Garden Documentation Project Underway

A page from John Fairey's plant journal

A page from John Fairey’s plant journal.

Peckerwood Garden founder John Fairey kept meticulous records of his numerous collecting expeditions to Mexico. He recorded the date, time, and weather at each stop along winding mountain roads where he found specimens of the hundreds of plants he brought back to grow at Peckerwood Garden.

Each plant in the garden sports a metal tag referencing these coordinates; and the date of its planting in the garden. For many years, these tags have been the only reference point for identifying plants in the garden and their place of origin.

That is changing now, thanks to a generous gift from Laura Fain in honor of plantsman Will Fleming. The gift is providing seed money for an ambitious initiative to capture our plant records in a new and dynamic database tied to a GIS (Global Information System). This sophisticated mapping program will allow staff and researchers to not only learn the history of any plant, but also locate it growing in the garden today.

With more than 3000 species of plants, Peckerwood Garden is a cornucopia of botanical riches, with origins in diverse climatic zones and conditions, most grown from seed. The array of trees, shrubs, perennials, and bulbs is representative of growing areas from Louisiana to the mountains of northern Mexico. The range of cacti and succulents, for which Peckerwood is perhaps best known, come from desert areas stretching from Texas into southern Mexico.

These plants have been tested for garden-worthiness for nearly 30 years and the information gathered about their horticultural values is as important as the botanical data represented in John’s records.

Leading our plant collections initiative is Sue Howard, a horticulturist based in Vermont who has taken up residence in the nursery house at Peckerwood Garden for the winter months. She is working closely with garden consultant Bill Noble, former preservation director at the Garden Conservancy, who has tapped into the Alliance for Public Gardens to enroll Peckerwood Garden in a pilot project using the ESRI GIS software. This program is making it possible for a select group of public gardens to use this sophisticated software at virtually no cost.

peckerwood-garden-documentation-project-oak-leaf

Documenting the Mexican Oaks at Peckerwood Garden

Sue is spending her days walking the garden with John, transcribing stories of the individual plants and their history, then poring over the collection journals and stacks of note cards to pull together the data behind each plant in the garden. Her first efforts have been focused on the Mexican oaks, which were documented and mapped in 2007. It was no surprise to learn that a dozen additional species had found their way into the garden since then!

Each tree is measured to determine the current caliper size, and its specific location identified for the new site map. Botanical photos of leaf, bark, flower, and seed will also be part of the database record, all shareable with botanical institutions and, one day, with the general public.

We will be updating you on this complex effort as it goes along, and hope you will join us for a presentation about the project by Sue Howard at the garden on Saturday, March 28th, in conjunction with our Open Day.

Documenting Peckerwood Garden’s plant collections through participation in ArcGIS for public gardens is an essential first step towards participating in national plant conservation programs. This step will also lead us towards making Peckerwood’s plants available for research and horticultural purposes. Documenting and sharing Peckerwood’s outstanding resources with researchers and other public gardens is an essential part of our vision for the future of the Garden.

— Bill Noble

I have been here at Peckerwood since early January and am thrilled to be part of such an interesting project in such a splendid and notable garden. Working alongside John is a pleasure, he is a wealth of information, interjected with stories of travels and beams with the pure joy of doing what he loves.

We have been updating the previously catalogued oaks, adding additions, taking leaf samples, measuring caliper, photographing each individual tree and cross referencing each with the coinciding collection trips to Mexico. The oaks are interspersed throughout the garden so every venture brings with it glimpses of spring unfolding – the Prunus mume in full bloom, Magnolias just starting and the sweet scent of Mahonia chochoca wafting through the air.

Our ArcGIS software has arrived and once up and running we begin mapping. There is a great team of people here both staff and dedicated volunteers who love this garden, I am honored to be a part of that mix.

— Sue Howard

Expedition to the Edges

We have made a very long day’s drive from Peckerwood Garden and are in the state of Tamaulipas. It is very early, barely light, when we finish a substantial breakfast, energized by the comforts and hospitality of our country inn, Hacienda Santa Engracia.

