|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.|
|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 http://www.atlantabotanicalgarden.org/conservation/native-plants). 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.|
|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.|
|David Ruland: Greenhouse Manager, conifer wrangler, and all around nice guy. Photo: Hilary Hart.|
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.|