Last weekend, Bill Baker,Ph.D., Head of Comparative Plant and Fungal Biology at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, made a special visit to W.S. Merwin’s palm garden, hosted by The Merwin Conservancy. Dr. Baker is considered one o the world’s foremost plant experts, whose specialization focuses on the evolution and diversification of palms.
The Merwin Conservancy’s gardeners and collection managers, in addition to several board members tagged along during the visit, and marveled at Dr. Bakers observations and comments about the ecological importance of palms around the world.
After the visit, Dr. Baker sent a wonderful note that we share below:
“I’ve been told several times that William’s is not a “normal” garden, as if they were trying to warn me that ‘this might not be for you’. As a botanic garden man, I’m used to ordered, methodical gardens, with each plant planned, accessioned and recorded in fine detail. I’ve seen a lot of tropical gardens, which have been sources of ideas and materials for my research on palms over the past 23 years. None of this prepared me for the ingenuity of William’s place, which breaks the mould in so many ways. On passing through the gate, a palisade of vegetation consumes the visitor and transforms the air – it’s cool and densely humid, as if the land is letting go a long-held breath. This broken piece of ground, once was so parched and abused, is functioning again. Gardens are tamed places, but William has done just the opposite to his plot – it has been untamed, ungardened, and by letting it loose he has allowed a rainforest to regrow. The result is a remarkably naturalistic community of plants, especially the swampy valley bottom, which could be mistaken for a glade in lowland Madagascar or New Guinea.
You have to know your plants to spot the signs that human hands have played any part at all, for this is a biogeographic melting pot. Palms from across the world have been let loose to compete and co-exist in an unplanned common garden experiment. No doubt there are winners and losers in this slow motion battle, but the overall impression is of foreign cousins getting along just fine. Natural conditions have been so effectively emulated that many palms look exactly as they do in the wild. This is often not the case in a conventional garden where the balance of light, humidity and nutrition may alter the appearance of a plant. Take the exemplary specimen of Marojejya darianii, perhaps the biggest of the “big game” palms – here on the valley floor magnificent unsplit leaves splay from its squat trunk in a manner indistinguishable from the wild plants I studied recently on Madagascar’s Masoala Peninsula. There are also casualties, which may be painful, but death is part of nature too. William has welcomed jeopardy in and allows his plants to live – or die.
A remarkable thing has been achieved by William and his helpers. Life has been returned to the land in the form of a functional, international rainforest. This is good for the soul, but it also opens doors to earthier opportunities to share the thrill of the tropics and create knowledge for science and horticulture. This uniquely special forest compels thinkers and learners of all kinds to enter, pause and listen to nature. Has there ever been a greater need for such a place?”
To support the protection of this “uniquely special” place for generations to come, please consider investing in it’s future. Your donation will ensure that Merwin’s garden will be thriving well into the future, providing inspiration and knowledge to amateurs and professionals like.