Saturday, February 9, 2019

My Year of Orchids: Promise of the epiphyte garden

I grew up in a home where design was a real topic. My parents, though relatively poor, had furniture from Herman Miller. We kids were taken in car rides to see the architectural work of Mies van der Rohe at the Illinois Institute of Technology and on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Less so the great parks of Chicago, Grant Park and Burnham Park, through which, twenty years later, I used to commute by bicycle from downtown to my apartment on Marine Drive.

Those bike rides were the beginning of my landscape awareness, the touch of landscape design as light as a cirrus cloud over Lake Michigan.

When I moved to Boston to work on my PhD at Harvard I visited the Arnold Arboretum several times for classes and later took students there, less for the landscape than for the living specimens. It did occur to me though, especially overlooking the rugged pinetum there, dark with evergreens against a dramatic cumulus sky, that thought had been put into the plantings. Not just what they’d show you about conifers, but how conifers appeared in a quasi-natural setting.

Later when I took students from the Boston Architectural College to Arboretum and to the Boston Fens, I came to realize that the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of these spaces, lay beyond taming the Muddy River and laying nice curved pathways. There was a vision there of how the plantings would look in ten, fifty, maybe one hundred years. This was fine urban garden design, coordinated to a level where the untrained eye could perceive beauty, grace, and form. Gardens got very interesting to me. For a while they were more interesting than the plants that grew in them.

The promise of the epiphyte garden hangs on these formative experiences. Placing my orchids, my bromeliads, my tillandsias and epiphytic cacti among the Native trees and shrubs I started a vision. Maybe in some years as they grow and extend their presence in the garden these plants will develop a sort of canopy in which a new, wild ecosystem will develop. Maybe as these plants grapple with the space in and above the trees they will introduce a new rhythm of community form, leaf placement, and movement in their woody hosts.

Friends ask if the orchids will weigh down the trees. Will they break off branches? It’s an experiment. We’ll see. But I think we’re safe for a few years. And don’t trees strengthen as their branches grow and bear more weight? Isn’t it possible that this whole endeavor will lead to changes perhaps unforeseen in the garden? As a living sculpture each plant contributes to the shape of the garden as it develops in and with its inhabitants. To me the promise of the epiphyte garden is the dynamic interplay of sun, water, nutrients, and the amazing plants I have the privilege to nurture.

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