’ve been using for years in city studios from ceramic supply stores are mixed as individual ingredients and are very distant from the original methods of digging and mixing clay. Getting closer to the original practices surrounding the medium is why I’ve traveled all over the world to study from communities who have less industrialized clay traditions.
As someone who moved very quickly to hand building after I was trained – as most who are interested in ceramics are in a city studio – on the wheel, clay really functions as a sculpture body for me. Learning the nuances of a clay body’s capabilities depending on its moisture level and physical composition is a never-ending endeavor to master. Though I feel that clay will certainly be part of my practice for my entire life, I’m itching to try different mediums like stone and concrete.
The dialogue between functionality and conceptual art seems to be a perennial conflict for ceramicists – the vessel in its elemental form exerts strong psychological hold on us humans as a receptacle for sustenance and seeing it as an art itself is harder to reconcile. At what point does your role as the artist becomes aligned with that as a craftsperson focused on functionality?
I fit into a strange niche in that I am drawn to historically functional forms – water vessels, wine and sake fermentation vessels, urns, ceremonial vessels – but I don’t work as a potter does, churning out functional ware, but preferably as an artist, creating one piece at a time, never to be exactly the same as the next and whenever inspiration strikes. Which luckily, is often. I’m well aware that this may well work to my detriment, but at the moment it works for me. That is not to say that I haven’t taken on projects or needed to set deadlines for myself which force me to work more like a production potter, but for the most part I work on my own time at multiple pieces at once as they dry in different intervals. Once you get a good groove going it’s a lot like cooking, and a body of work comes together bit by bit all together and each piece often winds up influencing each other in the way they might interact. Though at the moment, I’m making functional vessels, I am very interested in the sculptures of artists like Noguchi, Brancusi, and Calder and potters who have turned to sculpture like Peter Voulkos and Ruth Duckworth. I’d like to be incorporating more modern forms into the more traditional inspiration I’ve been working with.
The Dutch designer Hella Jongerius once said: “Colour is subjective, there is no truth in it. A colour by itself is nothing, and so it gets its character from the colours around it.” Your ceramic work takes on the muted earthly hues (i.e. ashen gray, white, rusty ochres), and they reflect the atmospheric light conditions from morning to evening. Although they are prized for their spare colors, Japanese and Mexican ceramics are well known for their brilliant colors. Was it a conscious decision to emphasize the form and texture over color for your work?
There’s two parts to the natural hues of my work. My base will always be a creamy, hyper-matte white. It doesn’t detract from the form, and keeps even the most Grecian inspired pieces feeling contemporary. I started using glazes in this spectrum as a stylistic choice but it has also acted as a placeholder while I test and experiment with recipes to get more texture and complexity onto the surface of my pots. After working in many collaborative spaces where the glazes are mixed for you by the staff and set out in buckets for you to essentially pick your color and put on a shelf to go into the kiln, I desperately wanted to understand the chemistry behind the muted creamy substances I was handing my artistic vision over to. Only in the last two years have I committed to mixing all of my own glazes and really understanding the naturally occurring, and, these days, many man-made, components of a glaze. I aspire to get to a point where a glazed piece can come out of the kiln and if I’m not happy with it I know what to tweak without having to scratch the whole batch. Matte white will always be my base, but I’m looking forward to seeing how all the test batches I’ve been working on come out.
Despite the preponderance of natural motifs in Japanese arts and culture, most people still view Japan as this country ensnared in futuristic, technology vise with little connection to the natural world while holding on its past relics. You have expressed surprise at the depth of the Japanese connection with nature. What were the few specific things that struck you during your time there?
I wouldn’t say that I was surprised to find how connected the Japanese people are to the natural world, as I tend to romanticize everything, but I would say that I was lucky to be in a place and with people where that connection is still deeply ingrained, rather than in a big city like Tokyo which I found very overwhelming commercially. The whole experience of firing the Anagama kiln up in the mountains was fantastic – in the magical sense of the word. We were up in the hills above Onishi amongst the cedars and the vines, staying in a cabin and taking turns stoking the fire through the night. I worked the 3am-9am shift with my dear friend who had flown over to help with the firing and travel around Japan with me. By 3 am most everyone had gone to sleep and it was just Elissa and I sitting in front of the fire telling stories often riddled with sleep deprived nonsensical humor, or often not talking, for hours listening to the deer call to each other through the forest. We would sip sake through the night and make coffee on the camp stove at the first sign of first light, and cook ourselves breakfast before the rest of camp had risen. When the other potters finally arrived to take over our shift, we would soak in the wood fired tub as the mist lifted out of the forest before taking a nap.
The Japanese community from the town and our friends who came to help with the firing just seemed comfortable and at ease living in the woods. Everyone moved confidently from cooking over gas to cooking over fire, foraging in the woods for the perfect stems and branches to decorate the communal table, having tea on a plank suspended from the trees rather than in a more traditional setting. It was an incredibly enchanting moment in time.
You were a fellow of the Pocoapoco, “a multi-disciplinary, research-based residency in Oaxaca, Mexico offering time for retreat, a platform for creative exploration and space for a collective intelligence”. This fellowship too molded your impressions on ceramics and its place there. What did you take away from Oaxaca that was different from Japan?
Though people imagine Japan is the place to go to train under a master, my work was more independent there, whereas Mexico was the place I worked under a master. Rufina and her sisters had been making pots since they were 6 years old and had learned their craft from their mothers and their grandmothers in Atztompa, a 30 minute drive outside of Oaxaca city center. They were incredibly skilled and had a profound knowledge and intimacy with the clay. Though the cultural experience in Japan was perhaps more formative for me – greatly in part to the fact that I was living there three months longer than I was in Mexico – my time in Oaxaca was incredibly formative stylistically and technically.
The pottery there, and generally in Central and South American, is still made the traditional way through various hand building techniques. Rather than being looked down on for my hand building tendencies, as I’ve experienced in many pottery communities in the developed world that favor the more perfect wheel thrown forms, my style was embraced in its familiarity. I learned many building and burnishing techniques from Rufina and her sisters, but what I really learned was not to be afraid of the clay, to handle it more forcefully in order to coerce it into the desired shape. I remember squirming while Rufina literally beat one side of my pot with her hand to get it symmetrical and took a machete to another pot to carve down imperfections. I took a bunch of jicaras home with me and have been carving and burnishing my pots with them to get a smoother surface than my earlier work. I’ve started working with sculpture body which has a lot of grog, which is similar to the clay bodies they dig and mix in Atzompa. The flexible strength of that clay has made me work less timidly.
How has becoming the ceramicist-in-residence at Saipua alter your perspective as the work will become complementary to cut flowers and plants?
Working with Sarah and her team of florists has been incredibly informative in terms of building vessels for specific arrangements of plants. Luckily, my work is heavy by default as I prefer to build with a thick coil and like the feel of something substantial which helps eliminate the problem of a pot falling over from the uneven weight of stems. Sarah’s arrangements are bountiful and wild, which often means putting stems in vessels in an nontraditional fashion, which she has been teaching me to build for. I am personally drawn to what can be done in a shallow vessel with a flower frog, and have been experimenting with building them into my pieces. It’s a constant learning and experimental process. Hand building lends itself to building interior walls and lips to assist the ill-balanced, but more interesting and poetic to accommodate the stem or branch. Just getting to handle the flowers and learn about them from Saipua has been incredible. Plus, the crew is some of the most hard working, deeply sweet, and insanely talented individuals I’ve met in any working environment. I’m very grateful to share space and artistic vision with them.
If a Simone Bodmer-Turner ceramic was transformed into a plant or garden, what would it be?
Hah I’m not sure if it’s exactly “me as a plant” but I am completely, undeniably in love with Pink Smoke Bush. The lightest shade. It’s the most ethereal plant with deep mauve-purple leaves that flowers into this frothy cloud of pinky purple feathers with mint green undertones. I never get tired of it. I want a whole yard full of them.
Thank you Simone for the interview!
Ceramicists and gardeners are bonded by the same element: the earth they mold into vessels or cultivate for plants. The similarities end when the vessels, having been fired, are completed, but gardens continually develop until the gardener leaves or has relinquished control. Ceramics have a tactile warmth conspicuously missing from our digital lives we now inhabit. They permit us to access the fundamental and beautiful moments of life that evolve around eating and dining and growing. In all, they reference the humanistic touch not replicated online. There has been an increased popularity of ceramics not only as a craft, but also an art form. In this series over the next three weeks, we explore three ceramicists whose work reevaluate our perception of functionality and connect us tenuously to ephemera, especially cut flowers.
“The milkweed pods are breaking, And the bits of silken down Float off upon the autumn breeze Across the meadows brown.” – Cecil Cavendish .
I first met Gina after I saw her garden on the front cover of the 2007 Good Gardens Guide and then reached out to schedule a visit in person. On weekends when I wasn’t occupied with my postgraduate research, I would often drive out to visit historic houses, gardens, and nurseries. Nonetheless, a date and time are agreed upon and I tentatively knocked on the door upon which I had embarrassingly mistaken her husband James for a friend. The Prices ended up having a good laugh about the episode, and I ended up staying for much of the day, cementing my friendship with Gina. We’ve kept in touch over the years as the garden has evolved beautifully.
When you first started gardening, you mentioned how your influential friends were merciless in their critiques of your early garden. I can’t imagine that you didn’t feel slighted at that time although the memory of those times appear funny now. What were some of the memorable lines?
Betsy Muir, Dianey Binny’s 80 year old sister was ruthlessly critical about a small curved bed opposite the kitchen door: ‘Gina, that is a damn dull bed. Just a lot of acquilegias, and not even special ones.’ I had not realised how much they seeded, and I was near to tears, but she was right. Everything takes so long gardening, and I felt exhausted. When Betsy saw my hostas eaten by snails, she remarked: ‘is that hailstone damage?’ That did make me laugh. And that was the end of my growing hostas as the snails would crawl out of my low stone walls near the house to decimate them. Betsy told me the greatest enemy in the garden was wind, and I opened it all up to embrace the landscape. However the plants I planted, for example grasses, and herbaceous perennials did not really mind wind.
Arabella Lennox Boyd told me how ugly my steps were, and what was I going to do about them. They had just been laid, and were not a feature of beauty due to inexperience on my behalf. I then covered them with Ivy, which has just been taken off now at least 23 years later. They now look better, and we have placed on the bottom flat bits stone balls that was my Christmas present from James! Polly [my gardener] thinks they look Dutch. The colour of the stone has weathered beautifully. These remarks were not all as harsh criticisms as they sounded, as both Arabella and Betsy followed their visits up with very encouraging letters, which I have kept and treasured.
Gardens, like their owners, evolve to reflect changing or mature tastes in plants or styles. Comparatively speaking, what would you have liked to say to your inexperienced self through a time machine?
I would like to say that it was not a waste of time growing all the different plants that I grew in the beginning. I learnt how they all behaved in the ground, which ones were thugs, and which liked the conditions of my garden or not. It took years to develop a taste of my own, and a style of my own, and then to stick to it and not be swayed. I learned to look for interest in the leaf and not just the flower. I like plants that look good for a long time, e.g. six months, but these plants are difficult to find. I buy maybe five, and learnt not to have it look too bitty. I try to have it not look too studied – for example, when we are digging out the bluebells of the beds, we leave some in the right hand side which is more woodland-like.
Rather than take the customary approach of dividing the garden into rooms to prevent the countryside view from dominating, you took the opposite, not easy tactic of allowing the garden embrace the view. How did you keep the garden balanced with the wider panorama?
I always knew that I did not want rooms in my garden, though some people tried to pressure me to divide it up, as that was the fashion at the time. We have gone on and on opening it up particularly by taking out the big rose bushes of Rosa californica ‘Plena’ which were at the end of the lawn stopping the eye. Now we have two yew domes, which is simpler and picks up the picture of the yew in the parterre down below. To keep the garden balanced, not only have the chimneys in the parterre grown a lot and matured (beautifully clipped by Polly), but also we have enlarged the Autumn border and swept it on round to the right to incorporate the landscape. We have taken out the Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’ on the right hand side, and the hedge of Rosa glauca, and planted two separate yew hedges which are going to be tapering with the lie of the land, for it all runs gently downhill.
Most modernist gardens depend heavily on hardscaping and herbaceous perennials with grasses, whereas your garden is more accommodating of woody plants. What value do you see in having a diversity of woody plants?
I don’t like a lot of hardscaping in a garden. The advantage of woody plants is that the whole thing is going to look more natural. We are a north facing garden, so the plants are going to enjoy dappled shade, and near the house we have stepping stones taking you through the beds. It is only in the last five years that I have discovered the beauty of ferns. However, it is very difficult finding plants that will do well under the shadow of my two large yew trees on the right hand side.
British gardeners are spoilt for plant choices, which can be overwhelming for novices. How do you filter what will work successfully with your garden?
I go to two top class nurseries, which sell plants of my taste. Two of my favorite nurseries are Marchants Hardy Plants owned by Graham Gough and Lucy Goffin, and Avondale Nursery near Coventry. Graham and Lucy and I always have lunch together, when we never draw breath about plants! Polly once went to Marchants, and Graham asked her if she needed any help, to which she said no, as she had seen them all in our garden (she did say quite that to Graham)!
Why is the transcendent or emotional feeling elusive even in the gardens of UK?
Maybe the owner is not emotional, or too many gardens done by designers.
It takes a courageous spirit to apply for a tree preservation order to be rescinded and then remove the tree once the application is approved. Does the sentimentality towards trees prevent gardens from being better?
I don’t understand the sentimentality towards trees if it is going to spoil the overall picture, or stop things from growing by sucking up the moisture from the ground. To me it is totally obvious if a tree needs to come out.
Winters in the British Isles can be gray, damp, and miserable. What in the garden lifts your spirits during those leaden days?
The winter aconites, snowdrops, Sarcococca, Cornus mas, and hellebores, which flower for about 3 months. Particularly the snowdrops and the hellebores.
How often do you and your gardener Polly discuss the garden’s evolution?
You often allude to artists or their works when describing specific areas of the garden such as the Gustav Klimt border or the Bottecelli meadow. Does this artistic allusion help evoke the atmosphere you and Polly hope to achieve?
Yes it does , and it is not dissimilar to our description.
The inclination to garden or create a garden seems more persuasive in UK than it has been in Corfu, Greece where challenges like hard soil and dry summers appear insurmountable.
Here in the British Isles we have the perfect gardening climate, which is maybe why we talk about the weather all the time! We have had a mild winter, a wet spring, some heat, and now cold again. The plants are growing as you look at them. Corfu is very difficult. It has cold wet winters, with a rainfall the same as London. Spring is beautiful with the soft green of the olive trees, and many wild flowers everywhere. But then follows 3 to 4 months of very hot weather, with poor watering facilities, and poor quality water that is salty. Again in the autumn everything freshens up and looks beautiful again. Before we bought the property, the garden was just an olive grove, without even a single cypress.
What are some of the plants you could not be without in the garden?
I would not be without the yew structure in the garden, and the Phillyreas, particularly Phillyrea latifolia that I grow. I love the Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’, and Cornus controversa. The layout of the parterre has turned out much better than I ever thought it would. My new favourite is my golden Cornus mas.
Again and again you have emphasized the effect of clipping your shrubs well so their forms become architectural after the borders have been tidied. What does it take to clip skillfully and beautifully without overdoing it?
Polly does all the clipping, and she does it all beautifully and by eye. In the parterre the shapes tend to be on the large side, such as Daphne tangutica. It is huge but we are frightened of cutting into too hard as we do not want to lose it. Our bushes of Sarcococca are pretty massive, but it all leads to more drama in the winter.
Some people dismiss dahlias and tulips as too much effort – especially lifting and staking for the first, and topping up for the latter. What is it about these two that you and Polly find invaluable for the garden?
Dahlias and tulips are certainly not too much effort. The garden looks beautiful at this moment and it is the tulips making rivers of colour in the borders. Then later on the dahlias in the parterre flower until the end of October, and they are also done to a colour scheme, flowering endlessly, being deadheaded, with flowers for the house.
People gardening in tropical and even Mediterranean climates use scented plants to greater effect than those in temperate climates. What is it about scent you find enthralling in a garden?
Scent in a garden is one of its many joys. James [my husband] has no sense of smell at all which is a shame.
You often get a strong smell particularly in the evening. My favourites are Monarda, and Dictamnus when you brush your hands up its stems.
by Eric Hsu
Together with his colleague Nigel Dunnett whose work at the Barbican Center in London is his most visible work, James Hitchmough have put Sheffield University on the map for their pioneering work in plant communities and their horticultural application in public spaces. While Henk Gerristen, Piet Oudolf, and their peers have respectively publicized the ecological-based tenets of planting for aesthetic effect and lower input than traditional plantings, James Hitchmough, despite being a well-respected researcher and a valued consultant to garden designers like Tom Stuart Smith, has largely been under the radar. Sowing Beauty: Designing Flowering Meadows from Seed (Timber Press 2017) may finally shift the spotlight onto his work. The book is a distillation of more than 30 years of research at Sheffield’s Department of Landscape Architecture. In his introduction, Hitchmough makes it clear that the book is “about utilizing an understanding of how naturally occurring plant communities function ecologically, and then transferring this understanding to help design, establish, and manage visually dramatic herbaceous vegetation in gardens, urban parks, and other urban greenspaces that is long persistent.” In no way are the vegetation he envisages for these plantings are always exact facsimiles of the wild ones, as sometimes he liberally borrows taxa from congruent habitats because seasonal interest must be sustained longer than natural plant communities permit.
Hitchmough is aware of the native plant debate, recognizing that the inclusion of exotic taxa in his planting may be an affront to those who see the disparity between his lament of the biologically diminished landscape and his appreciation of wild landscapes overseas. For a country whose flora was left less diverse after the Ice Age, United Kingdom would be poorer without its garden flora, much of it introduced during the 19th and 20th centuries. Where would Cornish gardens be without their tree ferns, rhododendrons, and camellias, and how would the herbaceous borders on those palatial estates look with only native plants? Imagine Capability ‘Lancelot’ Brown creating landscape parks without the range of trees. Hitchmough points out that large countries like United States or China benefit from having a large native flora, yet the definition of ‘native’ becomes ambiguous if someone would use species with disparate distributions (East versus West Coast). There is a gulf between the political and ecological definition of what is native, and environmental stressors in urban landscapes may be unsuitable for native species where exotic species may be more resilient. Pollinators do not discriminate between native and exotic taxa as long as nectar and food sources are satisfied. Any concern about invasive species is negligible because these uncooperative species are incompatible with the complex vegetation Hitchmough seeks to create. Conscientious of his work within the political and social-cultural context, he will adapt if native species reflect more accurately of the site than simply having exotics. Whereas Hitchmough’s contemporaries depend heavily on plugs and containerized plants for their work, sowing seeds of the desired species is the crux of Hitchmough’s plantings. The immediate benefit is economical scale-wise since large meadows would have required generous financial expenditure. And there is a magic of seeing the ground once bare become awash with vegetation.
“Looking to Nature for Inspiration and Design Wisdom” addresses the ecological parameters one must consider for successful plant communities in gardens. These parameters include climate, soil types, degree of competition with other plants, and herbivore pressures. Any experienced gardener knows too well the heartbreaking travails of failing to grow plants that fit the climate. While it seems prescriptive to match climatic conditions to the plants that are engineered to thrive, it does save one from meaningless struggles, curtailing any unrealistic expectations. Operating on a sliding scale that can accommodate plants with different levels of climatic fitness may be a preferable approach than the dogmatic of sticking merely to ‘extremely fit’ plants. Unsurprisingly less productive soils generally produce species-rich meadows while rich fertile soils permit rapidly growing species to dominate at the expense of diversity. The morphological architecture of plants can indicate the type of environments they can withstand – large leaves can signal high moisture needs and shade. Hitchmough points out that plant communities possess canopy layering, and one can intuit the general appearance and character from each layer.
Traditional horticulture perspectives doled out in general gardening books can unfairly alter our understanding of garden plants – for instance, well-drained soil, moderate temperatures, and sun are cultivation perquisites for Kniphofia, but when evaluated ecologically, a gradient of different conditions emerges for the various species. The horticultural advice overlooks the possibility of Kniphofia being in drainage swales because it assumes that the plants will be used in planting strictly for visual impact, not ecological sympatry. Hitchmough stresses this distinction because ecological, not necessarily aesthetic, traits of plants are the main priority.
