Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Superficial Tour of Floraphile Heaven: The Dorothy Chapman Fuqua Conservatory of the Atlanta Botanical Garden

The Dorothy Chapman Fuqua Conservatory viewed from the Conservation Garden.  Sculpture: Henry Moore's "Oval with Points.  Photo: Hilary Hart.
While my last two posts came easily, I’ve struggled with this one.  My plan was to launch off into profiles of specific plants, but after making several abortive attempts, I realize that I must first explain how it is that I’ve come across so many unusual plants.  So what follows is a breezy and incomplete overview of the people and plants I’ve come to know as a volunteer in the Dorothy Chapman Fuqua Conservatory at the Atlanta Botanical Garden (ABG).

How did I start?  I visited ABG, loved it, and wanted to get involved.  Fortunately ABG takes on hoards of volunteers, so that was easy!  I was assigned to work in the Fuqua Conservatory, which initially disappointed me.  I wanted to learn what grew outside, in this climate so foreign me.  I was especially interested to know what kind of alchemy was performed to turn red Georgia clay into arable soil.  But working in the Conservatory has turned out to be an enormous piece of luck. 
“Right.  I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do.”
This is the phrase I hear a lot from my boss (if volunteers can be said to have bosses), Paul Blackmore, Fuqua Conservatory Manager.  Paul says this at least once a day, and sometimes repeatedly, like a kind of preparatory mantra.  When the latter is the case, I know he’s mentally assembling a nice big project. 
Paul’s from Brighton, England, was trained at Kew Gardens, and managed the Limbe Botanical and Zoological Gardens in Cameroon.  His specialties are palms and cycads, but his passions are for ethno- and economic botany.  It is Paul I credit for turning my chronic interest in plants into an acute obsession. My very favorite thing is to take a walk with Paul that is long in duration, but short in actual distance.  We may travel only 25 yards, but by stopping and discussing the plants along the way, Paul covers a great deal of history, botany, and plant lore.  Before I met Paul, I really had no idea that plant and human history are so entwined.  
Paul Blackmore with a specimen of Cinchona, a plant with perhaps the most fascinating history of all:  We have it to thank for quinine. Photo: Hilary Hart.
The Conservatory is a busy place, however, so protracted strolls are a rare treat. Tropical forests, even ones kept under glass, are messy.  They grow, bloom, and shed bits of themselves all the time.  That’s fine in the wild, but you cannot have botanical detritus choking the paths and making the exhibits look shabby. Thus leaf-litter pick-up in the Tropical Rotunda is a near-constant occupation, and more arduous than it sounds.  When I leave the path to tidy up, I thread myself through dense vegetation, taking care to avoid treading on the smaller plants, many of which are rare and quite delicate.  The atmosphere in the Rotunda is, as you might expect, equatorial.  The heat and humidity make leaf-litter pick-up a lot like Bikram Yoga.  Unlike yoga, you must hold your poses amid serrated leaves, barbs, and thorns.  So before reaching out to steady myself against a sturdy trunk, I examine it for spikes.  
Inside the Tropical Rotunda.  Photo: Hilary Hart.
Another important occupation in the Tropical Rotunda is controlling the vines.  They are a nuisance and interfere with the windows, vents, and other mechanisms necessary for keeping the temperature constant.  If allowed to grow unchecked, the vines would quickly obscure all the windows and the rotunda would become a stinking anaerobic pit.  However, vines, especially the cissus vine, provide indispensible verisimilitude.  Hanging vines are what one expects in a tropical forest, are they not?  And the jade vine is too beautiful and otherworldly to be believed.  So when the rotunda begins to get a bit dark, we pull down the growth from some of the windows.  On these occasions, the accumulated mass of vegetation is truly overwhelming.  
Thigh-high in jungle debris.  Can you see the path? Photo: Hilary Hart.
Conservatory Horticulturalist Julia Mitchell with Intern David Poston.  A heaped wheelbarrow between them.  Photo: Hilary Hart.
In background, Jo Ann Cobb Bertrand, a longtime volunteer and ABG benefactor. Photo: Hilary Hart.
 Next door to the Tropical Rotunda is the Desert House.  The plants in here grow at a much slower pace, and as a result require less pruning, which is a lucky thing for Kara Zeigler, Curator of Desert Collections.  The plants in the desert house are massively armed with thorns, spines, and in many cases biochemical toxins.  So while in the Tropical Rotunda we can pull at vines and hack away at dead fronds, letting the vegetation rain down on our heads, several species of euphorbia that grow in the Desert House ooze caustic fluid that when cut that will burn holes in your skin.  Plants care not for Conventions Geneva, especially not those that grow in harsh climates.  When the sun is hot, and the soil is poor, and the rain comes but infrequently, the predations of animals are disastrous for plants. The results are the "every means necessary" adaptations common to plants from places like the South African Cape, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar. 
Euphorbia cooperi (Candelabra Tree) of Limpopo, Zimbabwe.  Spines and poisonous sap present a whole lotta ow.  Photo:  Hilary Hart
Desert House.  Photo: Hilary Hart.
 The Conservatory’s realm extends beyond its glass confines into the open.  Part of a botanical garden’s mission is conservation, and ABG’s conservation program works chiefly “on the monitoring, restoration and conservation of the unique and species-rich bog communities that are found throughout the Coastal Plain and southern Appalachian Mountains of the southeastern United States" (quotation taken from The Conservation Garden located behind the Conservatory showcases native species, including pitcher plants and other carnivorous species, orchids, rare conifers, and azaleas.  A crew of us periodically performs general maintenance and larger jobs of work on the mountain cataract bog and the wetland bogs.  And let me tell you, weeding a native garden in such a biodiverse region is dicey business.  I generally situate myself near Paul or some other knowledgeable person to help me tell the weeds from the rare native species.  

