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.

In committee, apparently, the objective ballooned from historic restoration to the construction of a national institution. The county of Carmarthenshire, where the National Botanic Garden is sited, west of Cardiff, is rural, struggling to survive on sheep and cattle farming and desperately in need of an economic boost—like much else in Wales. A shiny new botanical garden would surely attract tourists, eager scientists, international business ... lights, action.

So there I was, ambling up the "Broadwalk," a path flanked on one side by jagged piles of rocks—an earnest display of the country's underpinnings (Precambrian granite, Ordovician dolerite, Lower carboniferous limestone)—and on the other by a 700-foot-long perennial bed. Any year-old border tends to be spotty. "A bit twee, do you think? Even rather suburban?," I overheard one Englishwoman say. (A cultured English accent asserts itself distinctly in this unassuming countryside.) Beyond the clumps of flowers the repaired outer wall of a double-walled garden stood sturdily; the vegetable garden itself is waiting for funds to be rebuilt. Ahead to the east rises the Great Glasshouse, 300 feet long, a twinkling egg emerging from an emerald hilltop. It almost doesn't matter what's inside, the futuristic form is so intriguing from afar.

When I reached the glasshouse, Ivor Stokes, the garden's wiry, genial director of horticulture, joined me, to show me around its varied landscapes. These—a rocky ridge, a splashing waterfall, a parched plain, among other things—re-create far-flung parts of the globe that have in common a Mediterranean-like climate. "We want accurate representation of the plants within their natural communities," Stokes said, sweeping an arm toward the scorched, sandy pathways, his sagging, cream-colored linen safari jacket, brick-red shirt, and battered straw hat bringing to mind a coffee-plantation owner. The plants in the glasshouse are arranged geographically. We traveled from a field of eye-smarting-orange California poppies to a Canary Islands-style stony hillside covered in blue and pink echiums—lovely two-foot spikes of closely massed flowers—and then crossed a bridge into a grove of 200-year-old olive trees from Spain.

All this was surely ambitious, but throughout the glasshouse I never felt quite sure if I was meant to be in western Australia, Chile, or the south of France. And many of the plants looked as if they were putting on their best faces under trying conditions. They must miss the sun (it rains more than six feet a year in this part of Wales), and, too, they are still settling in after long journeys.

As Stokes explained it, the reason for gathering these particular species, many of them more determined-looking than beautiful, is that their natural habitats are fast being overrun by development. As the NBGW's mission statement explains it, the glasshouse is intended to be "a lifeboat to preserve unique species and plant genetic diversity for future generations." This ex situ conservation reminded me of rounding up white leopards and three-toed marsupials for a zoo: the effort is well intentioned, supposedly for the creatures' own good, and brazenly manipulative. It's no wonder that a King Protea from South Africa seems a little homesick under a crystal dome in western Wales.

Even the Prince of Wales himself, the royal patron of the garden, whom I met on this trip, struck me as less than overwhelmed by the goings-on there. Hopeful though his official message is in The National Botanic Garden of Wales (2000), a book that chronicles the garden's conception and purpose, in person Prince Charles was regally blunt. We shook hands (I'd been duly instructed in how to behave in a submissive colonial manner) in St. David's Hall, in Cardiff, at a reception after a concert hosted by the Welsh College of Music and Drama. Enthralled by his exquisitely tailored suit, and longing for a whiff of palace-endorsed soap (face to face the Prince is utterly engaging), I managed to blurt out that I'd enjoyed visiting Sir Norman Foster's glasshouse. He replied, "Awfully hot, isn't it?"

It's not easy being a fledgling botanical garden in the twenty-first century—especially one without crazed and deep-pocketed plant collectors at its core. Unquenchable appetites dictated the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century plant acquisitions at throbbing green places like Kew; and the Jardin du Roi, in Versailles; and the Arnold Arboretum, in Boston. Ships were dispatched, and explorers like Captains Bligh and Cook sailed off to retrieve pineapples, breadfruit, rubber plants, freckle-faced chartreuse orchids, and cut-leaf Japanese maples. I like to imagine a besotted Sir Joseph Banks, an early naturalist at Kew, when he first laid eyes on clouds of flaming bottlebrush, bushes cloaked in fuzzy red or pink spikes.

Around the globe today botanical gardens must be earth-friendly and democratic and must decry plant piracy. As a result of recent international treaties, it's illegal to dig up and cart off your heart's desires from, say, the Himalayan foothills or the tropical forests of Borneo. "A generalized concern for the environment now pervades Western culture," as Andrew Sclater, the editor of The National Botanic Garden of Wales, puts it in the book. "So, our new botanic garden has to contribute to conservation."

As I dutifully toured the NBGW's themed display gardens, indoors and out, and forced myself to read seventy-five educational signs, I found myself hankering for evidence of a hot-blooded plant glutton. Although it is too young to be judged harshly, the NBGW appears more consumed by its visitor tally (242,000 the first year!) than by a love of plants. There is talk of building a hotel; scientific laboratories are under way; and a multimedia auditorium has been completed. The NBGW dispenses easily digestible, ecologically correct messages (don't waste water, avoid chemicals, limit planting monocultures like lawns, go organic)—worthy blah, blah, blah in short green bites. Lowering his luxurious black eyebrows, Ivor Stokes told me, "People want a nice day out."

The three days I spent at the garden were nice days out for me. I wrote postcards on the lawn of the handsome stable courtyard as I listened (without understanding a word) to a lively Welsh grandmother entertain a two-year-old. On my last day I returned in the evening for a concert of Handel, Mozart, and Vivaldi, performed by the National Chamber Orchestra of Wales in the Great Glasshouse before an audience of forty. In folding chairs beneath a dry slope of rosemary and white-flowering cistus we watched the Tywi Valley mist rise; a thousand transparent panes of glass turned a pearly lavender-opal as the light faded. The soloist, an Indian violinist, was splendid in purple silk, and later, when I walked down the hill to the parking lot, the dome glowed in the night like an otherworldly spaceship. It was lovely—but it had nothing to do with plants.

Back home, I pored over the New England Wild Flower Society's journal of programs and events for the coming winter: thirty-eight pages of symposia, lectures, botany studies, field trips, and workshops. How to decide among "Carnivorous Plants to Know and Grow," "Never Say It's Just a Dandelion," and a hike with a naturalist through the society's garden under the Blue Moon, followed by hot cocoa? For a twenty-hour course on the flora of New England, the blurb warns, a background in taxonomy is necessary, as is a willingness to study independently. The botanist teaching "Conservation Biology" writes, "Participants will be required to read ... and come prepared to speak up and to listen."

Meanwhile, the manager of the society's nursery, Bill Cullina, is hovering over a sea of covered cold frames, each seedling responsibly propagated on site to ensure that the wilderness is left intact. I'll be there in the spring for a pot of hepatica, minuscule star-like deep-blue flowers above green kidney-shaped leaves. I don't know how I've managed to garden this long without one.