Mar 8, 2012

Fougères et Jardins Verticaux (Ferns + Vertical Gardens)

Last Saturday I headed to the New York Botanical Garden for the monthly Fern Society meeting. It had been a while since I last met with the group and as always, it was fun to sit among very knowledgeable and passionate fern enthusiasts and learn about these prehistoric treasures while snickering at the little plant jokes that an outsider would rarely get. We are a bunch of fern geeks and I sometimes forget that I am one of them, although I am far less knowledgeable.

Oliver Sacks' Oaxaca Journal was recently republished and was presented to the group with its new cover. It is also now published in Spanish, Portuguese and in at least one other language. Robbin Moran, botanist, author of many fern publications and one of two main leaders of the group, (John Mickel is the other fern expert) showed slides of sporangium in the process of violently hurling spores and gave a little lesson on fern reproduction from spores to young plants. At the end of the class we observed green gobs of mosses and gametophytes under microscopes and tired our hands at sowing spores of two fern species on moistened peat moss, which we took home. With some patience, suitable light, humidity and luck gametophytes will appear in three or four months and hopefully new sporophytes will survive to repopulate my now empty terrarium.

After the meeting I stumbled upon a lecture presented by the French botanist who designed the plantings for this year's annual Orchid Show which opened the day before at the conservatory. His name is Patrick Blanc. Immediately upon speaking he began pacing the stage and frequently ran his hand through his green hair. Yes, his hair was green as were his shirt and shoes, (although you had to look closely to discern the color of his shoes). Blanc described his childhood experiences of keeping fish in a small aquarium and creating a filtration system with plants to control nitrogen, absorb gasses and provide an ecosystem that his fish found suitable enough to procreate in. His experiments with creating a sustainable environment lead to a desire for greater knowledge of plants, bio-diversity and larger ecosystems, all resulting in the study of botany and his career as the staggeringly successful figure he is today as a plant genius and innovator.

Throughout the lecture the audience was presented with multiple slides of incredibly well photographed plants growing in their natural habitats in rock crevices and rainforest all around the world. The images produced many oohs and aahs. We were mesmerized by installations of his work on the interiors and exteriors of prominent buildings around the world making them a natural part of the cityscape. He talked about geohydrology, substrate, magma, rock porosity and permeability.  Listening to his talk about bio-luminescence, plant adaptability to various tropical rainforest terrains with multiple layers of micro climates and evolutionary diversity, I could not help but feel like a cretin. There was this green man speaking with a heavy French accent and comfortably and constantly gushing about plant structure, habitats and technology with an enormous scientific vocabulary, making his passion nothing but very obvious and all in a language foreign to his own. He spoke better English and more clearly than most of us. I was thoroughly inspired and impressed. Blanc is the right combination of scientist, artist and a bit of madman. Brilliant and very, very cool!

As an abstract painter, designer and plant lover, I found it fascinating how Blanc's designs are made to resemble natural plant-covered rock formations with their many groves and ridges. He does this by juxtaposing plants with contrasting foliage textures and lighter or darker leaf colouring in a diagonal flow, thus creating what appears to be peaks and gulleys, emulating the three-dimensional quality of natural topography. The results are rich tapestries of texture and shades of green, often with only limited color from flowers. I get how he sees in scales and how one small part of his design can house myriad micro climates that repeat themselves in different dimensions. His designs are partly controlled chaos, if there is even such a thing, and it works.

I was honored to meet with Blanc after the lecture before heading over to the Orcihid Show at the conservatory. There have been many such exhibits over the years and after a while they all tend to look similar. Not so with this show. The conservatory offers limited vertical space but walls were erected to showcase Blanc's intricate plant combinations and although the medium of orchids is fairly new in his designs, his genius is present. His plant combinations, highlighting iridescent blue foliage are truly beautiful. You don't want to miss this exhibit.

I got back to the lobby of the lecture hall just in time to meet with Blanc again as he was completing his last autograph in his book titled The Vertical Garden. He signed my copy of a book titled Gardening Vertically by Noemie Villard which had a photo of Blanc's home in Paris on the cover. Since he was scheduled to head to Miami the following day I do not know if he had had time to roam our beautiful city with his sights on making it even more beautiful by adding one of his lovely vertical creations. I wondered if he knew of the Flowerbox Building on East 7th Street. With the help of the New York Fern Society I think Time Square can be turned into a hardy fern gully, or the Meat Packing District, with its cobbled streets and uneven open spaces, nicely transformed with Blanc's towering walls of cascading greenery........ We'll see.
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