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

ben-stormes

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.

img_0837

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?

img_1764

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.

ubcs-garry-oak-meadow-in-early-may

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.

 

dsc_0733

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….

img_2214

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!

img_0040

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.

img_0781

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.

nov-2-2016-copy

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!

img_0727

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.

img_0879

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

matthew-pottage-1

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!

abies-pinsapo-aurea

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.

monkey-puzzles-in-chilean-habitat

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

Interview conducted by Eric Hsu

Photography by Matt Lobdell

 

p1010447

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.


SONY DSC

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.

SONY DSC

Stryax americanus showing its small reflexed flowers.


malus-dolgo-dsc_4187

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.


dsc_4076

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).

magnolia-elizabeth-dsc_4214

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.


SONY DSC

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.

14352603_10154574645222612_2110543163832642183_o

Matt examining plants in Republic of Georgia.


SONY DSC

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.


img_20160808_080833

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.

 


img_6043-1

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!