Hitchmough’s valid points come from serious studies during his visits to various plant communities in Eurasia, Western North America, Asia, and South Africa. These communities are described and analyzed for their relevancy to his designs. A major challenge from incorporating some of the plants is slugs, which flourish in the maritime mild climate of United Kingdom. There is an inverse relationship between slugs and altitude – the higher the altitude, the less the slug population. High altitude species are sometimes difficult to incorporate because of the slug pressure. Nonetheless Hitchmough does draw up examples of species with high design potential from the plant communities. Gardeners may already grow some of them; for example, Achillea filipendulina, Alcea rugosa (hollyhock), and Eremurus species are suggested species found on productive soils of the Eurasian steppe. How does one take inspiration by studying plant communities worldwide and translate it for designed versions?
Hitchmough lays out two approaches in ‘Designing Naturalistic Herbaceous Plant Communities’: the biogeographic method and the non-biogeographic, pick and mix route. The former results in a some facsimile of the wild community where the sense of identity is emphasized and the planting more likely sustainable long-term. In contrast, the latter exercises more creative freedom due to the lack of biogeographic constraints. It does require more complex understanding of the plants and their interspecific interactions. Hitchmough even proffers the species level rather than the community approach, although the conditions at the proposed planting site must be approximated first. The well-known plantswoman Beth Chatto has taken this species level methodology in which species sharing similar cultural requirements are grown together. Regardless of which approach one applies to their design, macroclimatic and microclimatic factors must be weighed. Latitude, altitude, and continentality define macroclimatic ones while degree of shade, aspect, soil moisture stress, and soil productivity and pH characterize microclimatic ones. Hitchmough has helpfully organized the environmental and management limitations for various natural meadow-like plant communities and species in a table.
Flowering is categorized interestingly in three ways, dramatic, intermediate and low key, driven by the ratio of foliage to flowers at peak bloom, the size of each flower, and the impact of flower color. Asclepias tuberosa would be dramatic because it elicits the ‘wow’ reaction from people otherwise indifferent to plants. Sanguisorba is considered low-key for its flowers are small and not vividly colorful. It may be easy to be dismissive of these systematic categorization, but a wide gulf exists between the public perception and the trained eye. If designed plant communities need to have the impact in public spaces, sometimes our aesthetic values need realistic reassessment for a dispassionate perspective. It is a telling reminder before design objectives can be formulated.
“Seed Mix Design, Implementation, and Initial Establishment” looks at the intricacies of seed mixes. For those outside the profession, using seed mixes seems a failproof technique of achieving the colorful beautiful displays. However, these mixes are usually made of annual species whose high germination rates and little or no seed dormancy enhances successful results. In contrast, mixes of perennial species are sometimes unreliable because lower germination rates and consequent lower density of seedlings are inherent. Seed quality and storage is the main culprit when one selects species for seed mixes – obscure or rare species tend to have the lowest germinability, leading to intermittent demand and longer storage time. Because assessing seed quality takes considerable expenditure, one must brace for paying higher costs upfront. However, the tradeoff is better viability and less variability, which is less costly than having to repeat orders and contend with erratic germination.
Hitchmough cautions readers not to confuse percentage germination with percentage field emergence. High germination can be offset by mortality in field emergence, the survival rate of seedlings visible to naked eye. What can break or make is soil moisture – seedlings, irrespective from dry or moist habitats, benefit with no or minimal moisture stress. All these factors must be weighed before numbers are made for the seed mixes. The mathematician in the horticulturist may delight at the opportunity to calculate the weight of seed for species for a 288 M2 plot. Hitchmough has provided helpful formulas for breaking down the results. Sometimes to bypass the unpredictable facet of direct seed sowing, one can grow plugs or semi-finished plants. Then the question jumps to the available planting spaces per square metre, but actually ends up the same as sowing. What follows is too unchanged. Site preparation, soil cultivation, and sowing mulches will influence the crucial period of seedling survival and establishment. Even the timing of the sowing has an effect as Hitchmough weighs in species with seasonal preferences. Primroses are best sown spring, but Aconitum prefer early and mid autumn to break deep dormancy. The chapter is rounded by an invaluable compendium of emergence data for different taxa.
The first season of sowing still needs diligent husbandry before anything tangible can be witnessed. “Establishment and Management” advises on this first season and subsequent years. Weeding is paramount to any meadow-like gardens since weeds are energetic opportunists. Hitchmough is adamant about weed control, having once hand-weeded an 800-m2 sowing of the prairie garden at the Sheffield Botanical Gardens in its first season. He discourages fertilizing, a self-defeating tactic unless soil compaction and nutrient deficiency necessitates a nitrogen-only fertilizer. Editing becomes a priority once the plants mature and spread. It is a challenge that involves reviewing and conceptualizing the changes because a certain threshold for density of plants is visually acceptable. This threshold comes down to the specific nature of each herbaceous plant community because climate exerts an inexorable effect on window of growth. Hitchmough lays out the community type (i.e. forb dominated and grass dominated for temperate, forb dominated and geophyte dominated for Mediterranean) because the system is no longer a garden where all species from different communities are simultaneously accommodated.
The last chapter contains several case studies in United Kingdom (one exception being in China). Each project is prefaced by a summary of the plant communities, seed source, client and conditions, project area, and timescale. Hitchmough’s scientific methodology is conveyed in the project descriptions where chronological photographs illustrated his points. It is enlightening to read about the successes and failures of each project because most garden designers do not convey the arduous process, focusing instead on the ‘glamorous’ or ‘soft-sell’ results. Having trained and skilled staff to oversee and maintain these complex plantings is another factor Hitchmough brings up – such plantings are not the simple ‘mow and sow’ variety. However, with the slow erosion of skilled horticulturists, the resiliency of meadow-like plantings may be more advantageous than the traditional schemes, like annual bedding. Hitchmough concedes that no amount of empirical data can accurately predict how successful each plant plays in their ‘designed’ communities as plants being living organisms are forever shifting in their longevity and reproductivity. Instead, what the data can achieve is to minimize the losses and increase the rate of establishment.
Sowing Beauty is Hitchmough’s visceral reaction to the environmental degradation of the mining town he grew up in northern UK. It is possible that the extremes we are frequently experiencing from climate change may mean the gradual decline of conventional gardening ideals. In no way should we wait for an ecological catastrophe larger than Chernobyl nuclear disaster or Exxon Valdez oil spill for our mindsets to change. One may discount the meadow-inspired plantings overwrought imitations of the Real McCoy, but for people whose natural connections are becoming fractured in an urbanized world, they represent a vital connection to nature. Thoreau once said: “We need the tonic of wildness”, and Hitchmough’s work brings not only that ‘tonic of wildness’, but an empathic respect for our planet.
Interview conducted by Eric Hsu
Photography by Ben Stormes, Janet Davis, and Eric Hsu
Please introduce yourself.
I am Ben Stormes, and I am currently the Curator & Horticulturist for the North American Gardens at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, located in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
The arts or horticulture.
Arts-y horticulture, is that an appropriate answer? Given my career choice and strong personal passion of all things plants, I suppose I’d have to say horticulture. That said, I have a great appreciation for the arts in all forms, and see countless examples of where these two come together with tremendous synergy.
What is your earliest experience with plants?
I grew up on a working farm outside a very small town in rural Ontario, and my earliest experience with plants was likely running through wheat fields or getting lost in corn fields. However, my first horticultural and botanical experiences with plants would have been spending hours upon hours in the wooded “back 40” of the farm property, exploring the beech-maple forest throughout the seasons. I remember being captivated by the spring flush of Erythronium, Sanguinaria, Trillium, Claytonia, and other spring ephemerals that grew profusely in the rich understory. Later in the summer the beautiful light that filtered through the high canopy is a vivid memory of my childhood experiences with this particular forest. I used to bring woodland treasures back to the farmhouse and grow them in beds that, reflecting on it now, were less than ideal growing conditions. I quickly filled beds with plants not only from the forest, but from the ditches, railway corridors, hedgerows, and creek edges in the rural agricultural landscape. My mother was incredibly accommodating, allowing me to bring home all manner of plants, and my older brother to do a similar thing with all the fish, insects, reptiles, and amphibians from these varied habitats as well. Between the two of us we had a rather eclectic assemblage of elements from the landscape that was our playground as young boys.
That passion led to a job working in a plant nursery when you were 14. Do you still have fond memories of this first job?
Absolutely! It was a great environment to be a young gardener keen to learn new plants, familiarize myself with botanical Latin, and have ready access to a steady stream of staff-discount plants! My mother would drop me off at this little nursery when she went grocery shopping in the next town over, and since this ritual happened routinely on Saturday mornings they offered to pay me to water when I was there. It escalated quickly from there to a steady job I maintained through high school and most of my undergraduate years. I had a really supportive and kind manager who saw my sincere interest in the plants, and he really encouraged me to bring in and grow as much as I possibly could. I was overseeing the herbaceous plant side of the business within a few years, and had free reign so long as I could keep the stock in good health and maintain customer interest in our offerings. This flexibility enabled me to bring in all kinds of new plants that I wanted and could not find in the area, but I had to be able to sell them to others. Working in customer service in horticulture was a rewarding experience, and this face-to-face experience with other gardeners allowed me to share my passion with other gardens while learning from some seasoned garden veterans. It was a great opportunity for a budding horticulturist.
You studied landscape architecture at the University of Guelph. Landscape architects sometimes are criticized for their limited plant vocabulary and a predilection for hardscaping. The divide now is becoming smaller as garden designers will collaborate with landscape architects to maximize the projects’ potential. What was your perception as an undergraduate in landscape architecture?
While I had always been focused on plants, I have strong interests in design, geography, and ecology. When I finished high school and left for university, landscape architecture seemed like the logical fit to blend these interests. The endeavor was met with mixed feelings as I carried on in my studies, much of what you mentioned about the profession I was finding to be true. It was hard for me to see where I was going to fit into the world of practicing landscape architecture, or to identify an aspect that allowed me to pursue my passion. By the time I was halfway through my undergrad, it wasn’t a career path I intended to seriously pursue. However, I saw it as an opportunity to learn a set of skills that do have relevance to my career interests, and remained most focused on these aspects throughout the rest of the program. I had a few great professors who understood this, and strongly supported me in making the program relevant to my interests. I’m very grateful to Dr. Nate Perkins, Dr. Karen Landman, and Sean Kelly for this.
All that said, landscape architecture as a profession is often met with hostility and potentially disdain by horticulturists. While I can see where these feelings may originate, there are some really incredible landscape architects doing tremendous work. We need to do a better job of understanding that landscape architecture is about the build environment at large, and not strictly about plants. In certain instances, a botanically rich and intensive planting may not be the most suitable given the demands on the site, or the intended programming. We can be better about being open to realizing what landscape architects do really well, while still demanding horticultural sensitivity and excellence where it is required. As you noted, bringing in outside expertise for the latter is becoming the norm, which is great.
What did your undergraduate thesis reveal about the value of botanical gardens as a societal and professional benchmark in environmental design?
My undergraduate thesis explored the multiple layers of value and utility afforded through the diverse programming at botanical gardens, and was a very interesting endeavor for me personally. Prior to undertaking this project, I had only worked with a single botanical garden as a student in an applied horticultural training program. The undergraduate thesis allowed me to explore more comprehensively the range of activity currently (and historically) taking place at botanical gardens. It really opened my eyes to how different one garden can be from the next, and the direct involvement some gardens play in addressing socioeconomic issues, community health, and gaps in plant-based curriculum. We hear a lot about botanical gardens being “modern day arks” and crucial players in contemporary issues of plant conservation. While this conservation aspect is without doubt a very noble and crucial part of what we do collectively, and an area I care about deeply, as a community we are working in other important arenas as well. This project helped me understand these other areas of involvement, as my previous exposure was primarily with ornamental horticulture and plant conservation.
The project helped me solidify my commitment to working with botanical gardens, as what I was exploring resonated with me on a number of levels. Previously I was impressed with the collections or aesthetic of individual gardens, but had given little thought to the collective role we play when the sum of our efforts begins to be tallied.
NYBG School of Professional Horticulture and Longwood Gardens’ Professional Gardener Program are only US programs that can be favorably compared to Niagara Parks School of Horticulture. You were a graduate of this three year program. Can you give a brief overview of what this school offers to prospective candidates?
The Niagara Parks School of Horticulture is a three year training program that is delivered as 36 consecutive months of integrated theoretical and applied horticultural experience that take place within The Niagara Parks Botanical Garden. The program has a standard curriculum of academic programming that all students complete, with classes running year-round. Students take on progressively more responsibility and leadership as they move through the program, and are given experiences in leadership and supervisory aspects as they move into their senior year. The program offers the opportunity to work directly in the horticultural operations of a 100 acre botanical garden while also completing diverse academic classes covering aspects of horticultural theory, landscape design, plant identification, arboriculture, plant production, and a number of other related topics. The program accepts about 12 students a year, with the first and second year students living on-site in a residence building located within the botanical garden. I always said it was probably the most spectacular front yard I’d ever had, looking out over the 3 acre formal rose garden and associated parterre. The personal relationships and interpersonal growth that happen as a result of living and working with 24 individuals is a tremendous experience in and of itself. It is in some ways an experience that defies explanation.
Botany is becoming less integral and significant in college programs, and this trend is unfortunate because skills in botany are crucial in this era of ecological uncertainty. You worked as the botany intern at the Royal Botanical Garden, a position not common in public gardens. Do you see botany becoming irrelevant or simply becoming emerged as professions become interdisciplinary?
I don’t think that botany will ever become irrelevant. Plants are such fundamental components of life on earth, and are involved in countless aspects of our daily life. Because of their significance, I feel that their continued study will be necessary. However, the way these studies are carried out, their focus and methodology is what will (and has) drastically changed. The “pure” study of botany has indeed suffered, although botany is becoming more integrated as an interdisciplinary study.
One way the needs are being addressed due to a shortage of trained botany is enhanced reliance on “amateur specialists”. While by no means an adequate replacement for an army of formally training and practicing plant taxonomists, botanists, or otherwise, the skill and passion of these amateurs does help to bring some reprieve. It is important to give credit to the countless individuals who have made it a personal life goal to dedicate significant time and resources to their botanical interests, and the generation of shared information that comes from these concerted efforts. Are they rewriting the treatments for the new volumes of Flora of North America? No. Are they publishing books, blogs, or otherwise that share their botanical pursuits. Certainly. Are both of use to those of us working in the fields of botany, public gardens, horticulture, etc.? Indeed.
Throughout your career, education has been an underlying theme that has guided your jobs. You developed and executed public education programs on sustainable urban landscapes for the city of Guelph and taught courses at the Niagara Parks Botanical Garden and School of Horticulture. Finally you left to enroll at Cornell’s public garden management program. Although curatorial work will be your primary role at UBC Botanical Garden, I suspect that education will still be part of the big picture. How did you come to realize the significance of education in gardens?
I’ve always been keen to share my excitement and passion for anything with others, and feel that this sharing is a natural human inclination. Plants and gardens at large, are fascinating on so many levels. Both seem easy to turn the right audience on to given the right situation and approach. I attribute much of my educational work to those who asked me questions, be it in a formal learning environment or in a more passive and casual situation. Teaching and learning are reciprocal situation through which the one who is teaching imparts knowledge, but also realizes how much is yet to be learned.
In some ways it is the responsibility of everyone to teach and share knowledgeable it in formal situations or in more casual circumstances. This sharing of knowledge is one of the cornerstones of human culture and growth. Who doesn’t like to share their passion, and get others interested and engaged with this passion, whatever it may be?
Although educators have embraced technology in numerous ways, they have pointed out its shortcomings. Attention spans are shorter and fickle due to dependence on social media, library research and skills are deficient, and cyber bullying has escalated. How can the tactile and ‘tech-resistant’ beauty of plants be conveyed through technological tools?
A tricky subject, to be sure. Technology is something to be embraced, and it brings some really powerful tools to botanical gardens. The way we manage our collections data, and share that data with other is a profound change that has been brought about by technological advancements. Digital tools have helped bring communities together to share information, industry concerns, trends, etc. Social media is even being used to assist in the identification of new plant species.
With respect to how to best preserve the tactile experience of a personal encounter of the botanical world, we could be using technology to garner interest in our collections, while still promoting the direct experience of them as being irreplaceable. Using social media, websites, or other digital communication tools to highlight the important work we do, special or unique portions of our collections, specific garden spaces, or other exceptional qualities of our gardens to targeted audiences can help garner interest in visiting in person. We could probably do a better job of ensuring the message of “it has to be seen to be believed”, or “the experience of seeing this plant in the context of the garden itself is not to be missed” is repeatedly projected in our promotional material. Highlighting the garden EXPERIENCE is tremendously important, and can’t be accurately translated into a digital format.
Latching on to tactile experiences that our audiences may be looking for and using them as a “hook” to get new audiences interested is another way to get past the tech blockade. If people are willing to come and get their hands dirty for vegetable gardening only, then use a program around this topic as a way to get people to you garden. Then, once you’ve got them with their hands dirty, be sure to show your incredible Podocarpaceae collection, explain why it is important, and tell them what they can do to promote it (and your brand) within your community. It’s a lot easier to extend interest from one thing you are doing to another, rather than try to generate interest from a static point.
Public gardens connected to universities often develop student outreach programs. Scott Arboretum offers a houseplant clinic for incoming freshmen and Cornell Botanic Gardens offers student orientation tours. Will you be taking advantage of your association with University of British Columbia for student programming?
It takes some time to get to know a garden, and university gardens are often especially complex in their structure and relationships within the greater university framework. I do not yet feel that I know how to best answer this question, as much of my first half year has been getting to know the garden site itself, and has been less focused on the greater university contest. I do know that there are a number of classes that utilize the collections, and I have already received requests for material from my areas to support research and teaching within the biological sciences. I would like to continue to build relationships with the faculty, and ensure that the garden is seen as a valuable contribution to the university’s mission. However, this early on it is difficult for me to articulate just how this will take place.
The North American gardens at UBC Botanical Garden comprise BC Rainforest Garden, Carolinian Forest Garden, Garry Oak Meadow and Woodland Garden, and Pacific Slope Garden. Can you highlight the differences between these gardens?
Three of the four represent an ecological continuum, largely coastal and near-inland, highlighting vegetation that stretches from British Columbia to northern California. These gardens are the BC Rainforest, Garry Oak, and Pacific Slope.
The BC Rainforest Garden is one of the original gardens from UBC Botanical Garden’s current location, having previously been the BC Native Garden with plants from across the province’s floristic communities. It went through a long period of abandonment during which many of the accessions gathered from further regions of the province did not survive in the local climate. Thus, it is not more representative of the rainforest biome that naturally occurs in the lower mainland of BC. The BC Rainforest Garden contains a high canopy of secondary growth mixed conifer forest with a moderate understory of various woody and herbaceous taxa. I’m actively wild collecting material to develop this garden space, and very much looking forward to seeing it develop.
The Garry Oak Meadow and Woodland is an informal garden space that represents an endangered ecosystem in British Columbia. It is a highly seasonal landscape, with a pronounced spring flush of colourful blooms followed by a more reserved savannah-like aesthetic during the summer months. This is a relatively new garden, having been begun in 2006. It contains almost exclusively wild collected taxa from the local remnant garry oak meadows.
The Pacific Slope is as much an idea as it is a garden space right now. It currently is represented by a few dozen plantings of various woody taxa wild collected from western Oregon and Northern California underneath existing conifers in an open lawn setting. The hope is to create a garden area that showcases some of the incredible plant diversity that can be found on the western slopes of the coastal mountain range, from the subalpine to sea-level. In particular, there are a number of interesting gymnosperms that grow in this region that we are excited to get growing. Patience is a virtue.
The Carolinian Forest Garden is the one that really stands out as the odd-ball step child, as the other three represent a western coastal continuum. However, it is an important garden in highlighting Canadian plant biodiversity. The Carolinian forest zone is restricted to a very small area in Southwestern Ontario, but contains about half of our national flora. It also contains about a quarter of our country’s human population, so there are serious pressures on the remaining forests and its numerous rare species contained. The garden is well poised at UBC Botanical Garden to tell the story of this forest, and to raise awareness of the diverse forest types that can be found in Canada. It’s also important in referencing Sino-American plant disjuncts, and is well suited to complement UBC’s impressive Asian plant collections. A young garden having been started in 2006, it is now at a stage were understory plantings will be important in establishing the character of this eastern deciduous forest model. Very exciting times ahead!
