April 22, 2013
Undoubtedly the most recognizable feature of Des Moines' emergent skyline is 801 Grand, the copper-pinnacled, corporate home of Principal Financial Group. Towering at a noble 630 feet, the 45-floor office complex completed in 1991 is iconic, giving the city the essence of a true skyline. Oddly enough, while the copper was expected to oxidize and develop verdigris, the familiar green patina that coats skyscrapers and monuments further east, it failed to do so due to the low salt content of our pollution-lite air. Architects of apartment complexes, office buildings, and hotels around the city have since imitated its unblemished, if not darkened copper peak.
We decided to imitate it too, only on a smaller scale. Last week we unveiled a new horticultural exhibit, making art from an industrial-colored plant palette, a steel sculpture, and architectural salvage. The new conservatory exhibit called Steel is an artistic riff on a revegetated, post-apocalyptic world, where plants rule vacant buildings, monuments, and former green spaces. The plant that inspired it all? The steely leaved asparagus relative Astelia 'Silver Shadow', a new introduction from Irish nurseryman Pat Fitzgerald.
With a little planning, some fast moves to secure the right plants, and the generosity of GDMBG volunteer and former union welder Dennis Zaabel, my team assembled an example of the kind of horticultural art we want to be known for. We believe that gardens are living forms of public art, the best of which teem with the finest ingredients. This exhibit features a number of hot, exciting plants including the first public garden presentation of Astelia ‘Silver Shadow', along with the sooty blades of New Zealand flax (Phormium ‘Black Adder’) and oily black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’). Orange-flowered Mexican flame vines (Pseudogynoxys chenopodiodes) overrun the braces of our skyscraper, modeled after 801 Grand. The color palette of the planting design—bronze, black, silver, hot pink, and maroon—evokes the colors of industry and human progress. Imagine an oil slick (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’) or the acid green stains of spilled chemicals ('Wasabi' coleus). Some plants have only begun to colonize the remnants of civilization--variegated corn (Zea mays 'Field of Dreams') left to reseed amid train tracks and oxalis (Oxalis 'JROXACHVEL' Charmed® Velvet) left to conquer former lawns.
Our post-apocalyptic meadow will go through a few evolutions as the corn grows and as the bedding plants need refreshing. We've got a few more surprises in stow, so visit often through May 28 to see what's growing in our living art garden.