In 2014 I became the grateful recipient of a Chanticleer Scholarship from the Chanticleer Garden in Philadelphia. The programme aims to foster links between Chanticleer and other botanical gardens, by empowering public gardens professionals with support for their career development. The award gave me a special opportunity to do fieldwork with colleagues in the deserts of Arizona and visit renowned collections of succulent plants.
My scholarship visit in May 2015 began at the Desert Botanical Garden in Scottsdale, a beautiful garden with valuable living collections of succulents and cacti. Wendy Hodgson, Curator of the Herbarium, led field trips throughout the varied landscapes of Arizona. Arizona boasts tremendous geological diversity (it is home to the Grand Canyon, after all) and a mosaic of vegetation types hosting different communities of cacti and succulents.
We studied taxonomically complicated Agave species associated with archaeological sites in Tucson, the San Pedro River Valley and the glowing red mesas around Sedona. The Sonoran desert was lit up by the yellow-flowering Parkinsonia trees, providing a spectacular backdrop for the towering columnar Saguaro cacti (Carnigea gigantea). At higher altitudes, the arborescent desert gives way native juniper (Juniperus) woodland and grassland. Driving north in convoy with DBG scientists Raul Puente and Lucas Majure, the iconic Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) appeared at first dotted on the landscape, eventually becoming a dense forest near the southern shores of Lake Mead where the Sonoran meets the Mohave Desert.
Field work is essential to understanding the ecology of plants in habitat and to collect samples for research. Curated living collections of plants are another important source of material, besides contributing to their conservation ex situ. Following my stay in Arizona, I was excited to visit three exceptional succulent plant collections in California: the Huntington Botanical Garden in Pasadena, the Ruth Bancroft Garden in Walnut Creek and the Institute for Aloe Studies in Oak Creek in San Francisco. Although the true genetic diversity of living collections is best determined by analysing samples in the lab, the taxonomic diversity alone suggests that these collections contribute significantly to the ex situ conservation and material of research interest. I’m looking forward to continued links with these botanical gardens through mutual research interests in future.