Sarracenia leucophylla (white-topped pitcher plant) blooming in the Georgia bog, part of the Conservation Garden. Photo: Hilary Hart.
Here we are cutting back spent stalks of Rudbeckia auriculata (or eared coneflower), a rare plant endemic to the southeast.
Kara Zeigler at the Mountain Cataract Bog.  Those are the Conservation Greenhouses in the Background.   Photo: Hilary Hart
All tidied up.  Paul Blackmore on the right. Photo: Hilary Hart

Harvesting Rudbeckia auriculata seeds. Photo: Hilary Hart.
Proof that I did more than stand around and take pictures.  Photo: Julia Mitchell.
Back inside.  Some of the most peaceful work I do is for David Ruland, Greenhouse Manager.  I weed, prune, propagate, repot, and meditate.  David has a special affinity for conifers and a gift for propagating them from seeds and cuttings.  In ABG’s greenhouses we keep our own specimens, but also those of other collections in a world-wide effort to preserve the genetic diversity of rare, important, and endangered plants.  In addition to caring for the plants, David has the unenviable task of finding greenhouse space for additional plants, which requires a lot of shifting and occasional feats of engineering.

David Ruland: Greenhouse Manager, conifer wrangler, and all around nice guy. Photo: Hilary Hart.
This completes a woefully incomplete tour of the people and plants I work with at the Dorothy Chapman Fuqua Conservatory in the Atlanta Botanical Garden.  There is so much that I didn’t cover, like the fact that the Conservatory’s collections and conservation efforts include not just plants but also animals, most importantly amphibians.  And no stops were made in the Orangerie, where plants of economic value are on exhibit.

I also failed to mention the extremely popular Fuqua Orchid Center, which is adjacent to the Conservatory.  Being neighbors with the Orchid Center is a bit like operating a zoo exhibit on the way to the Panda House: People only stop at your exhibit to ask directions.  So really, the Orchid Center doesn’t need floraphile’s mention.  I will, however, include this picture of Sarah Carter, Orchid Center Horticulturist, because I like her.  No mention went to the High Elevation House, which is perhaps the coolest (in all senses) place at ABG.  And don’t ask for directions to that either.

