Gardens January 2002

Plant Zoos

What exactly is a botanical garden for?

If I lived nearer a botanical garden, I'd probably while away whole days of my life walking among its indigenous floral treasures and leafy aliens, or buried in its library, or gleaning what I could of the institution's latest scientific investigation. England's Royal Botanic Gardens, in Kew, west of London, would be my dream neighbor. Even its mouse-quiet herbarium, crammed with towers of shallow drawers containing scrupulously splayed desiccated plant parts, is an exhilarating place, considering how many millions of specimens it holds from every corner of the globe.

In Kew's misty working greenhouses visitors may bump into a scientist like Brian Mathew, the gentle, lanky bulb expert who is responsible for introducing to the horticultural trade the adorable Fritillaria michailovskyi—a tiny alpine with inch-long burgundy bells banded in mustard yellow. In the mid-1960s Mathew escorted it from a mountain pass in Turkey (he won't say exactly where) to Kew, and then on to Dutch propagation fields. Years later the fritillaria's progeny began appearing in bulb catalogues, and today a delicate few bloom sweetly, if hesitantly, in my own garden's haphazard borders.

In reality the botanical garden closest to me is forty-five miles from my house. The New England Wild Flower Society, a century-old institution, champions native plants in its Garden in the Woods, in Framingham, Massachusetts, west of Boston. Despite the distance, I regularly visit the society's fine, focused botanical collection, consisting of more than 1,600 species. I go in the spring to wander woodland paths speckled with showy trilliums, amid marshes alive with colonies of pitcher plants and rare orchids; later in the summer to walk on the meadows waving with tall spires of magenta blazingstars and heavy-headed purple coneflowers; and in the fall, the circus time of color, to marvel at the clethra's glowing gold foliage and the native viburnum's clusters of translucent apricot-colored berries.

NEWFS has a 55,000-plant commercial nursery, from which I've brought home pots of rare buttery-yellow Kentucky lady's slippers and frothy five-foot plumes of cream-colored goatsbeard. And it offers courses on everything from the life cycles of New England seaweeds to early-morning birding to garden photography. For weeks one fall I navigated highways at night to attend mushroom-identification classes, a brown paper bag full of musty specimens on my front seat alongside pages of spore-dusted notes. As I write this, the society is pouring cement for a fireproof vault, an indestructible seed bank to safeguard the genetic heritage of plants threatened in the wild.

When the government of Wales opened a multimillion-dollar national botanical garden, in the Tywi Valley, in 2000, with new buildings—including a sparkling space-age glasshouse—designed by the renowned modernist architect Sir Norman Foster and set in a historic park, I began planning my trip. The first botanical garden of this scale to be created in the United Kingdom in some 200 years, the National Botanic Garden of Wales declared itself "a blueprint for an environmentally sustainable garden for the new millennium" and "a centerpiece of Welsh culture"—lofty claims by the feisty folk of a country not much bigger than Massachusetts, but then, they are famous for vigorous flag-waving.

I visited the National Botanic Garden in the rolling, unbelievably green hills of southwest Wales on the garden's sunny first birthday, this past May. Busloads of French teenagers, Welsh-speaking toddlers, and garden-club ladies, some with spouses ("Puffin, luv, I'll just pop off then for a look at the hostas"), were already fanning out across the 568-acre property when I took my bearings outside the round wooden gatehouse, also designed by Foster. On a welcoming terrace encircled by bright-green baby metasequoias, I read from the orientation kiosk that every year 150 million people worldwide visit botanical gardens, gardens that collectively hold more than four million living accessions, representing a third of all known plant species. The NBGW intends to support scientific research, conservation, and public education, its mission being to prevent further degradation of the world's natural environment.

Oh, dear—the pumped-up language of a feasibility study. As I learned more about the garden's raison d'être, my heart sank further. It took seven years for a steering committee to articulate a vision in order to submit an application for funding to Britain's Millennium Commission, which dispenses money from the national lottery. A grant equivalent to $35 million was bestowed in 1996. In an undeniably admirable auxiliary fundraising campaign the garden then matched every penny—and the project was under way.

At the outset the hope had been to rescue this once exquisite eighteenth-century landscape, whose design was commissioned by Sir William Paxton, a wealthy Scotsman who fell in love with Wales. He bought an estate that was then called Middleton Hall, and set about reconfiguring it in 1789. Paxton's manor house burned to the ground in 1931. But as the NBGW project took shape, those shepherding it remained determined to save the Georgian outbuildings, the double-walled (for reflected heat) fruit and vegetable gardens, and a necklace of artificial lakes, all property of the local county council. William Wilkins, a well-connected local artist educated at the Royal College of Art and the founder of the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust, rallied a patriotic team to lobby for the restoration. When I visited him in his ancestral home nearby, which overlooks the ruins of a 600-year-old castle, Wilkins told me, "It was a unique opportunity to fuse the creative tensions of the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries. It could be a dialogue on aesthetics between the original Arcadian vision and one of the future." Wilkins paced the length of his stone verandah, hands jammed deep in his pockets. I didn't know what to say, because it was far from clear to me that any such rarefied dialogue was taking place.

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