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May 2007 Issue

Are They Getting It?
Visitors respond to the Crosby Arboretum’s ecological aesthetic.

By Robert F. Brzuszek and James Clark, ASLA

“Excuse me, can you tell me where the arboretum is?” she asked.

“You are standing in it,” I replied.

Are They Getting It? Edward L. Blake, Jr., ASLA

This was not an uncommon question in the early days at The Crosby Arboretum (ASLA Honor Award 1991) in Picayune, Mississippi, where I served as curator for 14 years. One of the first public American gardens to fully embrace a regional ecological design concept, the landscape exhibits in the 1980s featured natural succession thickets of twisting wax myrtle and saw briar, wet depressions of iris and gum trees, and acres of sun-dappled grassy savannas. These were not exactly the tulip-laden beds and formal tree vistas common to botanic gardens at the time.

With long Gulf Coast growing seasons and copious rainfall, the arboretum’s successional woodland exhibits have matured today into a young, open southern forest, the aquatic exhibits feature a plethora of wetland plant and animal species, and acres of sun-dappled grassy savannas are maintained by regular applications of prescribed fire.

These days, fewer people are asking where the arboretum is. A recent visitors’ survey conducted at the Crosby Arboretum (now part of the Mississippi State University Extension Service) revealed that the public not only accepts this “messy ecosystem” but in fact gets the design intent. This appears to conflict with critics’ perceptions of the ecological design approach and the experience of similar regionally based public gardens such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (see “Restless About the Natives,” Landscape Architecture, December 2003). The difference is one of scale. As financially strapped botanic institutions struggle to attract a larger share of the paying public, they are increasingly relying on themed exhibits that are popular with the public. A Thoreau-inspired walk in a restored oak woodland does not pack the gate-receipt punch of a gaping-mouthed dinosaur garden exhibit. Yet it appears that at least a segment of the visiting public increasingly accepts and understands the ecological design approach as “garden.”

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