Of these four gardens in the North American gardens, the Carolinian Forest Garden is probably the one you’re most familiar with. How knowledgeable are you with the other three, given their western ranges?
The western garden collections are certainly an exciting opportunity for me to sink my teeth into new vegetation communities and ecologies that I do not have a great deal of experience with. There is always something a little daunting about the unknown, and when it represents 75% of your collections it could be easy to feel a little overwhelmed. I am fortunate that the staff at the garden, including not only horticulture but also research and education departments, are very open to collaboration and information sharing. I’ve already learned a tremendous amount, and have been fortunate to have been able to travel to intact ecosystems that some of these western gardens are focused on representing.
It’s also important to remember that what we are developing at UBC Botanical Garden are garden spaces, and not necessarily self-sustaining and fully representative vegetation zones. This view allows for some freedom and interpretation of these natural areas, and a translation of this interpretation into a garden spaces that honors them with integrity, but may not be complete representations.
Lastly, the “Carolinian” forest zone in Ontario is a very small area, but incredibly diverse with respect to plant species. Growing up in such an environment, and familiarizing myself it with over the years, I have come to welcome the challenge to learn new plants. It also forced me to come to peace with determinations to a generic level from time to time. This acceptance helps when you are learning new floristic regions, and knowing how to read the landscape at large is as (or more) important than recognizing esoteric infraspecific taxa growing upon this landscape.
When I visited British Columbia in 2012, I grew to admire and love the garry oak meadows, which reminded me of the wizened oaks in England’s Wistman’s Wood (Dartmoor National Park). These meadows are considered one of the most endangered habitats since only a surprisingly 5% of them are extant. The Garry Oak Meadow and Woodland Garden is a relatively new addition that still sees continual development. How do you plan on overseeing this garden through its subsequent phases?
Meadow landscapes can be a curatorial nightmare! In essence, they are extensive herbaceous plantings of a number of accessions seeding everywhere. This is a plant records horror story, and the sort of thing that can keep curators up at night.
Having said that, meadow landscapes can be tremendous assets to a garden, particularly when they represented a threatened ecosystem and demonstrate a little-known ecology. The Garry Oak Meadow at UBC Botanical Garden presents a great opportunity not only for plant conservation, but also huge potential for public education about plant conservation, ecology, ethnobotanical knowledge and management, and sustainable behaviors. Many of the threats to the Garry Oak ecosystem in British Columbia are directly related to human activity. If the Garry Oak Meadow and Woodland at UBC Botanical Garden can help communicate these threats, raise public awareness, and guide individuals in making informed decisions that directly impact the Garry Oak ecosystem in British Columbia, then we have done a great service in meeting our educational mission as well. An interpretive program is currently in the works for this garden are, and I’m excited to see this project move ahead in the near future.
From a curatorial and horticultural perspective, managing the aggressive turf grasses and other perennial weeds that are prone to invading these meadows both in the garden and in the wild is paramount. I am currently working on a management plan for this area that will hopefully identify primary and secondary concerns in this regard, and allow for early detection and consequent timely management of such treats to the meadow. Setting priorities and timelines is crucial if issues are to be kept to a scale that is manageable. This is especially true given that UBC Botanical Garden operates without the use of chemical herbicides.
There are a few key species that are endemic to the Garry Oak ecosystem in British Columbia, and I’m keen to target some of these taxa for enhanced representation within the garden. I am fortunate that there is institutional support for collecting trips and enhanced collections development with respect to the Garry Oak Meadow at UBC Botanical Garden, as this will be key to increasing not only the rare and endemic flora, but also the species composition of the meadow overall.
Lastly, there is tremendous opportunity for partnership with external community groups, non-profit organizations, and other bodies that are very active and interested in the Garry Oak ecosystem. Building these relationships to foster information sharing, broad approaches to genetic preservation, and collaboration on education and outreach are aspects of the Garry Oak Meadow that I’d like to work on in the coming years.
North America and Canada may share the same border and language, but they still have perceptible cultural differences. What attitudes have you discerned to be different in American and Canadian horticulture?
Not much, to be perfectly honest. We are a smaller community, but we cover a huge geographic range with very different growing conditions. I moved from a Zone 5 to a Zone 8/9 garden without crossing a national boundary. Another new transplant to UBC Botanical garden moved from a Zone 3 to our Zone 8/9 after only a 14 hour drive. This may be something that is somewhat unique.
With respect to public gardens, there is not the long history of philanthropy and estates left as public gardens with sizable endowments to support them here in Canada. Most of our public gardens are either university associated or branches of local government. There are always exceptions, and I realize that vast endowments may not be the norm in the USA either, but in visiting a number of American gardens it struck me how very different this aspect was than my experiences in Canada.
Over the course of our correspondence, you have professed a love of woodland herbaceous perennials from east Asia and North America. It’s a fitting love as both regions share floristic similarities. What are some of these plants you cannot be without in your garden?
Herbaceous Berberidaceae, all of them! I know some aren’t necessarily from the regions noted, but the vast majority are, and they are all of interest to me. Epimediums are of particular interest, and were responsible for starting this landslide. They were great in that they were 1) large enough and hard enough to get that I wouldn’t get them all easily, 2) small enough that it was a manageable group while working and/or going to school full time, and 3) enough new discovery and information that the reading was interesting. It branched out to the rest of the herbaceous Berberidaceae, and I really enjoy them all.
Increasingly I’ve become more interested in the ferns. Dryopteridaceae and Polypodiaceae in particular, but this is largely an itch yet to be scratched. It’s hard when you don’t have your own garden, and your work spaces are restricted geographically….
Actaea are all such lovely plants, and while all are superficially similar, there are some distinct and truly wonderful selections. I love them, and have for a number of decades. These plants just get better with time, and one of my original A. cordifolia (bought as A. rubifolia) plants that has been moved around a few times over the last 20 years and now resides at my parents’ house is easily 7’ across and 7’ tall when flowering. A favorite, and truly incredible!
There are lots and lots of others: Anemonopsis, Trillium, Disporum, Polygonatum, Cardamine, Carex, etc etc etc., but I won’t go on any further.
Okay, okay, a little further: Hamamelidaceae and Hydrangeaceae are others that I’m particularly fond of, though not herbaceous so I won’t go into length.
A generous benefactor gave you a plot of land. What kind of garden would you create?
How big is the plot of land? What’s the soil like? Am I building the garden for myself, or the benefactor?
I’m pretty accommodating, so if the generous gift came with a specific aesthetic I’d be happy to make it work, so long as I could get creative with the plantings.
If it were purely my garden, it would probably be a space that is constantly under active development and change. I’ve never been content to call any garden space “done”, and am constantly digging, dividing, discarding, adding, etc.
My style is somewhat erratic and eclectic, though always lush, full, and layered. There is little that I enjoy more than seeing layers of interesting plants arranged skillfully. Though I’m fonder of organic and a fairly uncontrived style, I do enjoy the occasional display of formality peppered throughout the garden. This may be a clipped hedge among lush and varied perennial plantings, or a Doric pillar standing in a woodland garden. These sorts of elements need to be carefully done, but when done well can be breathtaking.
I compulsively propagate plants, so the garden would also need to include a “back of house” area I could use for controlled pollination, division, growing on, and trials I really enjoy seeing these types of areas in other’s gardens, too. It’s a sneak peek at things to come, and I always find it very exciting.
One day, you’re stranded one of the islands off Vancouver Island. What is your desert island plant?
Am I going for successful cultivation, or selfish indulgence? Do I have greenhouse spaces, or are we talking strictly local-climate adapted?
For successful cultivation, Arbutus menziesii. It grows extremely well on our coastal rocky outcrops, and has some lovely attributes. The dense evergreen canopy might afford some relief from all the winter rains, too!
If I were to select based on personal indulgence and I had access to greenhouse space, I’d say Cypripedoiodeae. Paphiopedilum and Phragmipedium specifically. As a teenager I had a thing for orchids, this group in particular, but gave it up years ago. Given the right conditions, space, and budget I could probably get back into them pretty seriously.
If it had to be local climate adapted but with some horticultural support, I’d say the entire genus Epimedium. A couple/few clones of each species so I could work on some breeding lines (they are self-sterile) and I’d be happy for years to come. Interspecific hybridization could be fun too, but I’m more drawn to species level taxa generally.
If your passion for plants and gardening can be conveyed through music, what vinyl albums would you single out and why?
I should start by stating up front my musical tastes have been described as everything from “weird” to “horrible”, with most comments falling somewhere within this spectrum. I prefer eclectic. That said, here we go:
Jungle Brothers – “Straight Out The Jungle” LP – 1988 – Warlock Records
I grew up on hip-hop (strange for a white kid in the late 80’s-early 90’s in rural Ontario, I know). This one is mostly selected for the title and artists name, rather than content. Content is good, though.
Kangding Ray – “OR” LP – 2011 – Raster-Noton Recordings
Subtle at times, overpowering at others. Lush and rich in sound, yet minimal and unassuming in aesthetic. I feel like it’s reflective of a streak of my approach to horticulture and my general garden aesthetic. There are a number of releases on this label, and/or by this artist, that would have fit well.
Hidden Agenda “Keep Pressing On / Get Carter” 12” Single – 1995 – Metalheadz
It’s not a full album, but rather a 12” single release typical of the genera. The B side of this single, “Get Carter”, is really the one that I think relates to the question. Hidden Agenda were a well-respected, yet little duo known for general disregard for the “flavor of the month” style production. They generated a unique sound that fused disparate influences: Drum and Bass/Jungle of the mid-90’s, funk, soul, and rare groove to create music not necessarily targeted for the dancefloor like much of their contemporaries. The result is something that I feel translates to my approach of gardening: a montage of various influences that can be pulled together in interesting and unique ways that do not always conform to the norm, but are not so far removed that they don’t relate at all. Most of all, they remained true to their influences and interest, and paid little attention to fads.
W.A Mozart – Horn Concertos Nos 1-4/Wuintek K452 – Herbert von Karajan & the Philharmonia Orchestra with Dennis Brain on Horn – 1998 EMI (remaster of a 1973 release, with original recordings coming from the 1950’s).
Playful and fun, but menacing and haunting from time to time. Catchy, and easy to enjoy. Something very translatable about them for most people, but also something here and there that may only be noticed/appreciated by another avid practitioner. Leaves you tapping your toes.
Outside of work, what inspires you?
Gardening. I could do it in all of my free time. Honestly. I’m also a big music lover. A wide variety of a variety of styles, but I also love dance, so there are some logical connections there. I really enjoy beer, and craft beers are plentiful here in B. It’s a wonderful thing. I enjoy being out of doors, particularly in forests, and not botanizing if I can manage it. It’s hard, but it’s a great experience to just be in a forest and relax. I also love food, and lots of it. Because I like to eat a lot of food, I also have come to enjoy cooking out of necessity. Good friends and strong personal connections are also vitally important to me.
Interview conducted by Eric Hsu
Photography by Matthew Pottage
Please introduce yourself. My Name is Matthew Pottage, and I am the Curator of Wisley Garden, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).
The arts or horticulture? Horticulture.
What is your earliest memory of plants or gardens?
Making a den under a huge Hypericum bush with my brother, and the smell of it! (of the bush, not my brother!)
Any terrible gardening mistakes you wish to admit during your incipient gardening experimentation?
Planting a large Dracaena draco outside at my parents house in Yorkshire where it promptly died in the first frost! (I was around 12 at the time…..)
Conifers have become unfairly unfashionable and may be due for a resurgence in popularity. What are some of their qualities you admire about them?
I love the value they add to a landscape, especially in winter. I love a garden that is a tapestry of colour, texture and form and find a landscape very bleak without evergreen content in winter so I find conifers really useful. I also think many of them are full of character and in the right position can be a real talking point.
How do you plan to proselytize them to the greater public?
By showing them off at Wisley to our 1.3 million visitors per year, and online through my twitter account @matthew_Pottage, that in a mixed planting, they can look really fabulous!
Two conifers, Abies pinsapo (Spanish fir) and Araucaria araucana (money puzzle and Chile pine) appear to be your favorites. Why these two taxa in particular?
I really love the cultivar ‘Aurea’ of the Spanish fir because it is so tactile, colourful and is of great garden ornament. The monkey puzzle is a childhood love – I had a teacher in primary school who was really creative and artistic and she had some branches of a monkey puzzle tree in the classroom. I was fascinated by them and immediately started to research the tree, and then started spotting them all over the place! It became a complete geeky hobby.
Several years you were given a RHS bursary to travel to Chile where Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle or Chile pine) can form pure stands in volcanic mountain slopes at 600 to 1,800 m. As the experience of seeing plants in wild haunts often trumps seeing them in gardens, what did you take away from hiking among the trees?
It was an unforgettable experience, so much so I returned there in 2016 to visit them. It is like a prehistoric landscape of these giant pieces of living architecture. Seeing plants in the wild really helps the gardener understand the plants’ growing conditions and why plants behave like they do in gardens.
Another interest of yours is variegated plants, which can inspire polarizing opinions. At work, a variegated pokeweed (Phytolacca americana ‘Silberstein’) is either admired or vilified by visitors. However, I imagine that variegated plants work well in UK’s grey skies – being beacons of light. What variegated plants can you not be without?
I just couldn’t be without Pittosporum ‘Irene Patterson’ which has beautiful white, variegated leaves, or the exquisite Liriodendron tulipifera ‘Snow Bird’
What is a plant you desire to grow, but have not succeed despite repeated efforts?
Lapageria rosea. I love it, but need to admit defeat, it’s just impossible for me.
Royal Horticultural Society’s garden at Wisley has approximately 43,000 accessioned plants and 25,000 taxa. It lists the following groups as its special collections: Orchidaceae, Epimedium, Colchicum, Galanthus, Hosta, Rheum, Cyclamen, Narcissus, Daboecia, Erica, Calluna, Rhododendron, conifers, heathers, Mediterranean and Near East bulbs, and apples. Outside of conifers, are their specific plants you find close and personal at Wisley?
We have many fine trees at Wisley, and they add immense character to the gardens, each with its own personality. Some of these fine trees include Quercus robur f. fastigiata, Pinus coulteri, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Lutea’, Quercus rubra ‘Aurea’, and Eucalyptus dalrympleana. In total contrast, I really love the cacti and succulent collections in the glasshouse.
Within a short time, you have risen up from the ranks of trainee gardener to become the Curator at Wisley. You have held different positions that ranged from Glasshouse Supervisor, Team Leader to Deputy Curator. What did you take away from each position that informed your current role?
Always the same lessons, but with each step, a huge dollop more responsibility! Work hard, do your best, have a ‘glass half full approach’ and try to be fair and effective as opposed to always trying to be liked. Also, nothing is served to you on a plate, you have to make it your business to get things done, and all of the above has helped my journey to this role today.
I have not been to RHS Wisley since 2007, but it has been exciting to witness the development of garden areas (Tom Stuart Smith’s Bicentenary Glasshouse Borders Landscape, James Hitchmough’s steppe garden meadow areas, and Bowes-Lyon Rose Garden, designed by Robert Myers). What exciting projects should we see on the horizon under your tutelage?
We are currently working with Christopher Bradley Hole to completely redesign our entrance landscape and how you arrive at the garden. It’s a big undertaking, which will see the creation of a new shop and plant centre, and arrivals building. Within the gardens, we are creating a new Exotic Garden, due to open Summer 2017 and in 2018 we will be refreshing and redesigning the heather garden. However, generally, across all garden areas I want to build on, and improve attention to detail and plantsmanship.
Within the last few decades, the Royal Horticultural Society has expanded beyond its original flagship at Wisley to Harlow Carr, Hyde Hall, Rosemoor, and now Salford, securing its representation throughout Great Britain. How do you see your role as the Curator of RHS Garden Wisley in relation to other curators at these satellite gardens?
As part of the curators’ team of the RHS, we meet quarterly to view each other’s gardens, share best practice and learning and in recent days I have been spending time with the Curator of the new Salford garden, talking him through the way I am leading things at Wisley, to help him get off to a quick start.
Great Britain’s tenure in the European Union dismantled bureaucratic and economic barriers to trade, hence the more porous borders ushered in an influx of plants and horticultural goods from continental Europe. The downside of this economic free trade has been the introduction of pests and diseases, such Asian box caterpillar and oak processionary moth, not seen previously in British gardens. How do you address these challenges at RHS Wisley and elsewhere in you work?
We are very much here to share the best in gardening, and support the gardening public, and through our science work, work closely to look at control, elimination or management practices which we can then share with our members and the gardening public. For example, box tree caterpillar very quickly appeared at Wisley, and while our science team can advise on control, we have laid out a planting of Buxus alternatives which we are trialing as we are finding many of our members are having problems with both the caterpillar and box blight and are eager to learn what else they can plant.
Much has been lamented about the waning interest among millennials in gardens and ornamental plants. The nursery industry in US has struggled to capture the attention of young people at a time when food, fashion, and design sectors successfully have done so. Much interest in ornamental plants have been primarily houseplants for urban dwellers and specialty cut flowers from young people seeking to diversity from edibles in farms. What do you see the horticulture industry heading in UK?
I really hope (and the RHS is trying to promote this) that people will start to understand that gardening and greenspaces is good for your health and well being, and people actually benefit from having plants in their lives, and that gardening can be accessible to all, whether through houseplants, window boxes, or just a simple planter by the front door.
A number of trainee programs in the National Trust, RBG Kew, RBG Edinburgh, and Cambridge Botanic Garden are now well established, and it is positive to see the number of young faces enrolled in these programs. How is the trainee program at RHS Wisley structured?
We have two programmes, a two year programme of intense study, coupled with a rotation through all the garden teams. It is a fully accredited course which is still very ‘hands on’ and is a fantastic, comprehensive, offer. In addition, we have a two year apprenticeship programme, which has a focus around introducing people to professional gardening, and grasping the basics. Many of our apprentices go on to the student course to continue their development.
Can you single out any of your peers whose work at other gardens, public and private, excites you?
I have a friend called Robbie Blackhall Miles (www.fossilplants.co.uk) who is growing different Proteaceae which have been collected as seed at very high altitudes, and could have hardiness potential for the UK climate. Robbie is a great planstman, and it’s always fascinating talking to him and hearing about his work.
What gardens outside of RHS, private or public, you find yourself visiting again and again?
I’m a huge fan of the National Trust gardens, two in particular, Bodnant in North Wales, and Sheffield Park in Sussex. Both have magnificent trees and have a wonderful atmosphere.
On top of your busy career, you manage to garden outside of work in London and Yorkshire. I imagine that London’s unique microclimate enables you to grow plants usually cossetted in glasshouses, but Yorkshire is no banana belt, being northern and colder. What are the two gardens like?
The garden in Yorkshire is very tough – heavy and poorly draining clay soil, constantly windy conditions and near the coast, so salt laded winds. However, the clay soil can be improved and when cared for, we get great results once things establish. My tiny London is great fun, and is full of plants we’d usually consider as houseplants, like Adiantum, Clivia and Platycerium. However, the drawback is everything is full of pests year round, typically aphids and red spider mite!
What are you looking forward the most in the future?
I’m really looking forward to the coming years at the RHS while we deliver some projects at Wisley that will really help take it to a new level. The RHS is full of brilliant people and while each day can be incredibly busy, it’s always fun, productive and dynamic.
Thank you Matthew!
Please introduce yourself.
Peter Zale, Ph.D. Plant breeder, horticulturist, and botanical explorer.
The arts or horticulture?
For me, horticulture, but I certainly appreciate the undeniable relationship between the two. At the time I became interested in plants, I was also very interested in drawing and would render botanical illustrations of the plants that interested me most. This soon changed after I began growing and propagating plants in my first garden, and my interest in drawing and the arts diminished as I became enthralled with the plant science. I have been on that path ever since.
Some people attribute their love of gardening to their parents or grandparents, others their neighbors or teachers. How did you initially become interested in plants?
