Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Why Australia Day?


down under cropeed Australia Day celebrates the landing of the First Fleet of eleven convict ships from Great Britain in Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788. Also known as Foundation Day, this national holiday celebrates Australia's
first permanent settlement in what is now the city of Sydney.  

But why does Boyce Thompson Arboretum bother to celebrate this island country from the southern hemisphere, 7500 lonely ocean miles from the west coast of the U.S.? The answer, as you might expect, has everything to do with plants.

The tallest gum trees that you see dominating the skyline along the Main Trail--including our largest red gum tree, "Mr. Big"--were planted in the mid to late 1920s and early 1930s. As these trees grew, even more were planted, many with exotic-sounding names like tea tree, mallee, she-oak, ironbark, and gimlet. Over the years, these plants eventually formed a dominant forest canopy and understory that is unmistakably Australian. Volatile eucalyptus oil fills the warm summer air, and long sinuous strips of bark peal and pile at the base of every gum tree each summer, just as it does in Australia. Yet, as impressive as this eight acre collection of plants had become by the late 1980s, it had never benefited from a formal development and interpretive plan.

The answer, as you might expect, has everything to do with plants.       

In 1989, a landscape architecture firm was retained that specializes in exhibit development within botanical gardens. Over the span of nearly three years--with input from Arboretum staff and other experts--an exhaustive document was created that identified and described eight distinct Australian plant communities. Detailed plant lists were included for each community and authentic cultural amenities added to augment the realism of the overall exhibit. Several Arboretum staff members spent three weeks in Australia in 1995 to see the country first hand and develop sources for wild collected seed that, once grown and planted, became the Mulga, Mallee, Shrubby Woodland, Blue Bush, and other plant communities that you see today. The Benson Outback Bridge across Silver King Wash, the Drover's Wool Shed, Papuana Pass, the Aboriginal Seep, and the Aussie Pavilion all sprang from this landscape plan (directly or indirectly), corroborated by hundreds of photos taken by our staff of the cultural landscapes in the outback of western and southeastern Australia.

With one of the finest Australian Desert exhibits in North America, we thought it fitting to celebrate our version of Australia on the same day that the Aussies celebrate theirs. So, for over 15 years, we've featured Australia's most famous musical instrument, the didgeridoo, along with the botany, food, lore, and culture of both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians on January 26, Australia Day. It's the day to say g'day, and spend a Saturday down under--on top.   

Kim Stone

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Big Chill

To describe the air mass that has held Arizona in its clutches during the past five or six days as a blanket of cold, would be to understate the first weather-related oxymoron of the New Year. This Canadian blast has penetrated most of us to the core, exported by what we once thought was a friendly country just north of our border. You would think that a three or four state buffer zone between Saskatchewan and Arizona would be enough, but no, this frigid air mass flowed through all of them and hit us like an aerial tsunami. Ice fisherman and propane suppliers are having the time of their lives, but the rest of us are borderline hypothermic, at the very edge of a complete metabolic shut down. Cool weather accessories like richly woven scarves--once simple adjuncts to a stylish cool season wardrobe--are now necessary for day-to-day survival. The casual tie across the neck has been replaced with a coil as tight as gauze wrapped around a sucking chest wound. Gloves are on every hand, and most noses are red and running, dripping onto mustaches, beards, or scarves, only a few degrees shy of freezing in place.   

But it's not just the Arboretum staff who are suffering from this polar, thirty to forty degree weather. Visitors over the past five days have come dressed indistinguishably from those walking the streets of Anchorage or International Falls, Minnesota. Warm knit caps are on most heads with jackets buttoned, zipped, or snapped all of the way to the chin. Walk past one of these well-clad groups and you'd swear they were dressed to ride the next chair lift, or headed back to the lodge for some hot chocolate and peppermint schnapps. It's often said that there is no bad weather, just bad clothing, and our stalwart visitors are dressed as if they've taken this maxim to heart. Staff and visitors alike are huddled like Antarctic penguins, collectively cursing this winter weather and promising never again to complain when it's a hundred and ten in Gila Bend.

frost blanket morgue But what about the Arboretum's plant collections that can neither run nor hide from the cold? Are we so self-absorbed in our misery that we've forgotten the welfare of our plants, many of which we planted in harm's way with our very own hands? Of course not. That's why the Arboretum currently looks like a morgue. Thousands of square feet of frost blankets cover tables of nursery plants, dozens of sensitive aloes, and a patchwork of known frost sensitive plants throughout the grounds that need this extra protection when the nighttime temperatures dip into the mid to low twenties. These temperatures--or lower--are what our plants have had to endure the past five nights.  

Thanks to the ever-increasing accuracy of weather forecasting, we knew that this freeze was coming several days in advance. N-sulate is the product we use, and we cut it from 12 foot wide sheets that come in industrial size rolls that were purchased in advanced for a potentially damaging frost event such as this one. We also use bed sheets and other insulating material to tuck the plants in, knowing that even a few degrees of protection can make the difference between healthy tissue and flaccid mush.

As I write this, daytime temperatures in the coming week are predicted to be in the mid-60s, and nights should rise above freezing. The frost blankets will likely be moved, then folded and stored, ready for the next cold night that is sure to come. It's not spring yet, and a few more freezing nights are a statistical reality this time of year. But for now, frozen and split valves will be replaced, plant damage will be assessed, and we'll return our winter clothing to the closet--alongside the skis and snowboards--where it belongs.

Kim Stone