5-10-5: Ben Stormes, Curator and Horticulturist for the UBC Botanical Garden’s North American Collections

Interview conducted by Eric Hsu

Photography by Ben Stormes, Janet Davis, and Eric Hsu

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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.

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Jeffersonia diphylla, the native twinleaf that captured Ben’s young heart.

 

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?

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The beauty of plants, like Jeffersonia dubia here, is their power to educate visitors about the plants’ importance.

 

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.

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The Garry Oak Meadow in Spring – blue camassias (Camassia leichtlinii ssp. suksdorfii) and pink sea blush (Plectritis congesta).

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.

 

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Quercus garryana and Holodiscus discolor in a remnant meadow near Victoria, British Columbia.

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….

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Actaea cimicifuga (syn. Actaea foetida)

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!

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Anemonopsis macrophylla, a Japanese woodland perennial that requires moist-retentive soil to flourish and produce these pendent pale pink flowers in late summer.

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.

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Corylopsis sp., a woody member of Hamamelidaceae.

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.

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Ben’s Epimedium nursery bed where desirable and unusual taxa are bulked up before transplanted elsewhere – the variation of leaves is evident here.

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!

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Phragmipedium ‘Court Jester’ belongs to one of Ben’s favorite orchidaceous genera.

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.

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Epimedium brevicornu

 

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.

5-10-5: Matthew Pottage, Curator of RHS Wisley Garden

Interview conducted by Eric Hsu

Photography by Matthew Pottage

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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!

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Abies pinsapo ‘Aurea’

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.

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One of Matthew’s memorable trips was seeing the monkey puzzles in the lower volcanic slopes of the Chilean Andes.

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.

quercus-rubra-aurea

Quercus rubra ‘Aurea’ at RHS Wisley.

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. fastigiataPinus 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.

rhs-wisley-garden

Wavy patterns in the mown turf next to the Canal at RHS Wisley.

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.

alternatives-to-box-display-planting

Box alternatives are showcased in a pleasing loose parterre style at RHS Wisley.

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.

london-garden

Matthew’s London terrace is full of container plants, including a variegated clivia, arranged to highlight their foliage textures and colors – the only caveat is that pests flourish year round in London’s microclimate!

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!

yorkshire-garden

Matthew’s beautifully-tended garden at his parents’ Yorkshire home.

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!

5-10-5: Peter Zale, Curator of Plants and Plant Breeder at Longwood Gardens

Peter_Zale

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.

Phlox ovata ‘White Mountainside’.  A unique flower color variant of this underutilized species that I found in western Virginia

Phlox ovata ‘White Mountainside’. A unique flower color variant of this underutilized species that I found in western Virginia

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.


The foliage of Magnolia virginiana "var. ludoviciana"

The foliage of Magnolia virginiana “var. ludoviciana”

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.


Left: Some of the Phlox hybrids I created under evaluation at the Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center. Center: Phlox pilosa ssp. deamii is one of the most promising members of the Phlox pilosa complex for cultivation.  It is more compact and floriferous than other forms of P. pilosa.  It also reminds me of plant collecting in Kentucky.  It has a very restricted natural range and has become very rare in the wild. Right: A clone of Phlox nivalis discovered in the Florida panhandle.  This clone is a unique color pattern in Phlox.

Left: Some of the Phlox hybrids I created under evaluation at the Ornamental Plant Germplasm Center. Center: Phlox pilosa ssp. deamii is one of the most promising members of the Phlox pilosa complex for cultivation. It is more compact and floriferous than other forms of P. pilosa. It also reminds me of plant collecting in Kentucky. It has a very restricted natural range and has become very rare in the wild. Right: A clone of Phlox nivalis discovered in the Florida panhandle. This clone is a unique color pattern in Phlox.

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.

An intensely colored clone of Phlox villosissima (syn. P. pilosa ssp. riparia or P. pilosa ssp. latisepala) selected from a roadside population in Kerr County, Texas.  Despite the southern origins of this taxon, it is proving to be one of the most adaptable and persistent taxa in the P. pilosa complex.

An intensely colored clone of Phlox villosissima (syn. P. pilosa ssp. riparia or P. pilosa ssp. latisepala) selected from a roadside population in Kerr County, Texas. Despite the southern origins of this taxon, it is proving to be one of the most adaptable and persistent taxa in the P. pilosa complex.


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.

The habitat of Phlox pilosa ssp. deamii, a very rare phlox of the interior low plateau region of western Kentucky.  The herbaceous layer of plants was exceptionally rich and included a blend of prairie forbs and woodland plants.

The habitat of Phlox pilosa ssp. deamii, a very rare phlox of the interior low plateau region of western Kentucky. The herbaceous layer of plants was exceptionally rich and included a blend of prairie forbs and woodland plants.

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.

Left to Right: A view of the mountainous valley and ridge province of western Virginia from the top of Bald Knob; Rhododendron prinophyllum in full bloom amongst the acid soil loving flora on Bald Knob; Trillium undulatum in the same region.

Left to Right: A view of the mountainous valley and ridge province of western Virginia from the top of Bald Knob; Rhododendron prinophyllum in full bloom amongst the acid soil loving flora on Bald Knob; Trillium undulatum in the same region.

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.