As a freshman in high school, I was assigned a leaf collection project in a freshmen biology class. We were to identify, collect, press, and create herbarium specimens of native and cultivated trees of the greater Cleveland, Ohio region. The project was meant to teach us the fundamentals of taxonomy. Certain tree species, such as Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha) and Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) were part of a large list of rare taxa considered difficult to find, and were worth extra credit if included in the final project. Finding these rare plants became something of an obsession for me, and my family supported my fledgling interest by taking me to places like Holden Arboretum and the numerous metroparks in the Cleveland area to search for these plants. In the end I found most, but not all, of them and for my final grade I received something like 300 points out a possible total of 100. Even after the project ended, I still wanted to find those that I couldn’t find during the course of the assignment, and started going to nurseries, buying them, and planting them. It wasn’t long before my Mother’s yard was filled with these plants and many others. In many ways I am still working on this project!
You spent 6 years managing a large commercial nursery before deciding to enroll in higher education again. It is always hard for people to leave the workforce and become students again (needless to say, plenty of career changers have gone through this journey). Although one never stops learning during their jobs, how did you become motivated to devote yourself to the scientific discipline of horticulture and botany?
I had wanted to go to graduate school after completing my Bachelor’s, but I think one of the problems with graduate school is that most students tend to enroll right after finishing a bachelor’s degree. For purely academic disciplines, this is the best thing to do, but horticulture is different, and academia is just one facet of a huge array of opportunities that exist. I also had a chance to be part of an industry experience that I could not pass up, so I put grad school on hold and went to work.
My industry experience started while I was still an undergraduate at Ohio State. My college roommate’s father had been in the restaurant industry most of his life and was very successful at it, but had always wanted to start his own nursery. When I was two years away from graduating, he sold the restaurants, followed his passion, and decided to start the nursery. My experience was totally unique. From its inception, I was involved in every phase of the operation. I helped choose the land where the nursery was started, was involved in the planning and development phase, and ultimately managed operations on the entire farm. This was a tremendous experience, but over time I started to plateau in my daily routine, and I knew that some of things I wanted to do with my life, such as plant breeding and exploration were just not going to happen if I had stayed there. So I left the nursery to explore other opportunities. I was immediately offered another, similar job at the largest production nursery in the Cincinnati area, but during my senior year at Ohio State I did a study abroad trip to England, and made a good connection with the faculty advisor of the trip. He happened to be a well respected member of the OSU horticulture department, and told me at that time that if I ever wanted to enroll in graduate school, that there would be a place for me in his program. So, six years after he told me this, I went back and had a conversation with him and the place was still there for me. So, after much deliberation and many sleepless nights, I went back to school. Transitioning back to the student lifestyle wasn’t easy at first, and I specifically remember taking my first exam in grad school and having a mini-panic attack. I remember thinking to myself “what the hell am I doing here? I’m too old for this!” Ultimately, going back to school was one of the best decisions of my life, but for those in a similar situation, my advice is this. Go back to school with a well-defined plan for your future. Don’t go back with the thought that your future will just work itself out because you are a grad student and will ultimately have an advanced degree. Scientific discipline is no substitution for passion and enthusiasm, but it does help temper and direct it.
Plant breeding can be carefully controlled or spontaneous – surprises still can happen despite biotechnological strides. To what extend does control ends and nature’s will begins in your work?
Personally, I think the breeding process begins with nature’s will, and becomes more controlled as advancements are made. I approach all of my breeding projects this way; collect as much raw germplasm as is possible, emphasizing wild collected material, and some key cultivars that might exhibit characteristics you are interested in, and go from there. This ultimately provides a broad template, but over time, the success and failures of certain germplasm accessions become evident and help shape different breeding avenues; this method does also provide a few surprises along the way! Not only does this method ensure that my breeding efforts remain novel and unduplicated by others, but it also allows me to refine the process in unique ways.
This seems to be the opposite of what many (or most!) commercial breeders do. They often begin with a limited genepool, and a ridiculously narrow range of genetic variation, and rely on advanced breeding techniques to generate new variants. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. Hence, you get 100’s of new introductions every year that are basically the same as their competitors.
For example, there are many people starting to breed Phlox right now, but basically all of them use plants that are available in the trade as the basis of their breeding programs. Before I even began hybridize phlox, I developed a large (probably the largest in the world) germplasm collection of Phlox by collecting new forms of widely cultivated species, and poorly known, rarely cultivated species. I also brought at least 3 species into cultivation. By doing this I was able to see a cross section of the total variation in the genus, and make informed decisions about where to begin the breeding process. It also allowed me to differentiate my efforts from those of everyone else breeding Phlox. Many of these hybrids are based on taxa that have never been cultivated to a large extent, but I would never have known this if I did not initially seek to understand the breadth of variation in the genus. Because these initial hybrids are immediately different from what is being done, we are starting to employ some of the cutting-edge breeding tools that can further advance breeding lines, and further contribute to a unique, adaptable, and reliable product.
Do you see or liken plant breeding to an artistic process? Certain colors and shapes must be preferable over others, and plant breeders do seem to develop a particular style.
I think it depends on the breeding objectives and personal interests of the breeder. In something like phlox, many people want to breed for resistance to disease. In this case breeding may be more pragmatic and defined by rigorous scientific objectives and protocols rather than flower color, plant form, or novelty. However, the artistic license may come later after the initial goals are met.
However I do think there is an artistic side to breeding, and that this is closely tied to passion for certain plant groups, especially for those that work in genera that are “off the radar” of the typical plant consumer. One genus of great interest to me, that exemplifies this, is Trillium. I personally find them to be among the most simplistically elegant and distinctive of all plants. Although they have tremendous importance as native plant species in the U.S., I also see tremendous opportunity for breeding and enhancement, especially given the diversity seen in wild species. Most people don’t realize the range of flower colors, leaf variegation patterns, and breadth of plant sizes and habits that exists here; new species are still being described from the southeastern U.S. I am not the only one to think this; In New Zealand, there is a small, dedicated group of Trillium growers and hybridizers that have begun to develop this variation and some of the results are astounding. There is even a small business there that breeds and sells Trillium stems for the cut-flower industry! So yes, there is definitely an artistic side to the breeding process, but like my breeding philosophy, it starts with the plants.
Your M.S. dissertation ‘Studies on the Optimization and Breeding Potential of Magnolia virginiana L.’ beautifully bridged the ecology and horticulture on one of our beautiful native North American flowering trees. How did the topic come about and what did the subsequent research discover?
When I talked with my advisor about coming back to graduate school, he mentioned numerous projects that I could work on. I knew I wanted to get involved in plant breeding and botanical exploration, and the only project that fit this category was a project involving the enhancement of Magnolia virginiana for increased landscape usage. This project was also new to his research repertoire, so it also gave me the opportunity to help develop a research project, rather than just plug-in to a more established, ongoing project.
The most important part of this research, in my opinion, was what I didn’t publish in my thesis! From 2007-2009 I designed and performed collection expeditions to study M. virginiana in the wild and obtain germplasm. During that time I was able to collect seeds from throughout the range of the species and develop one of the most comprehensive germplasm collections of this species in the world. This work taught me the value of collecting, not only for plant breeding, but also conservation. Most of the M. virginiana cultivars on the market are similar to one another, but when we started growing these wild collected accessions, I started to see horticulturally useful variation that could lead to real breakthroughs in the breeding and selection of this species, but also the uniqueness of certain populations that might one day garner conservation priority. Some of these unique collections have been passed on to the U.S. National Arboretum and have become part of their collection.
Native plants became the focus again when you tackled your doctoral dissertation ‘Germplasm Collection, Characterization, and Enhancement of Eastern Phlox Species’. It is always interesting to leaf through old horticultural books and find Phlox paniculata popularized by Europeans when other Phlox species have tremendous future in gardens. We are finally seeing selections of these species, such as Phlox stolonifera ‘Sherwood Purple’ and Phlox divaricata ‘Blue Moon’, established in gardens. Anything interesting in the pipeline from your doctoral research?
Yes! I have about 20 or so selections, of both species and hybrids that are being trialed for introduction. That may seem like a lot, but because I dealt primarily with species and germplasm accessions that had not been previously used for breeding, there is quite a bit of novelty among these selections. I have had numerous plant breeding companies look at these plants and they have all been blown away by the results. This is very exciting and I hope to continue with this work as I move into the next phase of my career.
I imagine that your work takes you to unique ecosystems. What are some of your favorite natural areas in North American to explore? You seem very partial towards the pine savannahs and bogs.
I designed and executed 16 different collection expeditions throughout the eastern U.S., and while I do love the pine savannahs and pitcher plant bogs of the coastal plain, there are a couple of other areas that I favor slightly more. First would be the state of Kentucky. I suppose that may sound strange, but Kentucky is a state of extraordinary physiographic diversity, this in turn translates into often overwhelming plant diversity within a small geographic region. While I did not cover the entire state, some of my best botanical discoveries happened there, primarily within the rugged hills of interior low plateaus of the central part of the state. This area has historically been poorly botanized, so the herbarium record is incomplete, so plant-hunting there is rife with new species and unknown variants of well-known species.
Another favorite was the shale barrens of the valley and ridge province on the borders of Virginia and West Virginia. This region in well-known for harboring rare, endemic plant species, but is also one of the most diverse plant species regions of the eastern U.S. Again, the extraordinary physiographic and geologic diversity in the area has contributed to this proliferation of species. This region also fulfills my love of being in the mountains, and is relatively remote, so it allows for a good escape from the city life in Columbus without having to drive too far.
Novelty drives the horticultural industry. Unfortunately the rush to fulfill the public’s demand for novelty has led to disappointing duds and caused older selections or simply good garden plants to fall out of favor. We risk discouraging the public from gardening because the ‘new plants’ fail not to horticultural ignorance, but simply their poor performance outside of the greenhouse. How long do you trial your results before they are deemed ready for introduction?
I think any new introduction should be trialed for at least three years before introduction. More importantly, the trials should be held in a diversity of different climates, environments, and garden conditions to accurately gage the overall adaptability of a particular selection. Of course, by doing this, someone else might usurp your efforts, but I feel like what I’ve developed is unique enough to withstand the time needed for proper trials. I think it is also important to determine the ultimate market. For example, the Phlox introductions are likely to be on the mass-market, but a special form of a Trillium may just be distributed to plant collectors interested in amassing unique forms of a particular genus or species.
Some people might argue that the search for novelty does not need to involve exotic destinations overseas when our backyards can still provide interesting germplasm. For example, in an effort to safeguard its natural heritage, New Zealand has imposed strict legislation on importing exotic species, if not introducing stringent quarantine requirements, causing plant breeders there to lament the ‘tighter lids’. Although your graduate research tackles native species in North America, exotic species overseas still draw your attention. What is your philosophy on developing a balance between protecting our natural biodiversity against introduced pests and allowing for plants of possible economic significance to be imported?
There are two parts to this. First, I have tried to focus in areas where there has been little previous collection in climates quite different from my own in central Ohio, and the majority of the eastern U.S. Most of what I have seen and collected there is not going to be hardy here, but might have value in to the industry when marketed as an annual or container crop etc. However, I have sent collections from these places to a few select friends in the Pacific Northwest, where many might be hardy. In this case, I collaborate with knowledgeable plant people that have a sense for what might be a good garden plant, and what could potentially be an invasive species. Serious plant people are uniquely attune to the dangers of invasive species, and just as much as I don’t want to be responsible for introducing a potential problem plant, they don’t want to be growing them either.
My overseas collecting efforts have been very targeted, and I have purposely avoided generalist collecting which might result in the introduction of a potentially invasive species. In Vietnam I specifically wanted to find the recently described Lilium eupetes, an epiphytic lily closely related to the rare Lilium arboricola, which was my target in Myanmar. These are rare plants with exacting cultural requirements that are not likely to be great garden plants, but they are botanically interesting and make good stories for botanical gardens or private growers that might succeed with them. Obviously these areas are rich in genera that have invasive potential such as Euonymus, Berberis, Lonicera, etc. While these plants are interesting and ornamental, I do not collect them because of their invasive potential. Other genera such as Quercus, are also quite common in these areas and have broad appeal, and although there is no previously described invasive potential, the opportunity for importing unknown pathogens is huge. The USDA still allows for the importation of acorns with some special treatments, but even with such precautions I think the risk is greater than the reward. As I watch all of the ash trees in Ohio die off, I cant help but think what would happen if the oaks were to become infected or afflicted by a new disease or insect pest. So as tempting as it is, I do not collected Quercus when abroad, and choose instead to focus on collecting and promoting our native species.
If the pine savannahs and bogs of Southeast US exposed an interesting flora for you in our backyard, the lure to traverse across oceans for different plant life was still irresistible. How did your overseas expeditions fit with your graduate research?
Lilium was one of the priority genera for the OSU/USDA Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center where I did my PhD work. Even though I did not work on Lilium for my dissertation research, it is a genus I am personally interested in, and I often collected native species when I was in the field collecting Phlox. As I developed these projects and a comprehensive native Lilium collection, they culminated in presentations and publications. A British friend suggested that I travel to Vietnam to study the recently described L. eupetes in the wild. Even better was the fact that he offered to pay for it! So off I went. Not only did I find L. eupetes, I found more of it than had ever been found previously. Riding this momentum, I wrote a grant to the North American Lily Society and they funded an expedition to Myanmar the next year. While these experiences didn’t directly benefit my dissertation work, they complimented my domestic plant hunting experiences and have helped me gain greater perspective in plant collecting and diversity. Understanding plant diversity is like understanding cooking; you need to travel and experience different climates and ecosystems to gain a complete appreciation of the greater picture.
Due to its political repression and hermit reputation, Burma (Myanmar) is relatively unexplored for its biodiversity awaiting to be tapped and catalogued before modernization sweeps into the country. Earlier plant explorers Frank Kingdon Ward and Richard Schultes did manage to document some of the botanical riches there, and modern plant explorer Dan Hinkley has made a few forays there, giving us horticulturists a glimpse of its floral potential. Of the world’s bio hotspots, you chose to travel to Burma. What led to that choice?
Myanmar was not a place I had ever really thought of going to until I started to focus more on Lilium. Truth be told, I had never even thought of traveling to Myanmar, but when I returned from Vietnam in 2013, I was hungry for more international exploration. My experience gave me some “street cred” among the world’s comparatively few plant collectors and I was invited by a contingent of British plant explorers to explore the region. In a way the opportunity just kind of fell into my lap, but it gave me the opportunity to search for the long lost Lilium arboricola, so I went.
The cloud and subtropical forests must yield endless plants, such as gingers. orchids, magnolias, and bladderworts. What are some of the promising plants you saw in Myanmar?
One of the most beautiful and promising plants encountered was an impatiens, tentatively identified as Impatiens aff. stenantha. Everyone who sees the photos wants it!
Another group of plants I think is worth more interest from horticulturists are the vining gentians in the sister genera Tripterospermum and Crawfurdia. On both of my trips to Southeast Asia, I have seen them in flower and fruit at all elevations and always think, “why aren’t these grown in gardens more than they are?
I went to Myanmar with the specific goal of finding the long lost Lilium arboricola. This epiphytic lily was originally found by Kingdon-Ward and described by Stearn. It flowered once in cultivation in 1962, promptly died, and has not been seen again since that time. Even before I left, I was doubtful about finding it, as it was the proverbial needle in a haystack. But, while hiking a narrow ridge through a pocket of cloud forest, I stopped to rest, and there it was. Without a doubt it was one of the finest botanical moments of my life.
There are so many others. How much space do you have?!
It is easy to glamorize plant hunting afar – the threats of landslides, unfriendly natives, inclement weather, and a subsistence diet on stale biscuits or unrecognizable cuisine never seem to loom largely in the public’s conscious when murmurs of admiration and envy are elicited from audience members at seeing the pics of beautiful landscapes or plants. Any harrowing experiences or near-misses in your plant hunting exploits?
I am happy to report that I have not had any near misses while abroad, although the geographic isolation and rugged topography in these regions certainly sets the stage for it.
The strangest and most nerve-wracking experience I have encountered was in northwest Arkansas of all places. My traveling companion and I were following a gravel road and stopped briefly to admire one of the many turquoise-colored, spring fed rivers in the region when out of nowhere, an unmarked police vehicle drove up, slammed on its brakes, and came to a sliding stop behind our vehicle. Two plain-clothed police officers got out of the vehicle and immediately started harassing us about our intentions and repeatedly asked us if we were planning to drink beer and kayak down the river. When we started to explain the reason for our trip and started talking about plants they became immediately disinterested and eventually left us alone. We didn’t even have kayaks with us and I wondered what prompted their investigation. Then I remembered the two large coolers in the backseat of the car! They probably thought they were filled with beer, but much to their dismay they were only filled with the plant germplasm we had collected. They had thought they were going to make a big bust, and were immediately disappointed when they realized we had a legitimate reason for the being where we were. Needless to say, we were mortified after the experience, but glad that it did not proceed any further.
Imagined that you’ve been shipwrecked, but permitted to select one plant to breed. What is your desert island plant?
How about one genus? Lilium. It has extraordinary diversity within and between species. I don’t want to imagine being confined to a single species! This probably sounds rather conventional, but many lily species are rarely cultivated, and there exists such a great amount of diversity within and between species. There is enough room for experimentation for several lifetimes, even though there has already been a tremendous volume of work in the genus.
I always wonder what kind of garden plant breeders have. Is it a garden full of rare plants? Or gardening at home is restricted to vegetables and edibles? What kind of garden do you tend at home?
I am steadfastly dedicated to growing plant species of known provenance, and plant collecting is one of my life’s passions. Private gardens can serve as a tool for plant conservation, especially when there is a well-executed plan for collection, propagation, and dissemination. Currently, I cultivate a collection of about 2000 taxa, and most of these are my own collections or the collections of some of my plant hunter friends. When I come home at night, I don’t take off my “horticulturist hat” and switch to a different hobby, rather I switch genera! This collection also serves some of my personal plant breeding interests and endeavors.
Your career certainly puts you in touch with the international community of gardens and plantspeople. What gardens, private and public, have inspired you? Individuals?
As previously mentioned I did a study abroad trip to England for my last semester as an undergrad. During this time we visited many gardens, public and private, but two stand out in my memory and I still think about them with frequency. First is the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh (RBGE) in Scotland. This place was an epiphany for me. With over 50,000 taxa in cultivation there, I couldn’t help but study every nook and cranny of the gardens. In fact, after the study abroad had ended, I was traveling with friends on the continent, but kept thinking about RBGE. So I left my friends and went back to Scotland and studied the garden for the few final days of my trip.
Also, while there I had the opportunity to visit a small public garden in Lake District called Holehird Gardens. This may be my all-time favorite garden. Nestled into a mountainside, there grew many of the plants I could only dream about in the Midwest: flowering Meconopsis, Pleione, Primula, etc. I hope to go back there someday.
I should also mention the gardens at Heronswood. I made five pilgrimages there in the early 2000’s over different seasons. I was amazed at how much the garden changed from season to season and the phenomenal complexity of the plantings. I’m glad to hear that it is open to visitors again as it sure to influence generations of horticulturists to come.
Four individuals that have vastly inspired my career are Jim Archibald, Edgar T. Wherry, Mary Gibson Henry, and my friend Dr. Warren Stoutamire. I will never forget the first Archibald seed list I ever received. It was a revelation. Although I had been earlier influenced by Dan Hinkley’s collecting forays into southeast Asia, Jim Archibald’s work was concentrated primarily in eastern Turkey and Iran. Collecting in those regions had never crossed my mind and the seed lists opened up the flora of an entire region to me. Traveling to and collecting in Iran is still one of my life goals.
Anyone who has studied Phlox knows the name Edgar Wherry is synonymous with the genus. What I admire most about him is his dedication to botanical clarity, persistence as an author, and indefatigable disposition. He mortgaged his life to study Phlox and wrote down seemingly every thought he encountered. He was also a gardener, which seems rare among modern day botanists and evolutionary biologists.
In my opinion, Mary Gibson Henry is one of the most under-looked and underrated American botanists. Despite her privileged life, she relished intensive fieldwork, described new species, and endeavored to create a world-class garden at the Henry foundation. She found and described one of my all-time favorite plants, the mythical Lilium iridollae – the pot-of-gold lily. I think part of the reason I cherish this species so much is because of the passionate way she wrote about it in her original description of the species.
Lastly, my friend and mentor Dr. Warren Stoutamire. In many ways I have modeled my own career and interests after him. He was among the first to propagate native orchid species from seed, tended a personal greenhouse full of botanical rarities from around the world, and was a professor at University of Akron. Some of my most treasured interactions with other human beings were with him at his home and greenhouse.
