25.05.22 Plant People

Georgia Hilmer: How did you start working with plants and what was your journey from there to here? Do you have early plant memories or encounters that have shaped your sensibility?

Rebecca McMackin: I don’t know what a typical pathway into horticulture is, but I definitely did not follow it. I was a pretty wild kid. I grew up essentially feral on a small farm in Connecticut. My first garden was when I was six and I planted celosia and carrots. I spent the next twenty-five years of my life running around like a crazy woman. I worked in fashion. I worked at the most renowned drag queen store in the New York City. I did a degree in political science that my father still describes as “very expensive therapy.” And somehow I ended up in British Columbia for a graduate degree in aquatic ecology. I imagined myself in a canoe for two years fishing and bird watching, which was not to be the case. I lost my long range vision running statistics and grading lab reports.

BUT, I hung out with a bunch of Canadian ecologists. And one day, as we were walking into the biology building, my friend Alley and I stopped to admire the cantaloupe-sized flowers on a Southern Magnolia planted by the entrance. I marveled at their beauty and Alley, who was an ichthyologist, but also a general naturalist, said super casually, “Ah Magnolia grandiflora. They’re native to your part of the continent.” And I. was. thunderstruck. I felt like she was reciting an incantation. And this is embarrassing to admit, but it was also the first time I realized that plants had stories. And names that sound like spells. And soon, of course, behavior and histories! I felt strongly that this was magical knowledge.

So my first thought was very much like Gollum: I wanted it. It was precious. I wanted to have as much of the knowledge as I could find. AND I wanted to be around the people who had it. So I became a gardener. And I found it a far better fit than academia because I realized that gardening was applied science. It had all the research, experimentation, biology, ecology, but there were no statistics and you got flowers.

What is ecological horticulture?

Ecological horticulture is a fancy way of saying that we garden for both plants and wildlife, not to mention soil microorganisms and humanity as well. It’s not just about the plants. While most of the work revolves around plants, we see the plants as the bases of food webs that encompass butterflies and beetles, fungi and spiders. We consider how our gardens can be both beautiful and habitat for all of the creatures that share this land with us.

The way that looks in practice is that we might see an orange butterfly, a Pearl Prescent, and research its lifecycle, learning that their host plan (the species that the caterpillar phase of the butterfly eats) is a Smooth Aster, which we have in the park. Which is amazing! Because we want to support the full lifecycle of these butterflies, rather than just have them visit for a drink of nectar. We then learn that the caterpillars actually overwinter under the evergreen basal rosette of leaves around the plant. So we consider how the lifecycle of this animal interacts with our garden practices. We ask, when we do spring cutback, are we endangering these caterpillars? And we found a few years ago that the answer was yes. We were cutting back the plants and stepping around them, raking out the duff, possibly composting or smooshing the butterflies we were trying to attract! So we stopped that and don’t cut back the Smooth Aster wherever possible, and if we must, we do so very careful. As a result we have extravagant clouds of Pearl Crescents in this park in summer, flitting down the pathways. It’s the best possible reward for our efforts.

What is pollination ecology and how does it work in a public park?

We think flowers are among the most beautiful organisms on the planet. They’re undoubtedly attractive. But they’re not trying to attract us. Most plant species have evolved over centuries to work with pollinators to convince them to facilitate the plants’ reproduction. And so the pollinators, from bees to butterflies to beetles (even the rare bat or lizard), get a say in how that flower looks, smells, and what it provides the pollinators as a reward.

People tend to assume that insects are mechanically minded but they’ve carefully crafted flowers over eons to be the most attractive things they can imagine. We have a scarab beetle to thank for southern magnolia. And an absolutely extravagant carpenter bee who would settle for nothing less than the ostentatiousness of the passionflower. This, to me, is the single most beautiful thing, so much more stunning than flowers alone: to recognize this conversation that they’re having. Flowers use colors to communicate not only that they’re ready to be pollinated, but also exactly where a bee should land on the flower and what rewards they’re offering. I love to be in on this dance and to be able to read flowers to see what they want out of life.

Our park is mostly native plants and that is special because we can see the way our plants are tied to the rhythms of the animals around them. When the columbine blooms, we know that the ruby throated hummingbirds are returning from their winter in Mexico. When the Virginia bluebells bloom, we can see the queen bumble bees wake up to drink their nectar from them. And we make sure those same queens have goldenrod pollen in the fall to sustain them over winter. It’s all so much more elegant and wondrous than flowers alone.

What function, if any, does beauty serve in maintaining a city park’s ecology?

Beauty is truly central to our work. But it is a bold and wild beauty.

So much of horticulture has been about domination over nature: telling plants how and where to grow, pruning them in shapes and placing them in little rows with a foot of mulch between them. In that realm, beauty is almost always a result of control. My work is focused on integrated systems of plants that I’m trying to help thrive. If they want to spread or move, it’s often great! I’m a facilitator of their lives, and my gardening practices consider what looks good to me, what helps wildlife, what is in the public interest, as well as what the plants want to do and how I can help them do it. But it’s all beautiful. Naturalistic gardening can be interpreted as neglect if we don’t keep it pleasing to the average person. We absolutely push boundaries and interrogate traditional planting and cutback strategies, presenting the public with a form of beauty that allows for wildlife and reflects the ecology of the region. But the park remains chic and lovely.

How does working in a public-facing and public-serving capacity shape your job?

I’m a committed public servant. I believe strongly in working for the public good. It can be hard in that parks are part of cities, and you’re exposed to all of the drama and excitement of urban life, and so are your gardens, often to their detriment. But it’s so important. Our old Parks Commissioner used to say that no one has gotten in a fist fight in front of a bed of daffodils. And we’ve all likely read the scientifically verified benefits of living near plants: they improve our air, our mental health, and even our microbiomes. It can be a matter of social justice to provide green space for people as long as it doesn’t contribute to gentrification. So the people are the main reason I do this work.

A lot of horticulture is private and so much of that is for the very wealthy. In those contexts, ecological horticulture can be an important way to take landscapes that are managed with toxins or invasive plants and turn them into land that works for the larger ecosystem. Indeed we must do this if we want to begin to address the biodiversity collapse that imperils us all. But gardens in those spheres are enjoyed by very few and can sometimes become a “thing” people “have.” Sometimes plants are seen as objects that one buys. So I haven’t spent a lot of time in the private realm. I much prefer to see this work as stewardship: working with the land and animals and people who all use it and helping to foster a more beautiful and heathy environment for everyone.

There’s an old slogan / poem about “bread and roses” that I just love. It says that everyone needs and deserves bread, the basics of survival, and to live a dignified life. But everyone, even the poor and wretched, also deserve roses, beauty, and the wonders of existence. I see that as my job: I help provide the roses.