Sarah Carter, Orchid Center Horticulturist. Photo: Hilary Hart.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Decorative Moss: The Gift of Living Craft

Tuesday night I went to see Amy Sedaris.  She’s on a tour promoting her latest book, Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People.   
Earlier in the day I had been repotting some plants with very dense growths of moss.  I kept peeling off thick wheels of it and thinking that Martha Stewart has surely devised a project using moss to create some achingly tasteful decorative item.  But just as surely, it involves a lot of fussy steps, specialized tools, and chemicals that could melt your eyelashes.  
And then it hit me!  I shall fashion this moss into some kind of gift for Amy Sedaris using her methods.  I didn’t have much time, but that’s O.K.  As a crafter Amy prefers a more na├»ve aesthetic, and certainly I could manage that.
Moment of inspiration.  (I promise to write at length about the very rare plant in these pots.)
 And so I took that moss home and cut and trimmed and stitched and knotted.  All the while I thought of witty things to say to Amy:
Because I give my crafts as gifts, my friendship can be kind of an affliction.  But you’ve made me feel O.K. about that.  Thanks! (Too sycophantic?)
I see you have a chapter on the” craft of making love.”  Don’t you think you should have also included a chapter on crafting your own contraceptives?  (Hmm, a bit challenging.)
I love your conceptual portraits.  Is Cindy Sherman a fan?  Or does she feel threatened by you? (Pretentious twit!)
In less than 90 minutes I had what I felt was a suitable gift.  Here it is.  
That’s not just moss but liverwort and an itty-bitty fern.
The bad thing is that I am now running late.  And I have to navigate the crazy, could-turn-lethal-at-any-moment Atlanta traffic under pressure.  To change lanes you have watch for a gap while cars fly past you on either side, look out for a sudden halt to the traffic ahead, and identify anyone likely to pull some catastrophically asinine maneuver that will end you life and the lives of everyone in your automotive wolf pack. 
I survive, but miss the cocktail hour before the lecture.  All cultural events in Atlanta are billed as “cocktails and. . ." fill-in-the-blank.  I wish there were still Marxists on lecture circuits so that there could be "cocktails and self-critique."  Despite my tardiness, I get a rather good seat since I am on my own.  At that moment Ms. Sedaris is taking volunteers from the audience to participate in an on-the-spot craft project.  It’s the Crafty Candle Salad, and the poor volunteer blushes in increasingly vivid shades.  He ends by looking quite like a candle himself, which you’ll understand if you consult page 42 of Simple Times.
Next Ms. Sedaris takes questions from the audience:
“I have an eleven-year-old daughter.  Any parenting advice?
“Get her an apartment.”
“I’m new at crafting.  Can you suggest a project to start with?”
“Paint some rocks.”
If she doesn’t like a question or finds it awkward for some reason, she takes a call on her knitted fake cell-phone, her iPhony. 
“How do you feel about Martha Stewart?”
“I think he’s great!”
Of Ms. Stewart’s oeuvre, Ms. Sedaris opined that it was all very well executed but dull, predictable.  Her own work was more inventive and rustic.  She has a lot of ideas, A LOT of ideas, but not a lot of skill.  Her crafts were just not the same quality, so perhaps they didn’t make good gifts, except as material to be broken down and turned into more crafts.
This was the exact moment that I should have stood up and offered my gift of living craft!  How could it fail to be well received with this kind of wind-up?  But I was a coward and let the moment pass.  I began to regret missing the cocktail hour.
So my offering had to wait for the book signing.  I managed to secure a good place in line, somewhere in the scrum towards the front.  Waiting with all the other fans was a bore.  I had to listen to a lot of irritating chatter that passed for witty effervescence.  More like irrivescence, I quipped to myself, lamely.  On reflection, I think this uncharitable frame of mind was a symptom of my avid fan reaction, which causes me to question the authenticity of the other fans I am crowded in with.  I had this response the first time I went to see Amy’s brother David Sedaris read. It was a huge auditorium, and I wondered just who exactly all these other people were.  Did they all hear David Sedaris read the “Santaland Diaries” on Morning Edition back in 1992 while getting ready for a crap job, in a crap apartment, shared with a crap boyfriend? I. Don’t. Think. So.
I am sorry to report that when my turn with Amy came I clammed up.  I am no good around famous people.  I mumbled something about having made her a gift and pushed it towards her.
“What is it?”
“It’s a necklace . . . or a banner . . . of your name spelled out in moss.”
“Oh.  It’s so moist.”
She didn’t even try it on.  Just as well.  It probably would have gotten her dirty and left damp spots on her blouse.  But she signed my book, my copy of Craft Magazine that features Amy on the cover, and I got this picture:
She gave me a “Simple Times” pencil in appreciation for my gift (I don’t think the other “fans” got that).  And she didn’t call security.  But perhaps security guards cannot be reached by iPhony.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Welcome to the flora files, floraphiles!