What messages or goals do you aim to project through your work? Some plant breeders aim for enhancing or improving the efficiency of the food supply, others beauty, and few the twin joys of monetary and posthumous gains. I remember reading about plant breeders and chefs who collaborated to identify and improve flavors and other traits that make vegetables more delicious.
I want to be known as an innovator in the fields of plant breeding and botanical exploration. In ornamental plant breeding, it seems like good good ideas come along relatively rarely, but are rapidly adopted by everyone out there and beat to death. Look at genera like Heuchera and Echinacea. The people that initiated breeding in these genera are true innovators, but subsequent efforts are by others that have just jumped on the bandwagon and essentially repeated the same thing over and again. This is exactly what I want to avoid.
Plant collection is vital to plant breeding and provides a means for botanical gardens to contribute to conservation and differentiate themselves. In my opinion it is more important than ever, and while it may seem like every place on earth has been visited by humans, there still remains a plethora of places where plant hunting has been limited. This was a big part of the reason I went to Myanmar. I hope to continue with this and visit some of the world’s remaining botanical treasure troves.
Any advice for those interested in diving deeper into plant breeding as a career?
It’s harder and harder to find good training in ornamental plant breeding in academia. I feel exceedingly lucky to have had training in ornamental horticulture. Training in vegetable or crops breeding can provide a solid background, but because of the laboratory intensive nature of those breeding programs, there exists a disconnect between them and traditional breeding techniques. Many of the breeders coming out of these programs have more in common with molecular biologists than traditional plant breeders. So if you want good training, my suggestion would be to seek out the right academic institution and try to get experience through internships at breeding companies and botanic gardens.
Follow your intuition and be individualistic. There are too many people working in ornamental plant breeding that are repeating what has already been done. Don’t be afraid to promote yourself. This is a competitive field, just because you might produce fantastic plants, that doesn’t mean they will make it big or your accomplishments will be recognized.
Don’t be afraid to make crosses when you have a good idea and the plants to make it happen. It’s easy to romanticize about using sophisticated techniques like embryo rescue or mutation breeding, but basic principles of plant breeding are still responsible for some of the best new plants out there.
Cheers to those interested future plant breeders!
Thank you Peter! Check out his blog at http://www.botanicazales.com
Interview conducted by Eric Hsu
Photography by Matt Lobdell
Please introduce yourself
Matt Lobdell, Head of Collections and Curator, The Morton Arboretum
The arts or horticulture?
I appreciate the arts, but I’d have to say horticulture!
How did you become fascinated with plants?
My fascination with plants grew as I became more aware of their diversity. Through high school and my early undergraduate years I was generally aware of the differences between oaks, maples, and other trees, but my interest was really piqued when I took an ecology course during my sophomore year that involved a tree survey as a final project. I was fascinated to learn that there could be as many as 20 distinct tree species in a small transect and became curious about the characteristics used to diagnose one from another. This survey led me to take an internship at the Polly Hill Arboretum in Martha’s Vineyard, where I would learn even more about tree diversity.
Martha’s Vineyard is better known as the affluent summer playground, but it has a year-round resident community comfortable with island life. I imagine that growing up on the island enabled you to partake recreational activities outdoors. Can you single out natural areas that were impressionable?
I remember the area around my parents’ house, which was only about a half mile away from the Manuel F. Correllus State Forest. When exploring the area, I encountered both oak trees and seemingly impenetrable bear oak thickets, as well as the occasional sassafras, pitch pine, or beetlebung (our regional common name for Nyssa sylvatica). I found the ecosystems at some of the beaches interesting, particularly at Lambert’s Cove Beach where I’d often pick something I called “beach plum”, but would later realize was just Rosa rugosa. At least I got the family right.
Margaret Mead the distinguished anthropologist once remarked: “Anthropology demands the open-mindedness with which one must look and listen, record in astonishment and wonder that which one would not have been able to guess.” How did you find your anthropology degree applicable to your methodology towards plants?
What I found most rewarding about studying anthropology was the integrated approach the field takes to studying and understanding a topic. As a Curator, I try to also take an integrated approach to studying and learning about plants. I strive to both understand what make a plant significant from a botanical perspective, as well as understand its historical utilization in order to assist with the interpretation of its significance to the visitor.
Eventually your minor in environmental studies influenced you to pursue opportunities to intern in public gardens. Polly Hill Arboretum was the first public garden where you interned in 2005 as its garden intern and 2008 as its first collection management intern. What were several invaluable skills at Polly Hill you took away?
During my initial internship there I learned some basic horticulture and grounds management skills which I was able to build upon in later positions. As a collections management intern I gained exposure to plant records, accessioning, evaluating plants within the collections, and some other basic skills that would cement my decision to pursue a career as a curator.
Your experience in public arboreta makes it clear that woody plants are your forte. What is it about woody plants that you find appealing? Their sense of permanence?
I think that definitely has something to do with it! However, I think the size of trees in particular also provides shade, stability, and other services that allow one to interact with it in a manner they wouldn’t necessarily be able to do with other types of plants.
For two years you had worked as a horticulturist for the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway Conservancy which transverses Chinatown, Financial District, Waterfront, and North End neighborhoods in Boston.This position is more community-oriented and amenity-centered rather than the collection- and scientific-focused of your current job. What lessons did you take away from being a public parks horticulturist that other experiences did not provide?
The Greenway was the only position I’ve had that put me in a true urban area, so it was interesting to learn just how many challenges trees have to face when growing in those conditions, and truly impressive that some are able to grow there at all.
Your masters dissertation at University of Delaware examined Styrax in cultivation. How did Styrax, as opposed to other woody genera, come to become the focus of your research?
I was looking for a group of ornamental woody plants that might benefit from a general survey-type study, and was looking for something that hadn’t already been overdone. My advisor, John Frett, suggested either Itea or Styrax and I chose the latter. We were both surprised to learn the genus had approximately 130 described species, so we chose to focus on those with some history of cultivation in order to keep the study manageable.
Styrax japonicus and S. obassia are commonly represented in cultivation. What other members of the genus would you wish to see more grown in gardens?
Styrax japonicus and S. obassia are probably the most cold hardy and suitable for a variety of landscape conditions. I’m also partial to Styrax americanus, a southeastern US native. It’s a shrubbier species with pale green leaves and though the flowers are small, they have an interesting reflexed form. Styrax hemsleyanus is also a favorite, which is similar to S. obassia but most of them I’ve seen have slightly smaller leaves with prominent venation which can look interesting while vegetative.
You currently work as The Morton Arboretum’s head of collections and curator, which brings tremendous responsibilities for a 1,700-acre arboretum. What does your daily day look like?
I’ve found it to be a bit different each day! I’ve been involved with everything from selecting plants for the collections, planning wild collecting trips, applying for funding to assist with infrastructure improvements, and assisting with development of BRAHMS, a plant records database. I’ve never found there to be a shortage of projects to work on, but do try to carve out a bit of time each week to walk the grounds and check on the performance of the plant collections.
The Morton Arboretum is one of the few arboreta that actively engages in scientific education and research without the appending university affiliation (i.e. Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Morris Arboretum of U Penn, University of Washington Botanic Garden). How does your role/relationship fit with the science and conservation section, such as the ArbNet, the Center for Tree Science, and the Chicago Region Trees Initiative?
I remain available to share my knowledge of the collections with our science and conservation staff, and particularly encourage them to carry out research within our collections when possible, assisting with logistics as necessary.
The Morton Arboretum’s living collection contains approximately over 200,000 living plants which represent 3,925 taxa. The collection is arranged in three groups: geographic, taxonomic, and special habitats. Do you have specific areas in these groups you find yourself revisiting?
The Magnolia and Oak collections are personal favorites as they are groups of my interest. I also like to explore our Plants of China collection which boasts a diverse assemblage of material due to our history of collaborating with NACPEC (North America-China Plant Collecting Exploration Consortium).
If you were to take a friend or a family member around Morton Arboretum, what would be some of the outstanding trees you would take care to point out?
All depends on the time of year! However I would make sure they saw some of the large Acer miyabei on the Arboretum’s west side, as well as the Abies nordmanniana in the Central and Western Asia collection.
Most people see the Midwest as having prairies, not woodlands, and may be surprised to encounter the Morton Arboretum’s trees. What are the natural woodlands in Illinois that people can visit?
The eastern US forest extends into the Chicago region, though prairies become much more common as one travels west. Kankakee River State Park and Starved Rock State park are two must-visit sites in the area. Of course The Morton Arboretum also has an extensive restored woodland which is a must see as well.
Within two years of your job, you participated in your first overseas plant hunting expedition as part of the Plant Collecting Collaborative (PCC), Given its geographical position between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea and its two mountain ranges (Greater and Lesser Caucasus), Georgia has a floristic diversity that is beguiling for botanists and horticulturists alike. It is relatively underrepresented where plants are concerned in US plant collections, and has tremendous scope for woody plants like Crataegus pentagyna, Tilia cordata, and Fagus orientalis. What were some of the highlights in the trip?
Fagus orientalis, as you mentioned, is a spectacular tree and important component of the forests of the Caucasus. We were also able to collect from some of their oaks, including Quercus macranthera and Quercus hartwissiana, as well as two maple species I hadn’t heard about until I started looking into the flora of the region in detail: Acer ibericum and Acer velutinum. Overall, it was a fascinating country to visit and I feel fortunate to have been able to learn about their flora from the experts at the Georgian Institute of Botany who joined us for the expedition.
The Caucasus region is again the destination this year as planning is underway for Azerbaijan, one of Georgia’s neighbors. What would be the objectives of this expedition that would be different from those achieved in Georgia?
My main objective in Azerbaijan would be to collect some of their endemic taxa, particularly those such as Acer hyrcanum and Parrotia persica found in the Hyrcanian forest. This would allow a different portion of the flora of the Caucasus to be collected separate from that in Georgia.
What is your desert island plant?
If I could choose just one it would be Magnolia macrophylla. I often accuse it of being the tree that got me into horticulture. Once I saw the size of the leaves and flowers and learned it was something that could be grown outdoors in New England, I found myself really curious about plant diversity and wanting to learn more about trees.
Do you have advice for those aspiring for a career in public horticulture, especially in the curation and collection-based areas?
I found it helpful to work at a variety of botanical gardens in order to learn both a diverse assemblage of plants, as well as several different ways to approach curation and plant records techniques. I’d also encourage those to seek out someone with a job that sounds interesting to them and ask them how they got to where they are. I’ve found most people are generous with their time and more than willing to share their experiences.
Thank you for the interview, Matt!
by Eric Hsu
What does a curator do in a garden? It is a common question visitors ask during meet and greet sessions.
In an art museum, a curator organizes exhibitions, writes educational materials, and oversees restoration. He or she becomes the spokesperson for the museum’s work as much as the director or CEO does. However, overseeing the management and direction of an art collection is not different from that of a plant collection. Depending on the institution’s mission, a curator may be focused on the aesthetics of plants, i.e. designed for color or texture, – after all it is the beauty after edible use that are the plants’ draw cards.
It may be implausible to point out the similarities because whereas art or artifacts are inanimate objects, plants are ever dynamic living organisms whose success or demise cannot be predicted. As custodians of plant collections, curators must call upon themselves and the talents of horticulturists to secure the survival and conservation of plants. They may lead plant hunting expeditions to expand the extant germplasm or uncover exciting ornamental plants. Their drive for conservation and acquisition is the same in art museums where collections simply cannot be ossified for preservation, but must be open or exchanged for interpretation. Plants, like artwork, are a reminder of our cultural heritage – when Ben Stormes, the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden’s Curator of the North American Collections heads into the Cascade Mountains, he is returning with new ideas to express the importance of the forest ecosystems to the public. Or when Matthew Pottage, Curator of RHS Wisley, sets out to educate the public about alternatives to boxwood, which is badly decimated from box caterpillar or box blight. Peter Zale, Curator of Plants and Plant Breeder, is building up Longwood Gardens’ boxwood germplasm as insurance. As the Head of Plant Collections, Matt Lobdell has access to different scientific and public education initiatives at the Morton Arboretum, Illinois.
The seedheads of Dietes grandiflora (South African iris relative commonly known as fortnight lily) break up the round contours of the protea flowers and Corymbia ficifolia capsules.
by Eric Hsu
While South America claims the distinction for the center of diversity for the amaryllis family, South Africa holds it own with 18 genera and approximately 240 species. Ever since the Europeans began navigating new oceanic trading routes in search of new colonies, the ornamental appeal of the South African Amaryllidaceae has been well known to gardeners. Foremost in advancing the study of the Amaryllidaceae was the British horticulturist, botanist, and artist William Herbert who specialized in these bulbs at his Spofforth, Yorkshire home. Herbert undertook the ambitious project of delineating and describing all the known members of the Amaryllidaceae in a work that remains the only publication on the family. Subsequent work from other botanists and horticulturists examined specific genera like Cyrtanthus, Nerine, and Haemanthus – the advent of molecular work has elucidated relationships especially for a family that has witnessed intense speciation. Only in 1999 did a general picture emerged when Piet Vorster researched and published the geographical distribution and concentration of the South African Amarylliadaceae. The same publication African Plants: Biodiversity, Taxonomy and Uses included a paper on growth and flowering from Deirdre Snjiman. Now the Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa (Kew Publishing, 2016) has come to step into the gap that brought different information previously scattered in disparate sources.
The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa is certainly a magnum opus on Southern Hemisphere geophytes that spans 45 years, 28 of which were devoted to botanical illustrations by Barbara Jeppe. Jeppe’s daughter Leigh Voigt continued the work for the next 16 years. Graham Duncan is highly qualified to pen this monograph as he has been the Curator of the Indigenous bulb collection at the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. He has the uncommon dual talent of being a botanist and horticulturist, which allows him to understand the geophytes thoroughly. If his prior monograph The Genus Lachenalia (Kew Publishing, 2012) is a good indication, then there are no doubts about the quality of Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa (Kew Publishing, 2016). Topping 710 pages, the book weighs 1.7 pounds (0.77 kg), making it impractical to carry in the field. However, the production justifies its price of US $100, being that the paper is thick and smooth, a purple ribbon bookmark is bound to the spine, and color appears faithful to the illustrated plants.
Gardeners will already recognize Amaryllis, Clivia, Crinum, and Nerine amidst the less familiar Apodolirion, Gethyllis, and Stumaria. In mild climates, Amaryllis belladonna has become naturalized, flowering leafless in autumn. However, even within the familiar garden genera are relatively unknown or less common species. Few know the rarer and less easily cultivated Amaryllis paradiscola, which is restricted to one population in the Richtersveld National Park. Clivia miniata is the most horticulturally significant representative, yet other species C. caulescens, C. gardenii, C. mirabilis, and C. nobilis possess the same resilient qualities that make them good houseplants. Graham Duncan calls Crinum acaule ‘a most beautiful species wit large, showy flowers and a strong sweet fragrance’, but it has yet reached the popularity of C. bulbispermum or C. moorei. Nerine sarniensis better known as Guernsey lily now sparkle conservatories and greenhouses with their jewel-like flowers. It sits squarely among 30 or so taxa that are found in South Africa.
The book is peppered with color photographs depicting plants in the wild, such as the one of Cyrtanthus verntricosus after fire. Each color botanical illustration accompanies each species, showing the diagnostic characteristics of the infloresence, individual flower, foliage, seeds, and the bulb. Because leaf development does not always synchronize with flowering, Jeepe and Viogt would examine the specimens over the course of a year. It is a welcome change to defer to the time-honored tradition of using botanical illustrations when color photography has become the norm in monographs nowadays. Information is organized under the following subheadings: description, synonyms, etymology, flowering period, brief history, distinguishing features and affinities, distribution, habitat and life cycle, conservation status, and cultivation.
The alphabetical organization of the genera rather than a phylogenetic one makes the book easy to reference for specific species. However, the minor oversight is the placement of the keys in the back (pages 660-677) rather than the front before the genus and species treatment. It is a departure from other monographs or floras that have keys prefacing the descriptions. Following the keys are sections outlining cultivation of these amaryllids, which can be confusing for a novice grower. Duncan is careful to differentiate the amaryllids in winter rainfall and summer rainfall regions because their cultivation requirements are dissimilar. The inclusion of cultivation guidelines for those gardeners in the Northern Hemisphere is welcome as well. Asexual and sexual propagation is both covered, with seed for the former and the offsets and twin scaling for the latter. Every geophyte have their insectivorous nemesis, and the lily borer (Brithys crini) feeds voraciously on the foliage before moving downwards into the bulb. However, with due vigilance, the borer larvae can be controlled mechanically or with a carbyl-based insecticide. Duncan makes it clear that viral disease and bacterial soft rot can do undue damage and death in amaryllids. A glossary and an index of plant names (including synonyms) is included in the last couple pages.
Graham Duncan must be applauded on the herculean task of writing such a thorough and systematic treatment of the Southern African Amaryllidaceae. It would be a disservice not to honor the mother-daughter team Barbara Jeppe and Leigh Voigt whose unfailing commitment and patience in illustrating these geophytes inspired the book in the first place. The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa will continues confidently in the tradition of botanical references that document the Cape Flora.
by Eric Hsu
One outcome of the European colonization in South Africa was the establishment of botanic gardens and the affiliated research centers. Today Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden can trace its founding back to 1913 when a British expatriate Henry Harold Pearson, who had moved down in 1903 to chair the botany department at South African College (University of Cape Town), agreed to serve as its first director in spite of difficult beginnings. Botanists wasted no time in documenting the floral biodiversity of South Africa by publishing their finds and preserving specimens in herbaria like the Compton Herbarium. Books were published as people clamored to learn more about the exotic flora, some of which was then dispersed to other parts of the world (with some disastrous ecological consequences). These books followed the European tradition of commissioning skilled botanical illustrators to produce watercolor paintings and having botanists prepare the scientific descriptions.
A treasured plant monograph in my library is The Genus Dierama by O.M. Hilliard and B.L. Burtt, which I was fortunate to purchase from the RHS Wisley Bookshop despite being out of print! The watercolor renderings and pencil sketches of these photogenic iris relatives by Auriol Batten are among the best in the South African botanical illustration. Dierama, better known as Venus’s fishing rods, are best in mild maritime climates, such those of Ireland, northern California, and United Kingdom. They were in full glory when I interned in plant records at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and some were actually type plants from which Hilliard and Burtt described new species. Another plant monograph The Proteas of Southern Africa by John Rourke follows the same format with illustrations by Fay Anderson. I am often reminded of my days in Australia when I would buy cut protea flowers for floral arrangements. A local grower would arrive at the weekend market with buckets of different proteas to sell, and sometimes the temptation was too much to leave without them. Months later, I found myself transplanting Protea cynaroides, rightly called the king protea for its majestic large flowers, in a friend’s garden.
Kniphofias always drew snickers from my non-gardening friends who knew them as red hot pokers for they saw bawdry humor instead. However, I wasn’t always appreciative of what these South African natives had to offer. I first knew kniphofias as tritoma when I purchased plants from the bargain table, and watched them thrive in my modest garden plot. Unfortunately their lanky foliage always looked unkempt and became a liability as the flowers faded quickly in summer heat. Frustrated one day, I pulled out the plants to create space for more desirable perennials. Christopher Whitehouse’s horticultural monograph on Kniphofia, the first to be published in the RHS’s five year long horticultural taxonomy project, may change my perception for the genus. Christopher was the Keeper of Royal Horticultural Society Herbarium when he was one of my advisors on my M.S. project on putative Erica hybrids. I was aware of his life long affection for South Africa flora especially when he had worked on his doctorate on Cape roses (Cliffortia) in Cape Town. The Royal Horticultural Society Botany Department would not have found a more qualified person to study and publish the Kniphofia monograph, and the last authoritative reference was in the botanical journal Bothalia. Sorting out the species is already a monumental task, and adding the hybrids and various cultivars turns into a slippery path because Kniphofia interbreeds easily.
Whitehouse was able to draw from the RHS Plant Trial of kniphofias to sort out nomenclatural issues and confusion in the trade; the results compiled with the help of the RHS Herbaceous Plant Committee and RHS Botany Department resolved some contention over cultivars. He has had the good fortune and perspicuity to conduct field studies of the genus in the wild. Bringing together the cultivated plant nomenclature and field studies gave a better understanding of the polymorphic genus.