We pass through and sometimes stop to visit small villages very different from towns of equivalent size back across the northern border. Without city planners or neighborhood building codes, these communities are much more visually integrated into their surrounding landscape. Building materials are for the most part made of the landscape: adobe, wood, weathered stucco and plaster, thatch of nolina, palm, and dasylirion, with a minimum of glass, smooth metal, or factory-produced bricks.

A few houses have metal roofs, and we realize that as modern materials make an appearance here, building supplies like the nolina thatch will be less desirable, and those plants will become less appreciated and open to abuse. Fence posts, instead of being made from machine finished lumber, are tree branches. A fence builder may use a machete to sharpen these poles to very sharp points for deflecting the rain, and often the points are topped with red paint (Sangre de Christo, “Blood of Christ”).

Building colors in earth hues contrast with deeply pigmented shades that we recognize from wild morning glories or on a flowering shrub we had seen on a mountain. Living in such visual harmony with the natural world is of course often explained by economic constraints; if it is true that wealth and industry and high populations bring careless growth and a commercially determined aesthetic, then sad lessons are to be learned. Spanish moss clinging to the power lines will not be tolerated in most cities, and a hand-painted sign, number, or name on a door may take too much valuable time, when a lit billboard could bring so many more customers. For now, we can only be entranced by the elegant juxtaposition of colors on two adjacent walls, and be moved by the visual surprise of finding hand-carved crosses in the village cemetery.

We drive for many miles seeing little other road traffic, telephone lines, or city limits. Farmers here may be organized into ejidos (farming co-ops) which give a sense of community as well as economic solidarity to widely distanced neighbors. The intense physicality of this space is felt even at 100 kilometers per hour.

The dioon hill, all shale and thorny scrub acacia, rises above cultivated corn fields and a winding path of a country road. We see the fluttering fronds of these great and ancient plants, Dioon edulae var. angustifolia, as we approach, smoothly dark on top, light grey-green on the underside, alive in the breeze. As we drag our heavy cameras up the hills, we see that cattle have also climbed here, grazing on the hill. The dioon are fewer than when we last visited. We fear for the future of this plant, seeing only a few regenerating plants.

We find it impossible to care where this unpaved road might lead, as it crosses back and forth a green and rushing creek, because every few feet we see new color of morning glory or some rare plant demanding a photograph and John’s explanation of its growing habit. We stop to photograph a pale sycamore, Plantanus mexicana, and are hypnotized by eddying green water, the occasional bird call, all else silent.

We have hot showers and city excitement in Monterrey and a visit with the charming and knowledgable Porfirio Sosa Jimenez at his gallery and shop Carapán, where we explore a carefully selected collection of folk art from all of Mexico.

Agave montanaAgave lophanthaWe cross a pass south of Ciudad Victoria and drive through desert areas in the rain shadow, up to a high plateau (5000 feet). Driving demands focus, as there are sheer drops just inches from our vehicle. We must back up when the road is too narrow, as trucks have the right-of-way. Up now to 7000 feet and into fog, we see our first Pinus rutis, Agave montana, Arbutus xalapensis, and a tree Nolina. Our view over the valley is vast, little villages dotting the landscape far below. We have noticed white caleche, sandstone rubble, by the roadside, but higher up we find solid limestone, host to the tenacious Agave lophantha.

Violet mountains seem far away as we make our way across vast landscapes with marching armies of gesturing Yucca filifera. By the time we reach the foothills, the mountain tops come and go in the clouds that nourish and sustain much of the vegetation in the highest places. When we have driven as high as possible, even with four wheel drive, we leave our vehicle and continue on foot.

We climb rocky cliffs, careful not to disturb colonies of ferns, Sedum palmeri, and pinguicula which cling tenuously to the granite walls. An intensely green carpet of high country grasses is dotted with minute violet, red, and yellow wildflowers, and then even higher, where mammoth granite boulders create a home for giant mountain spirits. Hearing bells, we meet horses and cattle in groups of three or four, gentle reminders that we are not the only ones interested in what grows up here, and we fear that this diverse vegetation is on their menu. The palette of the land at this altitude is the darkest green of the pines, the deep blues and violets of cloud-filled skies, and rose and pale gray stone. Raindrops send us down to avoid an approaching storm, and our last color memory of the mountain is the soft white of enveloping clouds and the wet blackness of rain on stone.

— Julia Lanthrop