This is a blog about plants and their attendants, which means, well, everything since plants are the foundation of Earth’s biota.  Plants are at the base of every food chain, they produce oxygen, and humans have used them to make fiber, medicine, and a zillion other things.  I am a plant attendant in these ways, but also in the sense that a floraphile is a special kind of plant attendant, an adoring and permanently fascinated one.  But it is only recently that I have been able to fully indulge this fixation. 
Last year, that’s 2009, I moved from Eugene, Oregon, to Atlanta, Georgia.  Oregon was my home for 16 years, and before that California.  I am a West Coaster through and through, which gives me a particular perspective I thought I’d come clean about right at the start.  I didn’t set out to write a confessional blog, but any perspective comes with its lenses and its blinders.  The latter, for me, are pretty unattractive.
West rhymes with Best: No accident!
I am the worst kind of Californian, a Northern Californian.  If you aren’t, you may not know that we have an unbreakable sense of regional superiority.  Unless the Northern Californians you know are tactless, you will be unaware of this fact.  But get us in a room together and out comes our conceit, like the sun from behind a receding fog bank.   
Are those God's hands?
I recently had this experience at a dinner party.  Nearly all of us were from or had lived in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I do not believe I have ever been a member of a more self-satisfied group of people.  We even gloried in our ignorance of most of the rest of the country’s geography.  We readily admitted that before moving to Atlanta, we had only the haziest notion of the Southeast.  Pressed to draw a map of the Eastern seaboard, we would have drawn a mighty horn representing New England, but from there the coastline is a vague and atrophied squiggle bookended more confidently by Florida.  That state provides a kind of physical symmetry to our Baja California, and a cultural corollary to the tackiness that is Southern California. 
Westerners in general also believe they have a lock on nature.  We have mountains: the Sierras, Rockies, and Cascades.  The Appalachians, what’s that?  Topographical acne?  You can’t film a Coors ad there!  And trees?  We’ve got giant sequoias you can drive a car through!  The Atlantic Ocean can’t even produce surfable waves.  Not really.  We have mountain lions, grizzly bears, and condors (some of them in the wild).  New York may have culture, but to live amid it you must share narrow quarters with roaches and rats, winged and terrestrial.  