Throughout the book, one will find useful charts that categorize information, like the chronology of naming for various Kniphofia species, introduction of cultivars especially those raised by Maximilian Leichtlin, or the endemic species by geographic region. Gardeners will find the flowering period of the species and the color grouping of cultivars indispensable for planning their plantings.Most books on specific genera lack such charts that help readers make good decisions about plant selection.
The chapter on relatives helps elucidate the relationship of Kniphofia to similarly confused genera (i.e. Aloe and Bulbinella) in the same family Asphodelaceae. Whitehouse points out that traits separate Aloe from Kniphofia in the former’s succulent nature, absent keel in leaves, and upward orientation of the floral pedicels (stalks connecting the flowers to main stem). However, Aloe and Kniphofia show ecological convergence in their tubular flowers, which are adapted for pollination by sun birds, although competition is avoided by different flowering seasons (Aloe dominantly winter). An interesting note is that kniphofias with V-shaped leaves are less likely to flop than those with less pronounced V-shaped ones. It is a diagnostic feature worth remembering for anyone who has had the unpleasant task of cleaning slimy, cold damaged leaves in spring. One thing that surprised me was the medicinal use of Kniphofia for female ailments, although their use for twine and threaded talisman necklaces seem expected.
Cultivation is not shortchanged here as it would be in other monographs. Readers need to be aware that the perspective is that of UK rather than other regions which would experience either warmer summers or colder winters. Waterlogged soil during winter is usually the chief demise of kniphofias in northern climates, hence drainage is usually recommended. However, some moisture is needed if plants are to grow and produce good flowering.
The remaining 2/3 of the book is given over to species and cultivars. Whitehouse has mercifully pared down the diagnostic descriptions in floras to those important for identifying the species in an accessible manner. Each species is prefaced by color photographs that depict the flowerhead, the plant in full habit, and the habitat. Additional comments are reserved below the bullet list of traits. Whitehouse follows with the chapter on cultivars. Organized by color, cultivars are condensed with short descriptions with the breeder, date of introduction, and dimensions. A checklist of epithets helps with cross-referencing correct names and their earliest discovered sources. With several hundred varieties in existence, a gardener can find sorting out the names a time consuming ordeal. The checklist does much to straighten out the nomenclature affair.
Conclusions drawn in Kniphofia are not necessarily firm. A nurseryman friend who breeds kniphofias contends that Kniphofia thomsonii var. thomsonii ‘Stern’s Trip’ is not sterile, although it is not overly fertile. He has grown a few plants from its seed, despite the progeny not having any appreciable ornamental value. Another nurseryman has likewise raised seedlings, one of which is currently evaluated for its ornamental quality. However, no disagreement will and should dissuade gardeners from seeking out Kniphofia as a reference. It is rare for books to bridge the gap between horticulture and botany.
“At every step a different plant appeared; and it is not an exaggerated description if it should be compared to a botanical garden, neglected to grow in a state of Nature; so great was the variety everywhere.” ~ William Burchell
by Eric Hsu
All images are the courtesy and copyright of Isabel and Julian Bannerman.
Garden designers are like fashion designers in that they memorialize their work through books. Their books are either modest affairs or expensive productions. The former can become deserving classics for their information dispensed with wit and poetry. The latter can lapse into the clichéd interior design format – large two-page photographic spreads, minimal or no text, and glossary to matt paper. A brief introduction may preface the photography. They have their sole purpose of mindless dreaming and fantasies of what money or time can achieve. Isabel and Julian Bannerman’s Landscape of Dreams (Pimpernel Press 2016) toes these two categories of being informative and visually slick.
In a NY Times T Magazine profile of their Cornish garden, Tim Richardson describes the husband and wife team as to-go ’90s landscape designers for high profile clients that included the Prince of Wales (at Highgrove), Lord Rothschild (Waddesdon Manor), John Paul Getty Jr. (Wormsley) and the Marquess of Cholmondeley (Houghton Hall). Their projects veer heavily towards grandiose ones rather than the townhouse and urban gardens other designers take on. Their gardens have the bold armature of wooden or stone structures embellished with anthers, finials, and carvings that are dramatic peers to their plantings. Grasses are seldom used as they are in contemporary gardens, but roses, aquilegias, tulips and topiary, all archetypal elements of classic country gardens, are liberally deployed. As prescriptive as this look may seem, the Bannermans have developed a knack for blurring the lines, muffling out the formality with self sowers, perennials that flop decadently over the hedges, and curvaceous topiary forms. They admitted this feat a slippery one: “Trying to make it look as if gardening is not happening particularly is a very tricky deception, full of contradiction since it is actually tuned up and put on steroids.”
A foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales opens the book with an enthusiastic acknowledgment of the Bannermans’ interdisciplinary talents in architecture, landscape, and interior design. This royal endorsement hardly adds to the book apart from the seal of approval to readers unsure about the book’s contents. What follows is an autobiographical chapter in which the Bannermans recount their upbringing, early influences, and philosophy. Their reminiscences are revealed with surprising candor especially about people whose lives happened to collide with them. Reading passage after passage unwinding about these quirky individuals is like a communion with the fantastical characters who populate Alice in Wonderland. DV or David Vicary is described as [a] magical scarecrow of a man, beautifully turned out in his uniform of dark brown alpaca long waistcoat – a sort of subfusc outfit after Doctor Johnson – had a mop of excellent hair definitive nose, and wry vivacious eyes.’ Coincidentally the Bannermans allude to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for its ‘illusory, hallucinatory quality’ they strive to instill in their work.
The Bannermans are not shrinking violets when it comes to theatricality in the garden. They have marvelous fun poring over historical texts, paintings, and references to pierce together imaginative gardens that would have delighted garden goers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is precisely what they have achieved in half of the former walled kitchen garden at Arundel Castle, Sussex. From the Somerset House garden plan the Bannermans tailored the two-terraced garden – the upper terrace being a trio of courts interlocked by a oak pergola, and the lower terrace a miniature castle, Oberon’s Palace. Two graveled courts with a fountain and four catalpa trees each flank the central court with its canal of water. Oak urn fountains topped with gilded bronze agaves squirt water into this canal. A large open lawn planted up with alliums transition between the upper and lower terrace. Oberon’s Palace, which takes after the Little Castle at Bolsover, is miraculously mounted on a plinth of Sussex ragstone rocks. The interior palace walls are encrusted with shells and corks, and the room centerpiece is The Dancing Crown. The Bannermans left no detail undone – dolphin, dog, and lion figurines adorn the fountains in the catalpa courts while deer anthers adorn the Park Temple. Sea monkeys guard the arch entranceway of Oberon’s Palace. One cannot help smile at the playful atmosphere of all the features, even if the embellishment may come across over the top for some.
If Arundel Castle is the court jester in the Bannerman design portfolio, then Woolbeding is the royal advisor who parlays a sensible and sympathetic strategy for problems. In tackling Woolbeding, the Bannermans realized: “Lightness of touch is an intangible quality, something we all always seek to achieve and can never be sure of finding.” The late Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw already established the formal and productive gardens since purchasing the property in 1970s. For a long time, they struggled with unifying the ‘Long Walk’ to the woodland garden, a large copse of trees, and a placid body of water. A painted Gothic pavilion was positioned listlessly on a grassy knoll without any incentive to visit it. To announce the change from open pasture to arboretum with its structural elements, the Bannermans constructed a Gothic ruin archway entrance. A visitor then would take this entrance as the cue to anticipate the next episode. Because the owners did not wish to move the pavilion, it became the reference point under which a 12′ cliff fashioned out of Sussex sandstone was created. Water would cascade from this cliff, breaking up the still waters and giving impetus to the pavilion views across the lake. A Chinese bridge painted yellow to echo yellow flags and skunk cabbages hovered enchantingly close to the water surface and provide views towards the pavilion. The Bannermans continued the ‘journey’ to a thatched hermitage and the cave of the Rother god, conceived to be the ‘father’ of the river. They installed a tufa monolith, which oozed water from the Rother through clever engineering, in the circular glade where Simon and Stewart had positioned statues of four seasons. This monolith, “a strange and powerful beast, slumbering, closed-winged but latent”, introduces mystery and a note of danger without which a garden can be atmospheric. It is a light theatrical touch that brings cohesion to the woodland garden, lake, and the pavilion.
Hanham Court and Trematon Castle, the last two gardens in the book, are personal ones which the Bannermans patiently and diligently wrestled out of their derelict, overgrown status quo. Had not for the help of the antipodeans (one Kiwi who looked after the children and cooking, and seven Aussies who helped with the construction), the garden at Hanham Court would not have materialized given the sorry state of the property at the beginning. The inception of the garden at Hanham Court prompts a comedic recollection of a conservation officer who, initially horrified at the swimming pool within the remnant medieval ruins, was less than enthused about being duped by the architectural chicanery the Bannermans constructed. It was not simply enough to undertake the house and garden restoration for the impoverished soil needed earth backfills and compost additions before anything was to be planted. The ancient tangle of wisteria was forcibly pulled down to wire the house and retrained to maximize their flowering productivity, and roses like Rosa bankisae ‘Lutea’, ‘Felicite Perpetue’ and ‘Rambling Rector’ joined in the climbing chorus. Nonetheless each project led to another until Hanham Court became civilized with the requisite romanticism. It’s a place that is breathtaking in scale when you visit as I did several years ago on an open garden day. Like Alice who crawls into the rabbit hole or mirror only to end up in an alternate world, you first enter through the wicket gate that is a brief dark interlude before the colors, scents, and all that is the Bannerman magic overwhelm you.
Despite its Cornish location, Trematon proved no picnic either. Archaeological restrictions (no duplicitous ruins and no gullible enforcers) meant no wanton digging. Years of neglect had allowed winter heliotrope (Petasites fragrans) to spread aggressively and smother out the native wildflowers. Sloping terrain doubled the time it took to complete projects. The Bannermans describe their first year as grey and disconsolate from the rain that fell incessantly. ‘Grey skies, grey granite, grey shaley soil, bitter and wet it was, and the boiler was bust, when we landed with a lot of furniture in a heap from Bristol.’ Just as they had done with their previous derelict projects, they valiantly persisted as they replanted their losses, wrenched out boulders, and excavated new planting holes. Bramble, ground elder, and heliotrope were either sprayed or pulled out from the banks. Judging from the photographs, much of their efforts appeared to pay off. The removal of the invasive and aggressive weeds allowed some of the native wildflowers to return, and made what was once impenetrable promising canvas to ‘paint’. Given how the castle walls already provided the essential backdrop, the Bannermans describe a dizzyingly range of plants, especially those scented, added over the last five years. Their emphasis on scent is purposeful for ‘Cornwall is good for scent, being warm and wet and, when the sun does appear, aromatic plants exude their turpentine tang.’
One of the admirable aspects about the Bannermans is their fluency with different plants, a skill that is becoming more uncommon among garden designers and landscape architects. They act like discriminating magpies who retain their proven prizes, experiment a bit, and fold in new possibilities to an existing scheme. Philadelphus (mock orange), old roses, pinks, lilies, sweet peas and lupines are always introduced to gardens with tour de force herbaceous borders. It is easy to pooh pooh these plants in these gardens, but the Bannermans cherish them for their ‘lived in’ effect they inject in a youthful garden. They are familiar and sensual, evocative of the dreamy past.
If a criticism is to be volleyed at the book, the photography occasionally fails to match the exacting high standards of the garden. Either the authors or the editors have taken the unusual step of not commissioning a garden photographer to illustrate the text, instead opting for the authors’ photography. The downside of such photography is their uneven quality, which can be a letdown for those accustomed to crisp and sharp images in other garden books. Some of the photographs would have been culled to prevent repetition – one or two close-ups of the plantings would simply suffice. On the upside, the ‘homemade’ feel of the photography gives the text a personal touch as if we were peering through a creative scrapbook or compendium of the authors’ work.
Landscape of Dreams is a book which deserves periodical poring for its sophisticated fluency in landscape and garden design. It demonstrates that truly talented designers do not produce products of hubris, but of respect and humility to the sites they are commissioned to work on. The Bannermans are sensible to realize that each site has its limitations that require their plans to be specific and individualistic.
“Trying to make it look as if gardening is not happening particularly is a very tricky deception, full of contradiction since it is actually tuned up and put on steroids.”
~ Isabel and Julian Bannerman in Landscape of Dreams (Pimpernel Press 2016)
by Justin Galicic and Eric Hsu
Photography by Justin Galicic
Justin depends more on foliage rather than flowers, although he still appreciates fragrant shrubs and bold annuals that fulfill the bold and brilliant look he aims in his Normandy Park garden. Some of these plants are adaptable and can be grown successfully on the East Coast of North America as well as maritime western Europe.
Dryopteris sieboldii – Tropical-looking evergreen fern that can handle a bit of dry shade. This Asian Dryopteris from China, Japan, and Taiwan can retains its foliage down to 5 degrees F according to Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery.
Agave ovatifolia (Whale’s Tongue Agave) – Stands up to Seattle’s wet winters and still looks beautiful 356 days a year. According to Greg Star in Agaves (Timber Press 2012), this agave is a high elevation species found in two populations, one between 3000 and 4000 ft (900-1200 m) and the other between 7000 and 8000 ft (2130-2440 M). Its cold hardiness has enable its cultivation in Dallas, Texas, and Raleigh, North Carolina taking down to 5 degrees F without damage (Star 2012). Gardeners less daring can treat it as a decorative container plant.
Magnolia grandiflora ‘D.D Blanchard’ – Stunning copper-colored indumentum on huge glossy leaves. This native magnolia is equally hardy in the coastal Mid-Atlantic Region and New England as much as it is in the Pacific Northwest, and its evergreen foliage have become popular in holiday wreaths and bouquets during winter.
Eucomis ‘Rhode Island Red’ – Looks like ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ but gets twice the size! This hybrid between Eucomis ‘Sparkling Burgundy’ and Eucomis pole-evansii from East Coast maestro Ed Bowen of Opus Nursery, Little Compton, Rhode Island, is certainly deserving for its large size, sturdy infloresences (most stalks tend to collapse in themselves), and dark foliage.
Butia capitata – Hardy in Seattle only with some occasional protection. Still, this blue pinnate-leaved palm is a fast grower and eventually reaches tree status. The jelly palm owes its light frost tolerance to its geographic range in northern Argentina, southern Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
Shibataea kumasaca – Averts the two worst attributes of a hardy bamboo: mites don’t bother it and it doesn’t run aggressively. It keeps all the great attributes like gorgeous foliage year-round and is easy to grow.
Daphne bholua – Its intoxicating fragrance scents the dark and dreary winter air starting in January in Seattle, well before Daphne odora. Some gardeners have reported trouble getting it to establish, although the effort is worthwhile.
Ricinus communis ‘Carmencita’ – Everything on this plant is red. It’s an annual but easy to sow. It can be thought of like an awesome, poisonous sunflower.
Schefflera delavayi – Huge, glossy foliage grows quickly into a small tree. Amazingly it’s one of the hardiest scheffleras.
Sinopanax formosanus – Evergreen, palmate leaves with beautiful copper indumentum for a Taiwanese shrub. It is probably tender for much of continental North America, but likewise can be an arresting container subject.
Interview by Eric Hsu and Justin Galicic
Photography by Justin Galicic (except for the profile pic by Michael Siegel)
Justin is one of those rare individuals whose chief profession isn’t horticulture, but music education, although it has not deterred him from being an avid gardener who has willingly transformed his parents’ garden into an one with subtropical touches. He has the enviable advantage of residing in the maritime Pacific Northwest where mild winters and moderate summers permit a wide range of plants to be grown. I have long heard about him from my other friend Riz Reyes, another keen plantsman, and finally had a chance to meet him at the Mahonia Summit in Seattle in February 2015.
Please introduce yourself.
I am Justin Galicic
The arts or horticulture?
What is your first gardening memory?
As early as I can remember, each year my dad would rototill the vegetable garden in the spring and give me a section to grow whatever vegetables I wanted to. I always wanted to grow every seed packet we had!
You’re somewhat unusual among the people we profiled here on the blog that your chosen profession isn’t in horticulture or landscape architecture, but rather music education for young children. Have you found yourself feeling a bit of an outsider or a spectator?
No, I definitely feel like an active participant in the horticultural community. I am on the board of the Northwest Horticultural Society so I think that officially qualifies me as an insider. As far as my career goes, this past year was my last teaching music and as of right now I’m a full-time student getting a tech degree in front-end web development.
Garden designers and landscape architects frequently refer to music terminology to describe the feelings or emotions of their work. Do you have specific musical vocabulary that would describe your style of gardening?
There are a lot of similarities between the two because I think the end goal with a musical composition is virtually the same as designing a garden: to create an experience that transports you to another place. All the great composers juxtapose contrasting elements in their music: high vs. low, loud vs. soft, fast vs. slow, etc. In the garden, I like to put big, loud, scary and dangerous right next to small, quiet, happy and safe. A musical composition is also moving – slowly building a crescendo, retreating from a climactic peak, modifying a previous theme, etc. In the same way a well-designed garden pulls you toward some feature or echo colors and textures that establish a sense of overall harmony. It’s always moving and compels anyone in it move with it.
Because you currently reside in an urban condo with no gardening space, you have creatively appropriated your parents’ home in Normandy Park to create an impressive garden. While parents are generally supportive of their children’s interests and endeavours, did they have any inkling of what they had set themselves up for when you started the garden there? I imagine that there were some concerns especially with what your parents favored.
They definitely had concerns! When I was building the pond, it took all almost all the intellectual energy I had to convince them that the waterfalls should be 7′ tall instead of 3′ tall. They wanted the design on paper, but I wasn’t able to draw anything resembling what I had in my mind. But little by little, they gained confidence in me. My mom still vetoes some things I want to do. I’m not allowed to grow Equisetum or Cannabis (it is legal in Washington!) but other than that I’m pretty free to plant whatever I want.
Your parents must have tremendous patience as they were willing to consent to hosting an annual horticultural fair. How did the idea come about and has the community response been positive?
It is a big undertaking but always rewarding. The idea actually started as I was trying to think of an environmentally friendly way to get rid of the ginormous stacks of black nursery pots I had been accumulating over the years. I figured the best way to get rid of them would be to repurpose them by selling new plants that I propagated in the old pots at a plant sale. I e-mailed Dan Hinkley to see if he would be interested in giving a talk in our garden to accompany the plant sale. He said yes and we got about 200 people in attendance that first year. After five years, it has helped bring the gardening community in the neighborhood together and I know more than a few neighbors who have gone from intimidated to over-the-moon-excited about their own gardens.
Like other serious plant geeks, you have a limitless interest in all plants. However, are their specific genera or horticultural groups you seem to gravitate towards?
I’d say my interest is centered around palms, agaves, and much of the aralia family.
Bold foliage and shapes from bananas, scheffleras, hardy cacti, and palms are emphasized at the Normandy Park garden. Was it a subconscious fantasy to have a bit of tropics in the Pacific Northwest?
No it was entirely conscious! For a while I was only interested in tropical and subtropical plants. The idea of creating a jungle in my backyard was always a fantasy. Perhaps if I grew up in the tropics I’d be more interested in hardy plants, but tropical plants have been forever imprinted on my heart.
Except for Schefflera delavayi, most of the scheffleras are not hardy for us in the East Coast. For our Pacific Northwest and mild climate gardeners, what scheffleras have been successful and hardy?
S. taiwaniana is probably the easiest to find, but S. fengii and S. alpina also make appearances at plant sales in the NW from time to time.
Not only has your plantsmanship served you well in the garden’s diversity, but also you have a knack for building as evidenced as your ‘fake’ rocks that add some hardscaping to the garden. Were you largely self-taught where these projects came to mind?
Yeah I learned how to make the fake rocks from watching You Tube videos and studying how they were made at places like the zoo and Disneyland. It’s not as difficult as it looks but there is definitely an artistic touch involved.
I like how you keep the budget-conscious gardener in mind during the construction project as you outlined the cost per fake rock in your blog. It’s a change from the usual gardening or lifestyle magazines that assume its readership having unlimited funds to buy or build high quality features outdoors. What other budget-friendly projects do you wish to tackle and demonstrate online?
Probably the most budget-friendly project a gardener can do is propagate their own plants. I do it on a scale that gives me enough of the plants I want to fill my garden while also having some extras to sell at plant sales. I also started building my own arbors when I ran out of things to grow vines on. They have the added benefit of acting as “doorways” to different areas of the garden. I painted them a creamy color, the same color as the house’s trim, and they help to visually tie the house in with the rest of the garden.
