AP NEWS

Dreaming of a home where cacti and orchids can co-exist

April 6, 2019

STAMFORD - Orchids and cactuses can’t share a room.

It’s because an orchid loves humidity, and a cactus hates it.

But at the Bartlett Arboretum & Gardens on Brookdale Road, the two live just feet from each other.

“We put up plastic to separate them, and maybe keep some of the humidity away from the cactus,” said Jane von Trapp, CEO of the arboretum.

Von Trapp would like to solve the problem in a better way. It would mean replacing the 1978 greenhouse and adding a conservatory - a high-ceilinged museum for trees - at the 93-acre, city-owned arboretum.

It means von Trapp hopes a $500,000 allocation, set to go before the Board of Representatives’ Fiscal Committee Tuesday night, will survive the cuts that will come before the 2019-20 budget is set in May.

“We’re hopeful,” von Trapp said. “What else can you be?”

The effort to replace the greenhouse does not end with a request to the city. The arboretum owes its origin, and continuing existence, to citizens.

It dates to 1913, when Francis Bartlett, founder of the company now known as Bartlett Tree Experts, bought 30 acres in North Stamford to build a family home, a research laboratory and a training school.

“He taught World War I and World War II veterans to be arborists,” von Trapp said. “In his research, he let insects and diseases go on branches, put paper bags around them, then pruned them. He wanted to see if insects were eating insects, and how diseases spread, to try to find remedies.”

In the following decades, Bartlett collected trees from all over the world. They still grow on arboretum grounds.

“We have a rare Dawn Redwood. They are native to China,” von Trapp said. “They were thought to be extinct, but then they found one and sent the seeds around the world to be propagated. Francis Bartlett got some.”

The tree, now about 100 years old, is the shortest of the three species of redwood, though it will grow at least 165 feet.

“We have a lot of little gems like that, that harken back to Francis Bartlett’s day,” von Trapp said.

The Bartlett family was gone by 1965, the laboratory transplanted to North Carolina. That’s when citizens began an effort to preserve the property. That year the state bought it under the Federal Open Spaces Program, opening it to the public in 1966. In 2002 the state transferred the land to the city.

The arboretum, with magnificent trees of many species and 10 hiking trails through them, has survived on the kindness of citizens.

About a third of the arboretum’s $900,000 annual operating budget, for example, is provided by the city, von Trapp said; the rest comes from fundraisers and donations.

The same could be true for the new greenhouse and conservatory, estimated to cost $1.2 million. The arboretum is working to raise $500,000 to match what von Trapp hopes will be the city’s contribution. Some money has already been pledged, she said.

The arboretum will do its part to earn the money, von Trapp said. It has embraced an idea from Economic Development Director Thomas Madden that will give the city, at no cost, something it needs.

Trees.

“The city buys 100 to 200 trees a year to plant in the parks or by the sidewalks,” said Peter Russell, a North Stamford resident who sits on the arboretum board and oversees buildings and grounds. “He asked if we can grow them instead.”

The move could save the city about $50,000 a year, and provide trees ideally suited to Stamford — not so tall that their branches tangle with utility lines, or with root systems so wide that they push through pavement.

“A big thing for survival of trees is how well they acclimate to different types of soil,” von Trapp said. “Compacted soil is a huge issue.”

But it can’t be done in the 1970s greenhouse, Russell said.

“We have no place to put them,” he said. “It takes five or six years to grow trees the size the city needs.”

The greenhouse must be one-third larger, with bathrooms and access for handicapped persons, von Trapp said. That would allow them to provide the city trees and improve their student programs at the same time.

Every year, von Trapp said, every second-grader in the city visits the arboretum twice — once in spring, when they learn about plant pollination, and again in the fall, when they learn about seed dispersal. The arboretum also runs after-school and other public programs.

Last week, master gardener Martina Doshan was transplanting seedlings of native species — phlox, asters, meadow rue, penstemon, milkweed and blue lobelia — that will be sold at the May 11 plant sale, an annual fundraiser, or transplanted in parks and schoolyards.

Doshan explained the importance of growing plants native to southern Connecticut.

“These plants have co-evolved with insects that are specific to them. Non-native plants can’t provide the food native insects need to survive,” Doshan said. “We need the insect population to thrive to pollinate plants and to produce larva, which is food for birds.”

Home gardeners consult the masters for advice.

“The arboretum is a great asset,” said von Trapp, who hopes work on a new greenhouse will begin next summer.

“Our greenhouse is not a thing of beauty yet,” she said. “But it can be an attraction.”

In the meantime, the arboretum again is planning to move the tropical banana trees, palms and the lulo — a South American fruit tree — outdoors for what they hope will be a warm, wet summer. In the 41-year-old greenhouse, a very tall cactus nearly touches the glass roof.

And the orchid-cactus conflict continues.

“Either the orchids suffer,” Russell said, “or the cactus suffer.”

acarella@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2296.