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.


  1. The Tropical Rotunda may be tough to maintain, but your picture is awesome! I have a small gazebo in the back yard with plants that I "baby". Some do well, others do not. One of the hummingbirds from the nest has taken up residence among the foliage and lets no other fowl get near. Nature is a constantly changing wonder.

  2. So glad one of the hummers stuck around! What other creature manages to be territorial and cute at the same time?

  3. The mom in me takes great pleasure that you have such an intense interest in plants and gardening. Planting a garden and starting a compost pile was the first thing I did when we moved to Palo Alto, to the house on Addison. I think it is in the genes. One time I saw a picture of Ma (my great grandmother Mary Pasich Golobic) in her garden. Housekeeping was not one of her interests but she was passionate about her garden and mushrooming in Sonoma county. Moxie always planted Swiss chard in the heavy clay soil of San Bruno and I watched with great interest. Isn't it funny how these deep inclinations emerge.


  4. Thank you for showcasing the garden and its inhabitants! We are lucky to have an amazing volunteer like you!