The role of immigrants in shaping the American landscape

Contributed photoWambui Ippolito is a horticulturist and landscape designer and a graduate of the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture. She develops programming for museums, public gardens and parks exploring the broader context of horticulture, focusing on the intersections between migration, culture, history and science.

Wambui Ippolito is an immigrant — she was born and spent her early childhood in East Africa — and this rising young New York horticulturist has a good grip on the crucial role that immigrants continue to play in shaping the American landscape.

It is immigrants, after all, who have provided the backbone of our national landscaping industry since it first emerged in the 19th century. Scots and English gardeners gave way to Irish ones, and by the time I was learning the business 45 years ago, my mentors were mostly Southern Italians from Sicily and Napoli. They supplemented what I was taught in classes, tempering the ideal of informal English gardens held up to me by classroom instructors with a Southern Italian fondness for a more clipped and ordered landscape.

Today, as Wambui points out, the staff of any horticultural enterprise in the Northeast is likely to be largely Central American. A graduate of the New York Botanical Garden School of Professional Horticulture, Wambui nevertheless says that we all have much to learn from the recent arrivals. When she was working on Martha Stewart’s estate, for example, she formed a bond with a Guatemalan gardener who showed her how apple trees are pruned in his homeland. Henceforth, says Wambui, she will prune such fruit trees in the Guatemalan style.

She holds tight to her own East African traditions as well. The daughter of a diplomat, Wambui has lived all over the world, but she still cherishes the attachment to the land that she absorbed on her family’s farm in Kenya’s Rift Valley. She was jolted when as a student at the New York Botanical Garden she was set to work balling and burlapping trees so that they could be moved. In Kenya, a tree was a sacred object; in their shade people meet to resolve differences and share stories, to rest and think and heal. She had never looked upon them as decorative elements to be rearranged at will. And I have to agree that a greater reverence for the life in our gardens would be a good step.

It isn’t just East African or Central American skills and traditions that Wambui wants to preserve. She laments all the other riches that American horticulture has lost when immigrants have turned their backs on their pasts to Americanize. In this she includes even “immigrant” children such as me whose families arrived generations ago. What was our connection to the landscape, and can we re-capture it? Our deliberate abandonment of our heritages, she believes, explains why we Americans are so prone to horticultural fads. It may also explain our rootlessness, the way in which we reconstruct the same bland suburban model of lawn, foundation planting and “specimen” tree no matter where on this continent we settle.

I shared with Wambui my favorite example of the immigrant influence on the landscape, the transformation of the stone wall. An iconic element of the New England landscape, stone walls as built by Yankees were often relatively crude linear piles of rocks cleared from fields and used to mark property boundaries. These days, however, in western Massachusetts, where I spend my weekends, the walls are commonly built in a more finished style by Central American masons. They like to place “jumpers,” larger rocks high up in the structures to give them a distinctive look. In central Massachusetts, I once interviewed a Tibetan mason who had learned his craft working on lamaseries. In central Connecticut, where I am based during the week, stone wall building is the work mostly of Albanian masons. All over New England, this United Nations of masons are leaving their various imprints, creating a spicy horticultural stew.

What sort of walls will African masons contribute? Perhaps they will copy the magnificent stone ruins of Zimbabwe, Wambui speculates. But only if they, and we, learn to value the traditions they bring with them.

To listen to the rest of my conversation with Wambui Ippolito, visit Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast at thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast

Wambui will be giving an online talk, “Landscapes in Time and Space: A Historical Overview of American Horticulture and the Immigrants, Plants and Systems that Continue to Alter this Land” 1-2 p.m. Feb. 7. To register, visit: https://www.berkshirebotanical.org/events/landscapes-time-and-space.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books.

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