DESIGNING WITH PALMS, with JASON DEWEES
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As we enter the season of winter feeling long and Spring Break feeling not quite close enough, where those of us in colder climes might be longing for a warm, sunny, palm-punctuated beach, we dig into this remarkable plant family. We get above and beyond its symbolism and closer to its truer, greater history and essence.
When you think of a palm tree what comes to mind? Do you have an immediate vision or memory or even a strong opinion in the positive or the negative? Today, I’m pleased to be joined in the studio by Jason Dewees, palm expert, staff horticulturist for Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco, CA, and author of "Designing with Palms", a new title out this month from Timber Press – written by Jason and photographed by Caitlin Atkinson.
Jason is a life long lover and student of palms – not just one or two iconic palms, but the whole scope of the diverse family and even if you’re not a palm lover or palm grower, I think you might be surprised by this mini-education in them.
Whether you love palms or not, Jason challenges us to see beyond the iconography – sometimes balmy and bold, sometimes tacky and misused – to really see this diverse and ancient plant family. A true “giving” tree as he calls it, that is much older than us, and has been with us in our evolution from the our beginnings. There are lessons to be learned there.
This week, we hear more about Jason's palm-loving education and journey...
"For most people, the palm hides in plain view. So charismatic; so instantly recognizable, palms get lost in the glare of their own beauty."
Head Horticulturist Flora Grubb Gardens & author of Designing with Palms (Timber Press, 2018)
In the book, Designing with Palms, Jason provides a fairly detailed history of the life and use of palms in their relationship especially to people, a love letter of sorts to this large and both culturally and economically valuable plant family. The book and its narrative (including the lovely photos) are a tool for better seeing and appreciating what a palm can do in a landscape that other plants can’t do. Jason traveled much of the palm growing world with photographer Caitlin Atkinson to bring us lush images and deeper understanding about the palms he loves.
Jason Dewees is the staff horticulturist at Flora Grubb Gardens and East West Trees in San Francisco. Responsible for the Tree Canopy Succession Plan for the San Francisco Botanical Garden, he serves on the Horticultural Advisory Committee for the San Francisco Botanical Garden, and on The San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers Advisory Council.
Follow Jason on Instagram.
Here’s what’s getting me in this conversation with Jason – this book, his knowledge and his love of this plant family – they really – and I mean really called me out on a few of my own biases and blind spots.
Two weeks ago I would have said I was not a palm person and then after reading the book and enjoying Jason’s passion and real knowledge, it was clear to me that while I might not plant palms in my dry, heavily native-plant, drought-tolerant, habitat garden, for me to stick myself into a close minded corner and be a judgemental-gardener about this ancient and vast plant family is ridiculous.
And short-sighted.... And wrong headed.
A bias is a bias is a bias, and as that wonderful old bumper sticker read – "a mind - like a parachute - works best when open." Palms have evolved and radiated and speciated across just about our whole big beautiful planet through ice ages and big climate changes and here they are, tough and lovely as ever. They have plenty to teach me and it’s always good to be reminded that I have plenty to learn.
I want my garden to be an ecological contributor, I want to garden within my watershed, with my soil, for my wildlife and for my own sense of loveliness, but I can do all of that and still be open-minded.
Intentionality and knowledge, they cannot be underestimated. So onward.
Here’s a phrase from this conversation with Jason that I’ve written down in my journal: “paleobotanical memory” – think about that for a second. It is loaded with interesting information, imagery and ideas.
The fact that we humans have evolved with palms - that the date palm was one of the earliest known fruit bearing trees to be cultivated by humans – the fact that the sight of them across an arid landscape signified food and the presence of water – this are powerful imprints in our own historical, cultural memory.
And the very notion of how much history and cultural significance is carried in the plants we carry with us – sometimes we’re so accustomed to how we see things, that we forget the meta-level thinking and seeing.
I look around my garden, my neighborhood of gardens and then into the native wildlands and when I consider what is the "paleobotanical memory" held here – it’s a whole different view. It is beyond my mother’s South Carolina garden, beyond my memories of traveling through Southeast Asia for 6 months as a young woman with my husband-to-be, beyond the red sticky betelnut chewed by the women and men of that region and beyond the coconut cake I adore for my birthday – it's an ancient and compelling companioning of plants to people and to all life on our planet.
A perspective worth sitting with.
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