Articles, Blog

How botanic gardens can win hearts and minds | Ed Ikin | TEDxWandsworth

November 5, 2019


Translator: Kathryn Kopple Romine
Reviewer: Denise RQ I like to think of horticulture
as a true Renaissance profession, i.e., one that seamlessly
interweaves science and beauty, but I know what some of you
are are thinking, “Horticulture? That’s gardening.”
And this is gardening, isn’t it? So if you are so inclined, can I just present
a little bit of evidence to the contrary? Horticulturists get involved in what’s
known as ex situ plant conservation, that is collecting seed
from wild plants under threat, bringing them back and either conserving them
in our living collections or banking them that is chilling them down
to minus 20 degrees centigrade where they can be stored in perpetuity
or perhaps until such time as the plant is no longer under threat
and can be reintroduced. So, with this great burden
of responsibility, it is important that we are
ingenious growers of plants. Indeed, we’ve worked out ways to make the stubborn, the reluctant,
the hard to grow, straight forward. Here we have some
Hesperoyucca whipplei seedlings in what we call a growth chamber. A growth chamber
is a most ingenious device. It precisely manipulates
light, heat, and humidity to create an optimal growing environment. And while we are briefly dwelling
on growing conditions, let’s talk about
the stuff they are growing in, which we might colloquially
refer to as compost. In terms of replicating the extraordinary variety
of wild conditions our plants come from, this is where horticulturists become
as biological alchemists, if you like. They can replicate
any number of conditions, really by combining nothing more
organic matter, loam, and minerals. The organization I work for has something
as niche as a Madagascan humid forest mix. So, I work at Wakehurst, a 535-acre botanic garden and estate
run by the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, who are a global resource
for plant and fungal knowledge. I think Wakehurt is wonderful.
I would, wouldn’t I? It’s a place of wide, epic vistas
and exquisite, intimate spaces, but like a lot of big, designed landscapes
we have a couple of really notable areas that have reached the end
of their natural, designed lives. Does anyone know that feeling? We are presented
with the most marvelous opportunity the chance to create something new,
and the chance to ask ourselves, “Right now, what should a botanic garden
do when it comes to design? What should we embody?” I’ll go back to the beginning of the talk; for me, it’s science, and it’s beauty. The science – Kew’s global scientific work is our USP,
we need to embody that in what to do. We need to choose plants
that will tell stories, plants that are under threat in the wild
that can tell us a conservation story, plants that perhaps have a great value as food, or medicine,
or in manufacturing, or for fibers that can tell an economic story; or plants that can link us back to when the world was
a very, very different place that can tell an evolutionary story. And beauty? Well, to be vulgar about it,
beauty sells, doesn’t it? Beauty is the thing that can enable
a garden to transcend its physical space and pop up in your social media feed
or the newspaper you’ve chosen to read. Beauty is the thing
that might convince someone with no previously no interest
in gardens or science to come and see us at Wakehurst. I thought it was worth
just having a brief meditation on beauty and the landscape. So, if you can please prepare yourself
for a short, historical interlude. So, I did say beauty, didn’t I? For me, mankind’s relationship
with beauty and the landscape has swung pendulum-like
through the centuries between two poles: one we might describe
as wild, and the other mannered. This is Bomarzo, in central Italy,
created in mid to late 16th century. It’s sometimes known
as The Garden of Monsters, or perhaps, more appropriately,
the “Sacro Bosco,” the sacred woods. This was a garden designed
for you to feel something, to have an emotional
or perhaps even a spiritual reaction. But we’ll go forward 100 years,
to the Netherlands, and this is the Dutch take on a parterre. What’s happened to the wild here? It’s been reduced
down to a single, decorative ribbon. It’s fighting for attention
with a series of colored gravels. But just a few decades later,
along comes Capability Brown. Has anyone heard that name this year? Capability Brown
lets the wild breathe again. This is the designed landscape
as an analogue of nature. It’s soothing, it’s bucolic, but actually,
for some, it’s bland and monotonous. So, a whole movement rises up
