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Walking the Beat: Garden genetics

I turn to Smith College to revel in its gardens and other plantings, so I found it unsettling that the college’s Botanic Garden is undergoing a major transformation. The teaching beds that fill the central portion are completely dug up, brown and bare. Signs read: “Please excuse our appearance. This garden is being renovated and reorganized to reflect current plant classification systems.”

Over the past year, plants were removed and sold to the public. A gardener told me the front beds by the fence facing Paradise Pond will retain their current plantings, as will the rock garden. The great trees — Frederick Law Olmsted’s huge gingko among them — of course will remain.

Michael Marcotrigiano, director of the Botanic Garden and biological sciences professor, clarified the situation. Because the garden is a teaching tool for the college, it was time to bring it into alignment with what molecular biologists have been discovering via DNA research about the interrelationships of plants. He called that “a moving target” as new discoveries surface.

Plant classification for hundreds of years was based on morphology and sexuality: what plants looked like and whether you could cross them. Now it’s all predicated on analysis of their genetic makeup.

Instead of thinking of plant evolution as linear, see it more like a kind of spider’s web, Marcotrigiano said: radial with connections. The new beds, to be planted in the spring, will reflect this. (Until then, the beds will be planted to grass so the area looks presentable for the new Smith president’s inauguration Oct. 19.)

The new arrangement should be interesting. “We know the families,” Marcotrigiano said. “The list (of plants) is not made yet.” But, he said, it will be “representative of the diversity in the family.”

Only a few domesticated plants will reside in these teaching beds: asters, for example, will include wilder varieties and perhaps examples the average gardener would not expect to see.

Right now, wild white asters are tiny stars lighting the dark woods along the college’s cross-country trail. Along the outer track around the Smith playing fields, large, bright fall asters bloom in many colors. Wait till next year in the Botanic Garden.

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