Director’s Desk – Note From Isidor
From the Desk of the Director of Horticulture and Facilities: Isidor Ruderfer
Greetings Garden Members!
I greatly enjoyed meeting some of you at the first Annual Members’ Meeting since COVID restrictions came into effect. It is inspiring to see the Garden filling with human activity again. If you see me on the grounds during your next visit to the Garden, please make sure to say hello and let me know that you are a Member. Along with asking (and practicing) your name, I will tell you how much we appreciate your support.
I (along with everyone else here) have been very busy at the Garden during these months since you last heard from me. After the wild flurry of all the holiday events at the end of last year, I shifted my focus to the work of redesigning the African Provision Garden along with Lucy Cabret, the Garden’s Nursery Manager. As I mentioned in my previous newsletter, this important exhibit will celebrate the horticulture and food culture of the people who have shaped these lands for centuries. (This work was made possible by a grant received from the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands (CFVI), with funding provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.) As part of my work on this project, I spent a lot of time with a fascinating book which I highly recommend to anyone interested in this topic: In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World by Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff (2009). Writing specifically about the “provision grounds” for enslaved Africans, they make the striking observation that “As informal experimental stations for the transfer, establishment, and adaptation of African food crops and dietary preferences, these plots became the botanical gardens of the Atlantic world’s dispossessed.” Every time I am in the produce section of a grocery store these days, I see the modern-day descendents of crops, many of which were brought from west Africa, including bananas and plantains (Musa spp.), “true” (West African) yam (Dioscorea spp.), and dasheen (or taro) (Colocasia esculenta). In the Americas, the provision grounds of enslaved Africans were the first fields in which these crops were cultivated.
The work on this Garden is very much ongoing as we strive to balance the needs of crop plants (which have been bred to grow quickly and be harvested) with the educational need to have plants on display year-round. This is not the typical balancing act faced by a botanical garden, and it is particularly difficult to do when the days without rain stretch into weeks and the demands on the few hands we have grow ever larger. If you have ever considered volunteering, please reach out to join us in our efforts! If you know of anyone who would enjoy volunteering at the Garden, please encourage them to reach out. We will welcome you and them with tremendous appreciation!
Those who garden here in St. Croix know that these long stretches of dry days are not an accident: they are part of a dry season. I have not lived here for a full year yet, so I am still becoming familiar with a basic concept that may seem odd to many people who live in the temperate continental U.S.: we don’t have the “four seasons” that seem foundational and almost immutable in mainlander culture. Instead, we have a rainy season and a dry season (which is interrupted by a “little” rainy season). The changing availability of water, in turn, drives almost all of the timing of important events in the lives of plants which then drives the timing of important events in the lives of the wildlife dependent on those plants. For example, we do not have a “Fall” in the third quarter of the calendar year. Instead, we have many “little falls:” many tree species here lose their leaves at some point in the dry season. However, different species drop their leaves at different times, and furthermore, there is tremendous variation in the timing of leaf drop between individuals of the same species. (For those of you wondering about technical botanical terms, trees that do this are called “semi-deciduous.”)
During the last few months, I was beginning to despair about the number of large trees which were clearly dying in the Garden. Were we facing some insidious pest problem? Did they need more water? If so, how could we possibly water a large, established tree enough to rescue it from imminent doom? You can imagine my tremendous surprise and relief when these trees started sprouting flowers or leaves (usually flowers then leaves). As you can imagine, I now have a deeply personal and emotional understanding of semi-deciduousness!
I have many more pieces of news to report and wonderful volunteers to thank, but all of that will have to wait until the next newsletter.
Thank you again for your continuing support, and I hope to see you all in the Garden one of these days soon!