Westerners view the east coast much as early Americans viewed Europe:  We have virtue and vigor, while your land is depleted and your people dissipated.  Look at our massive flora and fauna, our personal freedoms and unfettered thinking!  If Americans are exceptionalists, West coasters are exceptionally exceptionalist.  Manifestly so.  But perhaps this is not our fault, only our destiny.
Needless to say, when I told people that I was moving to Atlanta, they were baffled.  Some even said, “You don’t want to move there!”  To them, where I live now is a place people leave to move north or go west.  You are going in the wrong direction, they seemed to say.  The odd thing is that when I tell people here in Atlanta that I moved from Oregon, they too react with bafflement bordering on consternation.  It’s as if I’ve given up my apartment in Heaven.
The West, I must conclude, still has a kind of mystique.  And Oregon exists in the rest of the nation’s imagination pristine and evergreen.  There are some locations where this is really true.  On our honeymoon, John and I hiked a trail in an old growth forest with massive trees.  It was September and the beautifully maintained path was lined—literally lined—with chanterelle mushrooms.  It was like a storybook illustration.  I could not have carried away the quantity of mushrooms I might have picked without even leaving the trail.  
Do you see the fungal gold right there in the open?
 On the other hand, there are also great swaths of devastation.  The highway from Eugene to the coast is an example. When we make this trip, John always drives, refrains from listening to his usual “bummer music,” and I bring knitting or something to read.  Visible from the road are hillsides, vistas of repeating hillsides, bare but for stumps.  Without my precautions, by the time I arrive at the beach I am in a mood to fill my pockets with rocks and continue heading west.
Regional conceits aside, leaving Eugene, Oregon, has not been painless.  The charms of Eugene were not immediately apparent to me, but I had come to love it and was content to live the rest of my life in the Emerald Valley.  I had become intimate with the details of each season’s progressions: the fall and spring rains that brought mushrooms, the succession of wildflower blossoms, green green trees against a blue blue summer sky.  I left behind a backyard full of mature and maturing plants.  In with the usual exotic ornamentals were a profusion of native plants:  oceanspray; false Solomon’s seal; glacier lilies; both kinds of Oregon grape; bleeding heart; a pair of entwined vines, mock orange and Western white clematis; cow parsnip; snow berry; sword fern; licorice fern; maiden hair fern; Wood’s rose; Indian plum; Devil’s club; silk-tassel bush; Western trillium; and camas.  And arching above all it was the canopy of a massive Pacific myrtle.  To stand beneath that tree, to enjoy the cool of its shade on a hot summer day and hear the breeze stir its upper branches was to feel the embrace of grace.

I certainly spilled heart’s blood to leave behind my yard and the Western ecology I was so familiar with, but the true transplantation trauma has been leaving behind my friends, an irreplaceable group of people I grew into, who shaped the way I live, think and see.  
Wish I had better photos of Grand Ole Myrtle.
The Here and Now
So with my Westerner’s ignorance, my new region endlessly surprises me.  Here are some of the highlights:
Who knew that Atlanta, this megalopolis, was so full of enormous trees?

And with all these trees come a proliferation of birds.  Cardinals, although common, still have the power to arrest me.  What a red bird, I observe for the umpteenth time.  It really is that red. 

A wintertime deciduous canopy, while sadly bare and drab, allows for excellent bird watching.  No obscuring leaves!

This region is geographically ancient.  The Appalachians I was so quick to sneer at are the Earths oldest mountains.  Though low and rolling now, were once peaks higher than the Himalayas. 

The biodiversity in the Southeast is far greater than out West.  Because this part of the world has been around for so long, the flora and fauna have had eons to evolve and diversify.

A long time a go (Miocene era, that’s 15 million years ago) North American and Asia shared a landmass.  As a result, there are over 65 plant genera of closely related species found in both eastern North American and east Asia. 

My favorite member of the “disjunct distribution” clan of plants is the ubiquitous tulip poplar or liriodendron tulipfera.  That tree shares a genus of two with the Chinese tulip tree, liriodendron chinense, native to China and Vietnam.  
Leaf of Liriodendron chinense, Ecological-Botanical Gardens in Bayreuth, Germany.  Source: El Grafo.

The tulip poplar is a kind of touchstone for me.  The first one I ever saw was actually In Eugene, Oregon, on the corner of Grant and 18th. I don’t think I would have noticed the tree if it hadn’t been in bloom.  First I saw its unusual blossom: green, orange, and cream, and then its distinctive leaf.  When he came to visit, I asked my father, a self-taught naturalist very knowledgeable about Pacific coast ecology, and he didn’t know what it was either.  At the time I was a harassed graduate student of English, so I didn’t pursue the tree’s identity.  It remained a mystery until I moved to Georgia.  And now liriodendron tulipfera graces the background of floraphile.  
Tulip poplar on Grant & 18th in Eugene, OR.