You demonstrate a knack for propagation – and the basement setup seems within the reach of an average hobbyist. Any tips on what to do and avoid?
Taking plant cuttings had always mystified me, and for a while I thought I would never be good enough to be successful at it. But with some persistence and determination, I can say I’ve now gotten over 100 plant species to root. There are a lot of great how-to videos on You Tube and of course countless books on the subject. Definitely invest in a heat mat and propagation dome (in order to maintain humidity). And avoid doing it in a place where bugs are going to interfere. I find the garage is a pretty good place to root cuttings. If you take 20 cuttings and 10 of them root, that’s a success. If all of them fail, that’s a success too because now you know not to do it that way.
Gardeners in the Seattle -Portland metro region can count themselves fortunate to have specialist nurseries and sophisticated garden centers for plants. What are some of the nurseries and garden centers you often turn to when you seek to satiate your plant addiction?
My top three are Cistus Nursery in Oregon, Far Reaches Farm in Washington, and Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina. All offer mail order, and between those three there is enough of a selection to fill any sized garden with an incredible variety of plants.
In addition, the region is accessible to majestic national parks. What natural areas do you like to visit when you wish to escape the horticultural haze?
It’s always great to see how plants like to grow in their native environments. Mother nature is the best garden designer, and no one has ever been able to even approximate the horticultural wonderment found in nature. The most beautiful spot within driving range for me are the wildflower meadows in Mt. Rainier National Park.
A lot of us are envious at what the relatively temperate climate of the maritime Pacific Northwest can accommodate and foster while we battle extreme heat and humidity, invasive Asian tiger mosquitoes, and floral displays that go over too quickly. It’s harder to reconcile our horticultural aspirations with the continental climate in North America. Are there any plants you see elsewhere in your travels that you wish you can grow better or successfully in your area?
Oh yeah I’d love to be able to grow more palms, proteas, bananas, bromeliads, citrus, echiums, agaves, cacti, and other tropical and subtropical plants. We usually can’t get beefsteak tomatoes, cantaloupes or watermelons to ripen. But I’m always discovering a new appreciation for plants I can grow in my climate that I might not have discovered if I could grow anything I want.
Seattle is one of the fast growing cities due to the influx of tech companies moving upwards from Silicon Valley. Is there a growing disconnect between public space plantings and companies who are building campuses, but not aware of the climatic possibilities?
Thankfully conventional urban landscape design is moving away from turf grass accented by gaudy colors toward more natural and sustainable landscapes. But there is the unfortunate reality of heirloom turfgrass and flower beds leaching runoff fertilizer and pesticides into nearby lakes and streams. Self-sustaining urban landscapes are the answer. The alpine wildflower meadows on Mt. Rainier are an example of a beautiful, completely self-sustaining landscape. If we can create urban landscapes that don’t require additional resources after the initial installation and strike a balance with nature, the air we breathe will be cleaner and we will leave more water in our lakes and streams for wildlife to flourish.
If you were to create a new garden from scratch, would that garden resemble the one at your parents’ home? Sometimes our tastes change and evolve over time, and some people begin to simplify their gardens.
If I designed a garden from scratch it might very well look similar to how the one at my parent’s house looks right now. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way that I’ve gone back and fixed so it would certainly take a lot less time! When I eventually buy my own house and start my own garden, I hope it will have many of the same elements – tropical jungle with roaring waterfalls, sunny Mediterranean border, shaded woodland, zen garden, a veggie patch, and plenty of space in between for growing whatever my latest obsession happens to be.
Your desert island plant?
Artocarpus altilis aka breadfruit. It is a beautiful tree and has the added benefit of being edible and life-sustaining.
Any nuggets of advice you wish to pass along to your peers who have just bought homes, but are intimidated about their gardens?
Home builders (at least here in the Pacific NW) are really good at putting dense clay soil on top of the native topsoil when they excavate, leaving little room for plants to develop strong root systems. Bringing in some loamy topsoil before planting goes a long way toward helping plants get established and reducing the need for future watering. Even if something dies or doesn’t do what you want it to do, don’t get discouraged. Keep trying new things. If you’re not failing, you’re not learning.
Thank you Justin!
by Eric Hsu and Eleftherios Dariotis
Photography by Eric Hsu
As Eleftherios revealed in his interview, he gardens in a climate made challenging by its drying northern winds, high summer temperatures, and little to no precipitation except for winter and spring. Although the garden will receive supplemental irrigation under extreme conditions, the plants often have to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, the majority of adaptable plants originate from Mediterranean regions that have the same climatic conditions as Eleftherios’ garden at his parents’ home. The following are plants that he has found to be either essential, successful, or deserving of cultivation in California, southern Oregon, Texas, and other regions of the world having similar climatic conditions.
Agapanthus (unnamed variety): “I grow about 20 cultivars of evergreen Agapanthus, some named and others unnamed. You can count on them for adding a strong blue touch in June and July when most of the salvias seem to fade.”
Aloysia virgata: “Although this shrub might not be the best looking plant, its scent can fill the whole garden on a warm still day.” This Argentinian and Brazilian native (Zones 7B to 10B) is treated as a die-back perennial in its colder limits, but becomes a tall open shrub in warmer zones. The scent has been compared to vanilla and almonds.
|Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii: “A Texan plant perfectly adapted to our Athens climate, having minimal watering needs and covered in flowers. Hummingbirds in US will make a beeline for this xerophytic plant (Zones 7A to 10B) adaptable either in rocky alkaline or heavy soils.|
Erythrina x bidwillii (E. crista gallii x E. herbacea): “You can count on its constant flowering all summer long, despite the more popular E. crista gallii.” This hybrid (Zones 7B to 10B) originated in Camden Park, an Australian estate outside of Sydney, in the 1840s where William Macarthur named it after his convict gardener Edmund Blake.
Micromeria helianthemifolia ssp. helianthemifolia: “This little thing from the Canary Islands stole my heart right away. Beautiful scent on the foliage and once put into the ground, it forms a perfect round shrublet covered in pink in June.” Relatively unknown in cultivation, this mint relative may be hardy up to Zone 7B, if not Zone 8.
Monarda ‘Lambada’: “A self sowing Monarda that always seems to select the correct place to grow.” This annual beebalm is grown from seed and has proven to be a good cut flower in trials.
Leucophyllum frutescens: “I discovered Leucophyllums some years ago and now I would never garden without them. Their ability to repeat flower all through the summer is just amazing.” The Texas silverleaf, a member of the figwort family Scrophulariaceae, has become a popular xerophytic shrub (Zones 8-10) in Texas for its tolerance of gravelly alkaline soils and drought.
Salvia guaranitica ‘Blue Enigma’: “Probably the least running of the S.guaranitica forms. All others have me running along every winter to confine them.” The flowers are indeed true blue for ‘Blue Enigma’, which can become a hardy subshrub for those gardening in Zones 7B to Zone 11.
Salvia lanceolata: “A South African sage, similar to but much more confined than the more common S. africana-lutea.” One of the few Cape species not pollinated by bees, but by birds, this salvia (Zones 8 or higher) has unusual bronze to coppery colors that would look with grasses and purple-flowering perennials.
Sideritis dendro-chahorra: “A species from the Canary Islands. The Macaronesian Sideritis are surprisingly drought tolerant plants and much larger than their Mediterrranean relatives.”
Tecoma ‘Sunrise’ – “A cultivar that produces little seed, thus putting all its effort into constant flowering from April till the first frosts.” Mature height and width is 8′ by 8′ for a relatively rapid growing shrub hardy to Zone 8. Its old flowers are spent rapidly and seed production occurs late enough in the season that the floral display isn’t compromised.
Tulbaghia violacea: “The common society garlic, has sparkled my interest to grow more in the genus, now counting more than 20 species and cultivars.” With its strap-like leaves and umbels of pale pink flowers, the common society garlic does resemble a pink form of Agapanthus campanulatus, although it is less hardy, withstanding warmer limits of Zone 7 and above.
Yucca rostrata: “A plant I raised from seed, now in its fifth year and slowly starting to develop a trunk.” One of the hardiest yuccas (up to Zone 6B with good drainage, although plants have withstood cold winters in Denver, Colorado), the beaked yucca eventually forms a trunk giving its sharp architectural form in the garden. The leaves are a beautiful blue green color.
Interview by Eric Hsu
Photography by Eleftherios Dariotis and Eric Hsu
I first became acquainted with Efeftherios Dariotis on Facebook when I began to notice that he was answering the majority of plant identification queries for difficult-to-recognize taxa. Only by coincidence and luck was he to join me and two other colleagues on my work-sponsored (Chanticleer) botanical expedition to Turkey and Greece. Efetherios Dariotis brings serious clout as a sharp-eyed finder of taxa easily overlooked in the wild, as well as being a competent driver of those treacherous, unpaved mountain roads. His patience and good sense of humor stood us in good stead whenever the usual travel challenges came in our way.
Efeftherios will be heading to United States this fall 2016 to lecture for the Salvia Summit (more information can be found here) and the North American Rock Garden Society meetings.
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Eleftherios Dariotis, albeit many people know me as Liberto Dario, a facebook name I invented some years ago which has almost overshadowed my real name!
The arts or horticulture?
An abstract art for me. A constant and irregular movement and expression of images, textures and colours under constant testing of growing techniques and experimentation. The plant world is too big to confine it.
How did you become interested in plants?
I remember as a little child expressing the desire to become a horticulturist and people in my hometown (small town of Peania next to Athens, Greece) looking at me strangely. I usually say it’s something I was born with. But I think what sparkled the flame in me was a trip to Chicago, IL when I was eight years old and made me realize how dramatically different plants could be in contrast to what I was used in Athens.
Nothing surpasses the power of observation where plant identification is concerned. Did you develop an early routine of botanizing in Greece before you gardened?
Up until quite recently, 6-7 years ago, I hadn’t developed an affection for the Greek flora. Hence, although I’ve travelled extensively around Greece when I was younger, the real botanizing trips started only recently. But that wealth of images in my mind of the world flora – much of it coming from my own gardening, really helped to track down the minute differences that separate one species from another in our native flora.
There seems to be a divide in the strength of the horticultural and botanical communities in northern and Southern Europe – Northern Europeans appear to have well developed outlets for disseminating information and plants but Southern Europeans depend on a more disparate network although the Mediterranean Garden Society has readdressed this imbalance. How has social media like Facebook or Instagram helped you close the north south gap?
It’s magical how the internet social media have brought plant people together. When I was young it was just me, my plants and my books, nowadays I get to contact and exchange plant information with people all over Europe and the world, even people I’ve looked upon as plant idols as I was growing up. And if it weren’t for all those people I wouldn’t even consider taking the step from gardening on my backyard to leading plant tours, doing plant sales online and visiting abroad for plant lectures. And you’ve probably sensed it, plant people are a special group in general, there is a certain kindness and passion that characterizes them, and make me at least feel comfortable.
Greece has successfully promoted itself as the ideal Mediterranean getaway for its sun kissed islands, simple and tasty cuisine, and classical ruins (you know how a decrepit pile of rocks isn’t the same everywhere!). How well publicized are its nature treks or the biodiversity in the marketing campaigns?
Apart from some very well known landmarks like the treck up on Mt.Olympus or the one in Samaria Gorge in Crete, not much is well known. There have been some decent campaigns to promote the importance of Greece as a biodiversity destination but we still have a long way to go. Greece has always been known for its high plant diversity (highest in Europe actuallly) and many botanists of the previous decades have travelled around to describe it. However, ask a random person – even a plant person – if he considers the country a summer vacation or a plant exploration destination. Obviously the strength of the images of white washed island villages and fabulous beaches is quite stronger. Visiting the country in the blazing heat of August doesn’t help you realize what lies beneath those naked soils and dried up shrubs. But come in April and see how Santorini explodes with colour by pink stocks and yellow daisies and you’ll be amazed. In fact correctly timing your trip to Greece to perceive the wealth of its flora is key. And you don’t have to forget about the sea; add a small side trip in August to an alpine area of some of our highest mountains and you’ll be shocked at the variety of alpines flowering with a backdrop of the sea you’ve been swimming in 2.500m further down!
I recall you saying how Greece is a different country in spring after winter rains. Most people visit Greece for summer holidays but few come in spring. How would you describe a Greek spring in terms of the landscape?
Spring here is pure madness! You simple can’t take in what’s going on within those few months of the year. For me what characterizes it, is the the speed of how things are changing. You visit a hillside one day and you come back after two weeks only to realize that almost everything you see is different. You can ‘blame’ our weather for that. For an average site, a change from regular night freeze in February to temperatures in the 90’s in May is not unusual. So everything has to go fast. As soon as the bulbs dare to rise above the ground, the annuals come running above them, then the shrubs thicken and overshadow everything. Add to that the dramatic landscape of thousands of islands, mountains and cliffs dispersed throughout the country and you realize how abundant and diversified plants can be in this small country. I can’t remember a single time I’ve went through the same trail or dirt road for the tenth time or more and hadn’t found myself saying ‘ wow, this grows here as well? how come I’ve never noticed it?’.
Mountains are like islands in the air because they have endemic flora not seen elsewhere, and Greece, being a mountainous country, is therefore floristically rich. For an overseas visitor looking for a short botanical outing from Athens, where would you suggest as a starting point or introduction? I imagine that timing is important.
You don’t have to stray much from Athens to appreciate our flora. The city is built in a basin surrounded by three big mountains, Hymettus, Parnis and Pentelikon. They all have very rich flora – in fact Mt.Parnis has been turned into a National Park, but my favorite has to be Mt. Hymettus, the mountain I grew up looking up to from my village. Once covered by extensive Pinus halepensis forests, which are still present at the northern end of the mountain, it was severely burned by wildfires during World War I and II, only to reveal and strengthen the populations of bulbs and shrubs that were hiding underneath. Get ready to fill your camera with pictures of orchids. The mountain claims to have the richest orchid diversity in Europe. Some 40 plus species of mainly Ophrys and Orchis are to be found between its limestone rocks. And a walk through the ‘frygana’ (maquis shrubs) will lift your nose into mint heaven – Salvia, Satureja, Thymbra, Micromeria and more Lamiaceae genera occupy every space available. Or visit in autumn to enjoy the abundant displays of autumn bulbs – Cyclamen, Sternbergia, Urginea, Crocus and Colchicum – following the first rains.
What are your favorite mountain ranges in Greece you enjoy seeing again and again? Why?
The mountains of central Greece, an area known here as Roumeli. A series of never ending peaks, with a range between 2000 and 2500 meters, with a difficult to cross trail and dirt road network that hold a very rich plant diversity as they combine elements from the Peloponnese in the south and Northern Greece and the Balkans in the north. It is an area I’ve been traditionally visiting since I was a child for Easter vacation – the area is known to have the most traditional Easter celebrations in Greece – and learned to appreciate it early on. I never get bored visiting the slopes of Mt.Giona turning blue and yellow with Salvia ringens and Scutellaria orientalis in spring or the high valleys of Mt.Oeta – rich in streams and small freshwater lakes edged by Gentiana asclepiadea surrounded by Abies cephalonica forest.
Some endemic alpine plants like Campanula oreadum or Aquilegia ottonis ssp. amaliae highlight the joys of seeing them thriving in their natural habitats. Do you have a wish list of plants you are keen to see?
A really long one! With a current count of 6.600 species and subspecies and a 15% percentage of endemism in the county, it’s hard not to always dream on finding that special plant when I venture into the wild. Lilium rhodopaeum, a yellow lily growing near our northern borders; a number of our very rare fritillaries like the mainly turkish endemic Fritillaria elwesii only to be found in Greece on the tiny most eastern island of Kastellorizo,the endemic to the island of Chios, Fritillaria pelinaea, F.rhodokanakis from the island of Hydra and F. theophrasti from the island of Lesvos; Stachys pangaea only to be found on Paggaion mountain in northern Greece; a beautiful thyme, Thymus laconicus from southern Peloponnese; a beautiful pink Dianthus arpadianus from Samothrace; Cephalaria squamiflora, a really peculiar in the genus, endemic o some Aegean islands; Centaurea pseudocadmea, with bright purple flowers over a mat of silver foliage, found only on three mountain tops in central Greece; and the list goes on! I should stop now.
It was encouraging to see a large number of Greek youth hiking the trail during the EU budget crisis. Have outdoor pastimes typically been popular with the young Greeks?
This is one of the few sectors where the crisis has helped. Following a developing trend of reconnecting with nature – be it gardening, hiking or leaving city centers to find agricultural work i the countryside, young Greeks are slowly rediscovering the Greek mountains. Islands like Ikaria and Samothrace where hikes are a ‘must’ are in fashion and groups of young Greeks arranging to hike Mt.Olympus or the dragon lakes of Mt. Tymfi in northern Greece isn’t something you would normally hear about ten years ago.
Mountains are like islands in the air because they have endemic flora not seen elsewhere, and Greece, being a mountainous country, is therefore floristically rich. For an overseas visitor looking for a short botanical outing from Athens, where would you suggest as a starting point or introduction? I imagine that timing is important.
Surely not enough! Visiting the Greek islands in winter and spring when all the plant action is taking place, needs careful planning and plenty of time. I can say that I have quite a comprehensive view of the magnificent and highly endemic floras of Karpathos and Rhodes in the Dodecanesse, I’ve lived and botanized a bit in Lemnos and Lesvos in the northern Aegean sea but the island of Lefkada is probably the one where I can tell you what grows where exactly.
Definitely the Greek islands hold many phyto-surprises – smelling the cinnamon aroma of Paeonia rhodia as you walk around the cypress forests of Rhodes, walking along a strip of sand in January and getting blown over by wind to reach a big population of Androcymbium rechingeri on the island of Elafonisi in Crete, trying to find a trail in the thick mixed forests of Mt.Olympos in Lesvos to reach a full flowering Rhododendron luteum (the only Rhododendron species in our country), climbing on cliffs to get that perfect shot of the most beautiful and heavy flowering ssp. of Dianthus fruticosus (D.fruticosus ssp. carpathus), talking with tens of farmers in the mountain villages of Lefkada to find clues as to where the small populations of the two native peonies (Paeonia peregrina and P. mascula) might be, are some of the most vivid images I have from my island trips..
It is easy to build a reference library of books on Greek flora in no time, although carrying them around isn’t convenient. Are there specific lightweight guides you like to trot on your botanical excursions?
I don’t go anywhere without two of my books. One is ‘Vascular Plants of Greece; an annotated checklist’ basically a list of species on the greek territory, but carefully designed to help you figure out what is growing where. The other is an older Greek book, ‘The Botanical Paradises of Greece’ by George Sfikas, in which each chapter refers to a particular plant diverse area of Greece, some info on access and then lists of most important plants to be found there.
The Campanulaceae is one of the largest flowering plant families in Greece. Do you have a reliable way to eyeball the differences among the genera in the field?
That’s true, Campanulaceae has its center of speciation around this part of the world, counting more than species, especially in the genus Campanula. Although some are quite obvious to key, for example Asyneuma giganteum is too big of an Asyneuma to confuse with the rest in the genus which all look similar or Campanula columnaris and Campanula incurva are simply too beautiful to forget. But the are many species, usually rock dwelling mat forming monocarpic species that need a very careful eye – if not a microscope. In fact botanists in Greece have been puzzled by those species for years and new research is currently taking place as to if some traditionally ones like Campanula celsii are sole species or many merged together. It is an exciting family.
Eastern Turkey shares similar flora as the region is part of the Mediterranean basin. What surprised you during your first visit to Turkey?
I was excited to find out that even though I could tell apart what genus is everything, the species found in the area were different. Although we share many plants with our neighboring floristically rich country, evolution has created a wealth of different species on each side of the Aegean.
In addition to leading botanical expeditions, you maintain two gardens, one at your parents’ and another at your uncle’s home in an Athens suburb. Besides water rationing and mosquitoes, what challenges do you face gardening in the climate?
Perhaps the most irritating gardening factor in our local climate is the constant northern winds, especially in summer. That means that your watering needs are multiplying; they were already high with a 5 month period of day temperatures between 30-43 degrees Celsius. Top mulching is usually blown in the air and nothing seems to be holding upright by itself. But as in all gardening situations you learn to live with it
Your garden at your parents’ home doesn’t resemble a usual plant collector’s garden – plants aren’t jumped together like a hodgepodge in a curiosity cabinet. The view from the top terrace shows masses blurring together and you practiced restraint in having a central gravel patio whose space otherwise would have given over to more plants. Did you have an edict from your parents regarding the space or they instead entrusted you to the job?
