Air plant “chandeliers” to highlight nature in new pavilion at San Diego Botanic Garden

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The San Diego Botanic Garden strives to showcase plants from all over the world, with areas that include a bamboo garden, a dragon tree grove, California native plants, and two inventive children’s gardens, including the Hamilton Children’s Garden. The main feature of the Hamilton Children’s garden is a constructed tree house that hosts many epiphytes in its branches.

Epiphytes, also known as air plants, commonly grow in the moist forest canopies of tropical areas, where they obtain moisture from the air around them, and nutrients from decaying organic matter. This group includes exotic species such as orchids, bromeliads and tillandsias, as well as ferns, mosses and liverworts.

A new project is underway that will showcase this unique group of plants, which are a personal favorite of his, said President and CEO of the San Diego Botanic Garden Julian Duval. The Botanic Garden is in the planning stages of the new Dickinson Family Education Conservatory Project, a 7,000 square foot pavilion that will provide meeting and event space, and will feature three large hanging chandeliers planted with epiphytes. San Diego’s Domus Studio Architecture and architect John Pyjar are part of the project.

Duval noted that one of the issues he wanted the conservatory to address was how to accommodate plants as a natural and key element of the buildings.

“Rather than having a building for just people, we wanted a place for plants,” he said. “We needed a layout that could accommodate various events but also highlighted plants as an integral part of the space.”

To achieve this, the new building also will have planted walls, but the most unique feature will be the plant chandeliers that Duval envisioned.

“I’ve always liked plants that grow on other plants, and I have a predilection for exotic plants,” he said. “The richness of the flora that exists as epiphytes is remarkable.”

The skeleton of the plant chandeliers, which will be suspended from the ceiling, will be constructed of dried Catalpa tree branches.

“When I built animal enclosures at the Indianapolis Zoo, we discovered Catalpa wood was very decay resistant,” Duval said. “The branching structure is also very curved, so I set my heart on using Catalpa for the plant chandeliers.”

The discovery of a local source of Catalpa wood was particularly fortuitous, since Catalpa is a species that isn’t native to the area or typically grown locally, Duval said. Landscape designer Jon Powell, of Deneen Powell Atelier, a firm also hired for the project, discovered a row of dead Catalpa trees in El Cajon. Fortunately, the County Highway Department needed the trees removed, so they were harvested and shipped to museum exhibits firm Weldon Exhibits, which is constructing the chandeliers.

“These chandeliers will span 12-18 feet each, and thanks to Jon’s discovery we have more than enough Catalpa wood to construct them,” Duval said. “It’s coming together really well, and it is will be very exciting to have these unique features.”

The garden already has numerous planted walls and rooftops covered in a variety of succulents that look striking and integrate plants with buildings and statuary. In the Mexican Garden, succulents spill across the dress of a human form topiary donated by past director of operations for the garden Pat Hammer.

“Our climate is affable for growing succulents outdoors year-round, and because we can control how much moisture they get, we have a large plant palate to work with,” Duval said.

“We’re trying to dispel plant blindness,” he added. “Often people’s idea of beautiful plants fits a narrow conception — they must be green. We want to present plants to people in particularly interesting ways.”

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