against Capability Brown: the Picturesque. They demand color, texture,
and variety in their landscapes. There’s even briefly
a militant faction, the Sublime. They want their landscapes
to be ever so slightly terrifying. This is Hawkstone in Shropshire, one of the few surviving
Sublime landscapes in the country, and even now, it is
a distinctly edgy experience. When I took my children,
I clung to them tightly throughout. Beginning of the 20th century now – this is Hestercombe, in Somerset, created by the dynamic design duo
Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Lutyens. Lutyens is the architect. He lays out crisp lines
of stone and water, within which Jekyll’s planting
can be ever so slightly wild. To the modern day,
we call this the naturalistic movement that actually has
many different expressions, but primarily, it is plants performing
their fundamental, ecological function, albeit under the auspices
of an aesthetically-driven design. Now this is Piet Oudolf ‘s
High Line in New York; much talked about. So, beauty is this thing that creates what I could pretentiously call
an emotional transaction between myself, the garden curator,
and you, the garden visitor, and perhaps, in the heart
of that transaction, you may be more inclined for me to share a fact or two
about Kew’s scientific work with you. If I’ve really got you hooked, perhaps you start supporting
the cause that I work for. So, back to Wakehurst – two really significant landscapes
in need of complete renewal: a southern hemisphere landscape
and an Asian landscape. How can we embody science and beauty
into those two areas? For the southern hemisphere:
what about Gondwana? That great southern land mass that, as it split into its constituent
continents not that long ago, it tore whole plant families apart, plant families that are still now growing
on opposite sides of the world. So, Wakehurst has
a long history of Gondwana. In fact, back in the 1920s and 1930s,
our plant hunters brought back plants from Chile and Tasmania
and found that they thrived in our soil, and that had a complimentary aesthetic. So our southern hemisphere proposal is a concept that reunites Gondwana in all of its diversity, variety,
but ultimately, coherence. These are plants with a fundamental genetic memory
of growing side by side. And what about the beauty?
Where does that come in? Let’s take a South African bulb meadow,
which is the proposed centerpiece. Bulb meadows happen
in the wild, in South Africa, primarily after bush fires. As the final cinders fade away
from burnt scrub, a vast subterranean
community of geophytes – that’s bulbs, corms, and tubers – leap forth colonizing the new spaces
being provided for them. It’s a very dynamic moment, and imagine that aesthetic
translated back into a designed landscape. Hundreds of square meters
of naturalized bulbs, things like Watsonias or Agapanthus,
or Kniphofia, the Red Hot Poker plant. Think of the marketing potential, “Come and see our Red Hot Poker meadow
before it fades away.” So, on to Asia. When we were developing
the concepts for Asia, one strong thing kept emerging,
that of the Silk Road. The Silk Road is an anthropological
concept but also a botanical concept, the Silk Road that acted as a conduit for
plants of extraordinary economic value: tea, apples, rice, and ginger. But, also the Silk Road as a host for the most amazing, botanically
interesting but beautiful plants. So our Silk Road concept connects visitors back to the wild relatives of plants
of immense economic value and that forms a backdrop
for the centerpiece: a Silk Road steppe, a vast,
immersive flowering landscape filled with the most extraordinary plants from the Caucuses through central Asian countries
such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and into the west of China. Tulips, iris, alliums, geraniums, salvias,
all naturalized, all performing that fundamental ecological function
which they remember from the wild. And one final plant,
Eremurus, the foxtail lily. This is a mountainside of foxtail lilies, and this was photographed
in Kyrgyzstan this summer. Kyrgyzstan is a country
with an amazing botanical tale to tell. It has more species of plants
than the whole of Europe put together. It is one we want to tell at Wakehurst. So, next summer, Wakehurst horticulturalists
will be out in Kyrgyzstan collecting seed
from mountainsides like this and raising the plants back in our nursery to create a new Asian landscape, one, that I hope, will embody
both science and beauty, and one, that I hope, will win
your hearts and minds. Thank you for listening. (Applause)

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