For Yale’s Booming Marsh Botanical Garden, Golden Days Ahead
Not so long ago, while leading a group of Girl Scouts on a tour of the Yale Swamp Botanical Garden, curator Kunso Kim spoke about the dependence of flowers on bees, butterflies and birds for pollination, and what plants provide to their pollinators in return – nectar is their food.
Kim, who became the botanical garden’s associate director late last year, also highlighted for children the symbiotic relationship between plants and humans. “We cannot exist on earth without plants,” he said. “I discuss the conservation aspects with them at a level that is easy for them to understand. We must help protect plants in a world where they are rapidly disappearing. This is the bottom line.
The nearly eight-acre Marsh Botanical Garden, nestled north of campus on a hill between Prospect and Mansfield streets, is home to more than 1,200 species of plants, including a variety of trees, shrubs, and grasses. Among them are a giant white oak that’s the oldest tree on campus (Kim calls it “a Yale witness”) and a dawn redwood, a species that was thought to be extinct until it was discovered 75 years ago in a remote part of China. Although its seeds have been distributed to botanical gardens around the world, the redwood – still endangered – is known as a “living fossil”.
Since arriving on campus last December, Kim has been working with Marsh Botanical Garden director Erika Edwards, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who is also curator of botany at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, on developing garden restoration plans. – often referred to as a “hidden gem” by its visitors – to make it the showcase it once was in the 1930s and 1940s. At its peak, Yale Garden drew some 10,000 visitors a year.
Kim manages the day-to-day operations and maintenance of the garden and shares its botanical treasures, both common and rare, through tours, conversations and via social media. He posts photos of flowers and trees during their flowering or fruiting seasons on Facebook, hoping to raise awareness of all that the garden has to offer and entice community members to visit. Last June, for example, he posted about the evolution of a corpse flower (titanium amorphophallus), an infrequent bloom that gives off a putrid smell of rotting meat or rotting bodies. It’s the type of plant, Kim notes, that catches the eye of plant lovers and the simply curious.
“The Marsh Botanical Garden is a ‘living museum’, as valuable as the Yale University Art Gallery, the Yale Center for British Art or the Peabody Museum of Natural History,” Kim said. “I would like to bring the garden’s heritage back to life, making improvements that will help make it the best university and community resource it can be.
Yale acquired the garden site in 1899, when paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh – the famous dinosaur fossil excavator and Yale professor – bequeathed his four-story house, grounds, greenhouses and plant collections to Yale. ‘university. He stipulated that the property would be used only as a botanical garden. The house, now called Marsh Hall, is now part of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Plants in the garden’s six greenhouses, which include special collections of desert plants, tropical plants and carnivorous plants, are used for faculty and student research and for teaching in courses ranging from diversity and the evolution of plants to genetics and sculpture. Several greenhouses are also open to the public, as is the grounds and its gardens.
Renowned landscape architect Beatrix Farrand originally designed and planted the gardens between 1924 and 1939. Her design featured a systematic garden, which provided guests with a real-life illustration of plant evolution, as well as a rock garden and garden formal modeled after the oldest extant formal garden in the world, in Padua, Italy.
The garden fell into oblivion around World War II and some of its trees were destroyed by disease and storms. Although there have been efforts in recent years to restore the garden, Edwards and Kim say they are committed to elevating the garden from its “hidden gem” status to a campus attraction.
“Whether we try to fully or partially replicate Farrand’s designs, or do something different to illustrate how science has changed since then, our goal is to help people connect with nature and environmental issues, and to help them be fascinated and inspired by the botanical garden,” says Kim.
Edwards, who joined the Yale faculty in 2017 and assumed leadership of the garden in 2018, says she thinks “the stars might finally align” to move this mission forward.
“There is nothing more magical than a well-maintained botanical garden,” she says. “Recruiting Kunso to join us, with his years of experience in collections curation and horticulture, has provided the right balance of expertise to our long-serving staff, who are so exceptional in supporting our research programs. . Now we might finally have the right combination to kickstart something outside – to get back to our roots.
Other garden staff include long-time horticulturist David Garinger, who looks after greenhouse teaching collections; Christopher Bolick, who manages plant research operations, including state-of-the-art indoor plant growth facilities in the new Yale Science Building; and research assistants Robert Rak and Eileen Williams. Routine maintenance is provided by the University grounds maintenance department.
Kim also evaluates the greenhouse collections with the dual purpose of making them as useful as possible to the students and faculty whose work and studies revolve around them.
“Our top priority for the Botanical Garden is first to support Yale’s teaching and research missions,” he said, noting that plant collections are studied by students at schools as diverse as the United States. architecture and forestry and environmental studies, and in departments ranging from geology and geophysics. to ecology and evolutionary biology to molecular, cellular and developmental biology.
Working in an arboretum in his home seaside town of Chollipo, South Korea piqued Kim’s interest in plants when he was a teenager.
“I helped unpack all the bundles of plants the arboretum acquired,” he said. “Some of them were unique and exotic plants, and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool!'”
Kim’s enthusiasm led him to apply for international horticulture internship programs, including one at Savill Garden in the Crown Estate, England. On a full scholarship, he then studied in the Longwood graduate program at the University of Delaware.
Since then he has worked at the Norfolk Botanical Garden in Norfolk, Virginia, the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, and Powell Gardens in Kansas City, and he led the implementation of a horticultural master plan for a theme park at Samsung C&T Corporation in South Korea. Her work has given her the opportunity to travel the world collecting seeds from rare and endangered plants growing in the wild, including in remote jungles in China.
Wherever he traveled, he says, he witnessed the effects of development and urbanization on the natural landscape.
“There is not much left of our natural environment,” he says.
It’s one of Kim’s main goals to welcome young people to the Marsh Botanical Garden, both as a place of learning and as a “sanctuary, where they could come to explore or just meditate,” he said. .
“Being here, where they can be in a natural setting and see plants, helps them understand the importance of biodiversity,” he said. “Also, it’s wonderful when students get their hands dirty, touch the ground and plants, and learn to tell the good guys from the bad guys!”
Realizing the garden’s full potential, Kim says, will do more to ensure its “resilient and sustainable” future.
“When people enjoy the garden, we build conservationists, which means that garden – and other natural landscapes – can be enjoyed by many future generations.
Marsh Botanical Garden, 265 Mansfield St., is open to the general public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.