First Person Singular: Smithsonian horticulturist Janet Draper
My job is to play in the dirt and talk to people from around the world. I'm a plant geek, and I can't keep my mouth shut, so it's a good fit. I've met some of the coolest people. And they always want to share stories about their gardens. Like I had amaranth in the garden, and there was a gentleman from Afghanistan, and he said, "In my country, we eat the foliage." He's getting all excited, like, "Oh, it's been a long time since I've had it. ..." Well, he left with a big grocery bag of leaves from the plant -- it wasn't going to hurt the plant, made him delighted, and yet I got the knowledge.
There are so many great plants out there that people are not growing because they just don't know. So this is an opportunity for me to show them the diversity of Mother Nature and maybe get them a little excited about some of the unsung heroes. Like some of our natives. Amsonia hubrictii is drought-tolerant, no pests, no diseases, beautiful through the season, with foliage that looks like a feather boa; you just want to touch it. In the fall, the whole thing turns golden yellow. Then it all dies back, you take a rake over it, and that's the maintenance -- for the year. My kind of plant. And then I'll throw in the wild and wacky plants. Like Solanum quitoense -- nickname: "the spiny bastard." Every part of this plant is spined. And I'm not talking little tiny things; these are thorns that'll make a rose thorn look like a wuss.
Sometimes you need a shocking plant like that, because the teenage kids'll be drug in, and they'll be like, "Uh, I don't want to be here. I want to be down at Air and Space." Then they see this, and they're all over it. They're daring each other to touch it -- yes, it will draw blood -- and they're asking questions. They've forgotten about Air and Space, and they're interested in a plant. A petunia is not going to get that reaction.
I always try to find something new and cool and different. People from Yugoslavia might visit only once in their lifetimes, but certain people are in this garden every day. I can tell what time it is by when Dave's on that bench. Yeah, Dave has a Pepsi and a bag of popcorn every day at 11:15. This is their little oasis. All these marches can be going on out there, people everywhere, but this is a fabulous little intimate space. You can come into the garden, and it's peaceful.
Interview By KK Ottesen