The original garden was a fruit tree/vegetable garden with some lawn and the classic rose borders, that my father who took care of it was very fond of. So my ‘eradication’ plan had to be done step by step and it took years. One day a rose bush or two went missing, the other day a bit of lawn was removed to plant a Salvia. I’ve completely taken over the space now but you can still find some of the old lemon and oranges trees that I now appreciate for the shade they provide to my potted bulbs. The truth is that by August the garden is practically inaccessible in most parts, as many plants are left to do their own thing, despite my daily pinching walks around the garden. But that’s what I mostly love about this garden, those that are very confined and clipped into perfection are just driving me crazy!
The range of plants sold in local nurseries or garden centers looks limited to the usual suspects, and it seems that specialist nurseries outside of Greece are the source of your plants. Do you have favorite sources you wish to share with readers?
Practically, vising one local garden center here is like having visited all around the country. They are packed with traditionally favorite shrubs and climbers like bougainvilleas, oleanders and gardenias, of course lots of petunias and other annuals for the spring gardening frenzy, which will be sacrificed by June/July to the heat and not much more. A couple of specialists have sprung up here and there but essentially if you need diversity you need to search outside the borders.
I’m very fond of the specialist nurseries in France and a number of them are specializing in Mediterranean shrubs and perennials that my mind is set on these days. Apart from the perfection of quality and variety you can find in Pepiniere Filippi (their catalog can turn you into a Cistus lover in seconds), I enjoy the specialized offerings of Les Senteurs du Quercy, Pepiniere de l’Armalette and Pepiniere botanique de Vaugines. And of course, if you love Salvias, you’ll have to get in touch with Elisa Benvenuti and her nursery Le essenze di Lea in Italy.
Olivier Filippi is one noticeable name associated with Mediterranean or dry climate gardening, and the number of plants listed in his book shows how limited the diversity of garden plants is represented as oleander, geraniums, and bougainvillea are used again and again. Does tradition have a restricting influence?
It certainly does in Greece, where people have cultivated the same garden plants for years and their vision is very limited. Also there is a lack of wanting to love things that look different. I’ll give you an example. Many people in the north of the country have problems keeping their Gardenias alive in winter with the freezes. Let’s say you present them with a single Gardenia that can be hardy for them. You’ll hardly get any buyers as the flower is simply not double, hence not beautiful enough. In addition to that, there is literally no gardening culture regarding to xeric or dry climate gardening here, so that hardens the case. Try to convince a person to plant the so well adapted Phlomis fruticosa in their garden. You’ll only get ‘ but this stuff grows everywhere around in the mountains, it is a weed!’ Thankfully there are exceptions and the Mediterranean Garden Society has done much to change it.
The mint family (Lamiaceae) is a specialty of yours . What genera currently capture your interests?
There’s just something unique in the form of a Lamiaceae flower that attracts me. I’m still looking for that Lamiaceae member that I wouldn’t like! Even weedy things like Stachys arvense and Lamium amplexicaule can make me happy.
I’ve been collecting salvias for many years, although I’m slowly turning my attention towards the Mediterranean species and giving up on many of the New World species that just refuse to stay alive with the summer heat or when they do they stop flowering and look miserable. But the trio of Teucrium, Sideritis and Stachys is what I’m in love with these days.
As I collect new species, I am amazed at how different their foliage textures and scents are and how much neglect they can take.
Bulbs are another person obsession as I recall seeing several dozen pots of dormant bulbs in the propagation area.
A set of 50 mixed tulip/daffodils/muscari bulbs was probably the first plant purchase I did for myself when I was a child. I planted them all in pots, one by one, and then waited. Most did terribly. I was furious! Back then I dedicated myself to grow tulips beautifully, and I managed but that obsession lasted few years. It wasn’t until I grew again some Sparaxis tricolor bulbs some 10 years ago that it hit me again. It opened my mind towards South African bulbs. In our similar climate they can grow excellent, and they are so easy to multiply or grow from seed, which also gave me the idea of helping my income by growing and selling them online. I have now lost count of the number of bulb species and varieties in my pot area, probably around 1000. My favorite genus though is Oxalis, of which I grow around 150 species and constantly adding more. It is a pleasure to watch them filling their small pots and there are always some species in flower from September to May.
I can’t help test your knowledge of Greek mythology but what Greek deity do you identify the most with and why? It doesn’t have to relate to your interest in plants.
I’ll forget my constant Dionysian appetite for eating good and dancing and I’ll go with Hermes, due to his affiliation with travelling and moving fast, much as I like to do in my everyday life.
Umbellifers are very popular in today’s gardens for their loose wild feel and pollinator benefits. Ferula communis and Orlaya grandiflora from Greece are two species widely grown. Any potential species you would like to see cultivated more and not having an aggressive potential?
First one that comes to mind is Thapsia garganica, which looks like a dwarfed more refined version of Ferula communis. Watching it unfurl its umbels from its thick stems in spring is a joy. Then Malabaila aurea, a fast growing intense yellow annual species with the most attractive seed heads. And Seseli gummiferum ssp. crithmifolium for its beautiful grey foliage and fat flowerheads – you’ll just need a constant drying sea breeze to make it look perfect – good luck.
What is your desert island plant?
It’s a very spiny one! Carlina tragacanthifolia, an endemic species of the southeastern Aegean islands, which I have seen growing magnificently around the coasts of Karpathos. Huge, lethally spiny, silvery grey cushions, dotted under the baking sun with big shiny yellow daisies, this is one of the few plants that can look amazing in that situation in the middle of August.
What do you look forward to the most?
More plants, more plants, more plants. Growing them, seeing them in the wild and talking about them.
Thank you Eleftherios!
“Let no one think that real gardening is a bucolic and meditative occupation. It is an insatiable passion, like everything else to which a man gives his heart.” – Karel Capek
It is always a momentous occasion when the tulip bulbs planted the previous autumn emerge and flower for the first time. Flamboyantly colored and ruffled, parrot tulips have a regal magnificence that deserves a place inside where their color gradations and markings can be admired. In the fading afternoon light, the painterly stripes of ‘Apricot Parrot’ glow with such warmth that one easily succumbs to its beauty. ~ Eric
In our recent conversation you had expressed some impatience for spring to jump into action since the maritime climate usually means temperatures slower to warm, while moderating them. Each year I am always anxious to see how winter transitions to spring because it is a rare year when I experience a seamless change. While the mild winter was a welcome change from the last two years’ unforgiving winters, it caused me some concern about how some plants may been cajoled prematurely from dormancy, risking their tender shoots or flowers to sudden cold snaps. Snow in April has happened before, and early spring frosts have despoiled early spring displays of magnolias and cherries. A summery spell in mid-March this year awakened some bulbs, perennials, and woody plants foolish enough to respond in turn, and two weeks later a frigid cold snap curtailed what would have been a spectacular show from some magnolias and spring Asian perennials like epimediums. At the same time, we were able to see how cold resilient the plants were – unsurprisingly the spring ephemerals and bulbs did not flinch at all, save for limp leaves that perked up with warmer temperatures during the day. There isn’t much one can do in the face of seemingly cataclysmic events – instead one just accepts the havoc with quiet resignation and move forward to what the remainder of season will send our way. My intervention was draping my fig tree with swathes of fabric to mitigate the cold from damaging the emerging shoots – two figless summers had me unwilling to experience a third figless summer.
On one hand, the cold nights kept my tulips on a slow waltz – only a day or two of 80 F is enough to send tulips into early overdrive, crinkling their petals and shattering them the next day – they had budded and turned color, and maintained that status for a good two weeks until consistent warmth swelled their buds without warning. After a mosaic-like grids of different tulips last year, I opted for a simpler scheme of white tulips sprinkled with some dark purple ones for contrast. Keeping tulips to a minimum of 1 to 3 varieties prevents the effect from becoming too Easter-egg like, a chromatic chaos disjointed visually. Tulipa ‘Hakuun’ was and is a winner in my black book of top notch plants- the slightly upright foliage does have the floppy gait of some Darwin tulips, the buds taper elegantly like the closed beaks of well-fed birds, and are flushed with a pale wash of celadon, and the ovoid flowers have a pure crystalline color untainted by cream or yellow. The Japanese who bred this tulip for their cut-flower trade obviously knew what they were doing.
Tulipa ‘Continental’ is peppered throughout T. ‘Hakuun’ and the white daffodils, giving a depth that prevents the white scheme from being too ‘safe’. The touches of yellow in Narcissus ‘Manly’ emulate sparks of light, injecting warmth, and similarly the emerging inflorescences of the biennial Isatis tinctoria takes the same color to a different height.
I like the Viridiflora type tulips but their late flowering tends to occur with those heat waves that hasten the display. I always stop to take notes of tulips I admire here and there, and place my orders in late summer. For new varieties, I grow them in pots for closer observation. One such pot contains Tulipa ‘Night Rider’, a Viridiflora type mauve streaked with green. The bulbs had been bought in the clearance rack at Home Depot early December.
The sole peony I inherited from the previous owners have surprised me with its shade tolerance during summer, and its reliable blooms. Earlier the new growth was a vibrant red, a burnished tone that proved to a good foil for the cool icy whites and greens. I nearly removed it last year, but its fortitude last summer won me. The foliage gets powdery mildew, and I usually cut it down.
My garden would feel bereft without alliums, which takes over the show after the tulips and daffodils. Allium schoenoprasum or chives surprised me with its precocious flowering, and its soft mauve color harmonized well with the bulbs. I plan on harvesting a few blossoms to garnish salads, and use the leaves for scrambled eggs. Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ and Allium ‘Mt. Everest’ have yet to flower, although I hope that they coincide with woad and poppies (Papaver rhoeas and P. commutatum). I should have started borage for their blue flowers since the primary color mix of red poppies and yellow woad could be stronger with blue. However, it has been exciting to see small rosettes planted last December literally galloping away into full growth and soon flowering.
The cool colors are intentional as I only enjoy my garden very early in the morning or later in the evening. As the sun begins to fade behind the row houses, the garden takes on an incandescent aura.
As some supermarkets and home-improvement stores roll out racks of warm season annuals and vegetables too early to be planted outside (I’m always incredulous at how people allow a few warm days and the haze of spring fever delude themselves into planting these heat lovers too early), I’m sketching mentally a shortlist of annuals and tender perennials to take over after the early summer flush. Last summer, I struggled to keep the momentum I had from spring and early summer in my terrace garden. We have had a dry and hot summer, which meant shriveled plants and terrible mite infestations that ruined my cosmos and dahlias. I decided that I don’t have enough sun to grow composites well, and will revise my summer planting this year. It didn’t help that I was often on the road last year, nationally and internationally. It’s the promise of starting afresh each year that keeps gardening a beautiful and positive endeavor.
To my surprise, roses thrive in the northern latitudes of Sweden and Denmark where their foliage is blemish-free due to the lack of humidity and cool summers. The Swedes evidently love them as they often graced the front entrances of homes especially in the college city of Lund, a hour away from Copenhagen, Denmark. Here a standard tree-rose has been tucked in at the right corner, and the yellow flowers are complementary to the pale blue door. Without question, one would smile coming home as if flowers are liable to brighten our expressions. ~ Eric
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” ~ Anaïs Nin
“If you could peel the years from a man’s life, as you do the leaves from a globe artichoke, you would find him having his happiest time between the ages of fifty and sixty-five. The awful anxieties of youth have resolves themselves–he no longer jumps at shadows…competitors are not treading upon his heels…achievement has not yet lost its glamour…ultimate success, glorious and satisfying, lies just around the corner….A golden, mellowing period which brings out all that is best in a man. Kindliness creeps incheerfulness spreads its warming rays; even a little humor….” ~ Reginald Arkell, Old Herbaceous (1950)
During a warm spring walk in Philadelphia last year, I happened upon this planting generously crammed with tulips of bright hot colors that literally sang against the faded brick building. The morning light enlivened the emerging foliage of the ginkgo and the translucent petals of the tulips, making me at the promise of longer summer days ahead. ~ Eric
We still have a long way to go before we appreciate cut flowers as aesthetic necessities the same way as the Europeans do. The floral locavore movement that is currently running strong in United States has done much to elevate the beauty of cut flowers, as well as their seasonality, although we still import a large number of flowers from Central and South America. Cut flowers can dramatically animate and enliven an otherwise drab room – I purchased three dozen white tulips from Whole Foods last week, and watching them assume a different life in their fluidity towards light was an experience that brighten the dark mornings.
Perhaps the way the supermarkets and some florists market their flowers can use a styling revision inspired by the small floral boutiques in Europe. In warmer months, the floral bounty is let loose, flowing out of the storefront onto the street where the scents, colors, and shapes entice pedestrians to linger and even walk spontaneously into the store to explore more. It was a successful ploy I fell for several times in London, Paris, Stockholm, and Copenhagen.
Copenhagen was one city where the florist storefronts seduced me over and over, and the Danish Martin Reinicke’s Blomsterskuret (“flower shed” in Danish) may be modest in size, but seems larger when spilling forth with container plants and cut flowers styled in that enviable Nordic way. Located in the hip Vesterbro district, Reinicke’s actual shop is a black shed adorned with gooseneck light fixtures.Stand alone shelving appears salvaged from different sources and placed around the shore, and every imaginable plant and container are crammed on the ledges as if the shed is literally growing.
Once you step through the doorway of the store, the light-filled interior is lined with shelves of different containers and vessels, and a central table is crowded with tiers of cut flowers, each grouped in its individual vase for function and comparison. Light is natural, and the artificial illumination produces a flattering cast on the flowers and plants. How many times do we see cut flowers in the lurid yellow light of the produce section in supermarkets here? It doesn’t help that the colored cellophane wrapping look garish. Lead by example of how the cut flowers would look at home in natural light, and sales then may begin to materialize. The female shop assistant, while preoccupied with making a bouquet, did not hesitate to smile and strike up a friend conversation. It is not simply adequate for a store to create a strong aesthetic impression, as friendly service helps heighten the initial interaction outside. I left Blomsterskuret, wanting to be a patron shall I boldly uproot my life and move to Copenhagen. ~ Eric
Modern pansy hybrids (Viola x wittrockiana) often lack the fragrance of older seed strains, which gardeners in earlier eras enjoyed and picked for tussie-mussie or nosegays. These strains have delicate brush-like markings that appeared obliterated into indistinguishable blobs in modern strains. Some have attractive ruffling that recall the edge of crinoline skirts, giving the flowers a certain graceful femininity. Last spring, I grew some plants from seed, and took the liberty of picking a few to enjoy and smell indoors. Their scent was delicate, like that of a first June rose precociously welcoming summer. ~ Eric
“You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.” ― Pablo Neruda
Ryan’s studies and experience has taken him through Longwood Gardens and also the Jersusalem Botanic Garden, two places I know well and have been lucky to experience . So when I learned that Ryan accepted a position in Jordan, I knew that his experience in Israel at the J.B.G. would be a great benefit to him and looked forward to seeing what kind of work he was getting into. This series provided the perfect opportunity to learn more about Ryan’s work, what he is witnessing in the landscape and see how it is progressing. Enjoy his story and his stunning images. – James
Hello Ryan, would you be so kind as to share with our readers your name and what is your current work position?
Hello, I am Ryan Guillou, the Nursery Manager at the Royal Botanic Garden of Jordan.
A cross-section of life in California
Where are you from originally in the United States and when did you make the move abroad?
I am from Venice Beach, California and I moved to Amman, Jordan in November of 2015 for my position.
What was it that spurred the big move halfway across the world to Jordan?
I wanted to move back to the Middle East and I liked the idea of playing a role in a budding garden’s development.
“Though my staff did not work with growing plants previously, they have a good eye for recognizing and distinguishing plants because of what is palatable or not for their herds….”
Nursery work in the Royal Botanic Garden of Jordan (click on image for more)
What an exciting, and admirable, reason for your decision. With that sort of role you must be responsible for some interesting tasks in the garden, can you give us some background on what those responsibilities include?
As you might expect my job is to grow native Jordanian plants for the garden (we only grow natives), but because horticulture as we think of in the West is not as widely appreciated, the role has expanded a great deal. My staff are from the local community whose primary income before working at the garden was herding sheep and goats. I spend much of my time working with my staff and teaching them about how to propagate and grow, where the plants come from in Jordan, and how we can use different methods and materials to expand production and make our facilities more efficient and organized. Though my staff did not work with growing plants previously, they have a good eye for recognizing and distinguishing plants because of what is palatable or not for their herds.
stunning views, camels and plants: details of past trips (click on image for more)
Another large part of my job is to go on collecting trips throughout Jordan. All of our plants at the garden are wild collected, so I can be in the field 1 to 3 times per month for several days collecting with the botany team and bringing members of my growing team along when space is available. Most of my staff have not seen much of the country, so it is vital that they understand where the plants we grow are from in order to take care of them properly in the nursery.
Carpets of native plants, Anemones and Lupines (click on image for more)
Tell us about a typical day for you in the gardens at work?
On average I spend most of my time checking on various growing and development projects between my two nursery sites, giving out money then threatening them (jokingly) for receipts, and managing expenses. I swear, we gardeners get into this profession to work with plants hands on, but as we rise in position we find ourselves more and more behind a desk!!! We have hundreds of thousands of plants to grow, so we have many deliveries of various materials coming in to keep operations moving and expand facilities. It is not very often that I get to actually plant anything anymore, but the staff are becoming more and more experienced and knowledgeable so it allows me to work on planning for other projects.
Plants of the Eastern Desert and Wadi Araba, Jordan (click on image for more)
Living in another country is a much different experience than visiting other countries. What do you think are the benefits of living abroad and working in the horticulture field?
There is a great deal of habitat disturbance in Jordan, and gardening is not as developed here as in the West. When I tell people what I do and then explain the role of a botanic garden, people are always shocked and smile. I think the best benefit is the appreciation people give me for having such an unusual job in a country that is surrounded by such conflict. Many people I meet tell me that it is refreshing to finally meet an expat in Jordan that does not work in the humanitarian field.
There must be some difficulties that you have encountered while adapting to living in Jordan, what types of struggles would those be?
The two biggest would be the language barrier and a lack of openness to new ideas. However, my Arabic is improving and I can function quite well with most day to day issues along with communicating ideas and directions with my team. As for trying to get others to accept new ideas…… I have learned to adopt a more local method by ignoring and doing things the way I want them to be done. When in Rome…..or the Middle East!
Were there any surprising changes that you didn’t expect but have welcomed and enjoyed?
Assimilating into the Jordanian society and my transformation into a local. I love being able to just blend in and not have a taxi driver or a store clerk suspect that I am a foreigner. I have caught my self starting sentences with ” In Jordan we…”, and even my American accent has changed when I speak English. Whenever I visit the States people ask where I am from.
(click images for more)
You mentioned that there seems to be a lack of openness to new ideas there, so how has that affected you as a horticulturist?
The most direct struggle relates to my job. I spend most of my time trying to find growing materials, otherwise we would spend a fortune to import everything from Europe. We are so spoiled as horticulturists in the West with so many basic resources at our disposal such as ready made potting mixes, different types of containers and growing medias, and experts to ask for advice. Despite the struggle, I have learned to become very resourceful and creative with what can be re-purposed or made from scratch. As a plant nerd it can also be frustrating not to have the large variety of plants at retail nurseries like I had in California. There are so many plants I would love to grow at my apartment, but I can not get my grubby little mits on them!
How did you find your current job in Jordan all the way from California?
Oddly enough, Facebook. My previous manager who hired me posted the position on the Group for Emergent Professionals page. I responded, and here I am now.
What advice would you give to others who are looking to move from one country to another?
Make sure you do your research about the city where you are planning to move. It is vital to know if the position, cost of living, culture, and social seen together can provide you with a life that is affordable and keep you sane. Moving to a new country is a challenge and your overall happiness is most important to handle the stresses of the new environment.
Did you do anything to prepare yourself for this type of life change?
I had some long talks with myself about whether taking this job was the right move for me, and I made a pros and cons list. Once I decided to take the position I used different social media sites like couchsurfing.com to make friends before I arrived. For me it is very important to have friends to see after work, and they have truly become my family here.