Left: A yellow form of Trillium decipiens found along a roadside in Alabama.  Does it get any better?  Center: One of my clones of Trillium maculatum f. simulans.  One of my all-time favorite plants.  I found this along a roadside next to a dilapidated house with hundreds of kids toys scattered throughout the yard.  This has tremendous breeding potential. Right: Trillium recurvatum f. shayi ‘Little Rabbit’ is a new introduction of the yellow flowered form of T. recurvatum.  This was selected by a dear friend of mine in southeastern Indiana for its dwarf habit and rapid vegetative propagation.  Most forms of f. shayi are tall, slender plants that do not readily increase.

Left: A yellow form of Trillium decipiens found along a roadside in Alabama. Does it get any better? Center: One of my clones of Trillium maculatum f. simulans. One of my all-time favorite plants. I found this along a roadside next to a dilapidated house with hundreds of kids toys scattered throughout the yard. This has tremendous breeding potential. Right: Trillium recurvatum f. shayi ‘Little Rabbit’ is a new introduction of the yellow flowered form of T. recurvatum. This was selected by a dear friend of mine in southeastern Indiana for its dwarf habit and rapid vegetative propagation. Most forms of f. shayi are tall, slender plants that do not readily increase.

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.

Hepatica nobilis ssp. acuta ‘Nimbus’.  My selection of this typically white or pale pink-flowered species from a variable population in southwestern Ohio.  It needs further evaluation, but the initial results are promising.

Hepatica nobilis ssp. acuta ‘Nimbus’. My selection of this typically white or pale pink-flowered species from a variable population in southwestern Ohio. It needs further evaluation, but the initial results are promising.

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.


A view of the imposing Himalayan range in Northern Myanmar on our ascent to Phongun Razi.

A view of the imposing Himalayan range in Northern Myanmar on our ascent to Phongun Razi.

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?

Impatiens cf. stenantha in Kachin state, northern Myanmar

Impatiens cf. stenantha in Kachin state, northern 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!

Left: Crawfurdia cf. campanulata in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar at ca. 3000m in elevation; Right: Tripterospermum sp. in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar

Left: Crawfurdia cf. campanulata in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar at ca. 3000m in elevation; Right: Tripterospermum sp. in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar

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?

Quercus lamelloseQuercus lamellosa was one of the most interesting trees found on the trip and the unique acorns that littered ground always amazed us at each encounter.

Lilium aroboricola in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar at 2300m in elevation

Lilium arboricola in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar at 2300m in elevation

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.


Left to right: The form of Lilium canadense found in Ohio, and a fantastic garden plant; A cream-colored seedling of the normally orange Lilium catesbaei that appeared in  batch of seedlings.  You can imagine my surprise and excitement.  This color form is very rare in wild; Lilium lijiangense is one of the best Chinese Lilium species for the Midwestern and Eastern USA, but little known and rarely grown.

Left to right: The form of Lilium canadense found in Ohio, and a fantastic garden plant; A cream-colored seedling of the normally orange Lilium catesbaei that appeared in batch of seedlings. You can imagine my surprise and excitement. This color form is very rare in wild; Lilium lijiangense is one of the best Chinese Lilium species for the Midwestern and Eastern USA, but little known and rarely grown.

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.

The Taiwanese form of Lilium gloriosoides.  One of my desert island plants.

The Taiwanese form of Lilium gloriosoides. One of my desert island plants.


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.


2003 Heronswood Nursery Catalog; this nursery's garden replete with rare and uncommon plants inspired Peter's repeat visits.

2003 Heronswood Nursery Catalog; this nursery’s garden replete with rare and uncommon plants inspired Peter’s repeat visits.

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


5-10-5: Matt Lobdell, Head of Collections and Curator, The Morton Arboretum

Interview conducted by Eric Hsu

Photography by Matt Lobdell

 

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Matt Lobdell taking notes on a clipboard during the 2015 plant hunting expedition in Alabama.

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.


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Styrax hemsleyanus (Hemsley Snowbell) native to central China.

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.

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Stryax americanus showing its small reflexed flowers.


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The Morton Arboretum’s Malus ‘Dolgo’ whose fruits are considered suitable for making crab apple jelly.

 

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.


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Magnolia collection in full flower at The Morton Arboretum.

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).

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Magnolia ‘Elizabeth at The Morton Arboretum’s magnolia collection.


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.


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Subalpine meadows in the Tusheti National Park, Georgia.

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 pentagynaTilia 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.

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Matt examining plants in Republic of Georgia.


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Acer ibericum in Georgia.

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.


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Magnolia pyramidata, one of the big-leafed magnolias native to eastern US.

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.

 


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Matt preparing a herbarium specimen of a magnolia collected in Torreya State Park, Florida.

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!

Curators in Gardens

by Eric Hsu

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The Botanical Garden by Raoul Dufy

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.

Floral Fridays: Antipodean Arrangement

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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.

 

Book Review: The Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa

by Eric Hsu

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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.

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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.

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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. mooreiNerine 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.

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The book is peppered with color photographs depicting plants in the wild, such as thie one of Cyrtanthus verntricosus after fire. Photograph courtesy of Amaryllidaceae of Southern Africa and by John Manning.

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.

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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.

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Gethyllis ciliaris subsp. ciliaris. Photo by Graham Duncan

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Kniphofia: the complete guide by Christopher Whitehouse

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The range of colors from the Kniphofia cultivars at the 2007-2009 RHS Trial (Photo Credit: Tim Sandall from Kniphofia)

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…

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“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