A backyard gardener might not put a rose next to a bean plant, but that’s exactly what a scientist would do in organizing a garden based on the most current thinking in evolution and genetics. Roses, beans, a cucumber plant, begonias and flax all belong to the “fabid” group and are one of the unusual clusters in Smith’s newly designed and reclassified systematics garden, the product of an ambitious three-year project that involved several academic departments and a host of students.

The project took root in 2000 when botanic garden director Michael Marcotrigiano arrived on campus and realized that the groupings of flowering plants in the systematics garden (between Sabin-Reed Hall and the greenhouses) no longer reflected current scientific thinking. When it was first planted in the 1890s, Marcotrigiano explained, the systematics garden was organized by plant families that were determined by the shape and complexity of flowers. By the 1980s, scientific classification of plants had changed to reflect evolutionary relationships, and so the Smith garden was redesigned accordingly. With the more recent advent of precise DNA sequencing, however, botanists have further revised their classifications and so the gardens needed to be redesigned all over again.

Strolling among the new beds becomes a lesson in plant classification.

Students—working in concert with Marcotrigiano, biological sciences assistant professor Jesse Bellemare and landscape studies lecturer Reid Bertone-Johnson—provided much of the project’s research and design. They came up with a plant list, grouped the plants in beds, calculated the size and number of beds and used the GIS lab to develop GPS coordinates for them. “This project was a truly collaborative effort that makes me proud,” Marcotrigiano said.

Over the past two years, the team dug up hundreds of old plants, created flower beds laid out in a tree-shaped design and tracked down new plant specimens. “We wanted to avoid plants that were ‘manipulated’ by man, but locating wild forms was not easy. Some we had to grow from seed from other gardens,” Marcotrigiano said.

The garden is laid out to represent a phylogenetic tree and begins near the Lanning  Fountain. A signpost stands where the base of the tree—representing the common ancestor of all flowering plants (angiosperms)—would be if it still existed. From that point, granite steps serve as dotted lines that lead to and connect the beds, in symbolic evolution from oldest to youngest.

Strolling among the beds, then, becomes a lesson in plant classification rather than aesthetics; potato, mint and dogbane share the lamids bed, while amaryllis and onion are grouped as monocots. This outdoor classroom will be incorporated into lessons on plant diversity and many other purposes. Bellemare, for instance, will have his plant-ecology students explore the garden and hypothesize about the evolution of specific features of the plants.

“The garden now represents more families but fewer members of each,” Marcotrigiano said. “It is a broader display that represents diversity more than any prior version.”