Mt Cuba Center
Mt Cuba Center
Back to News Updates – September 23, 2021


A New Era (and Parking Lot)

By Amy Highland, Director of Collections and Conservation Lead

The term solastalgia means homesickness without leaving home. This is a new feeling I’ve found myself trying to process recently as I take in the sudden landscape change along Mt. Cuba Center’s Main Drive. It’s a feeling that I haven’t left my Mt. Cuba home, but it isn’t the same home I knew.

This feeling began to set in in late September after I attended an evening event in the gardens. As I rounded the bend in Mt. Cuba’s Main Drive, a newly cleared view made me stop and pause. What was once a secluded field now looks like a giant opening. Even though I knew construction was coming, I was not prepared to see this abrupt change.

Construction site at Mt. Cuba with cloudy skies outside

When one’s identity is tied to a place, landscape change can put our identity into question on a psychological scale. And if ever there were a place I identify with, it is my Mt. Cuba home, the deep calm of the Eastern Temperate Forests, and the plants I have devoted my life to conserving. So, I’m here to remind you who we are and why (even with a lot of preparation) it’s okay that clearing a few plants makes some of us uneasy.

At the top of the hill, in a flat area formerly known as the Upper Walnuts, we removed 385 plants. Of that number, 330 plants were of unknown origin. This aggregation of “volunteers” was used as screening for the Main Drive, but beyond this landscape value, they had very little individual value for the overall collections. None of the removed plants were considered Core Collections, part of our Plant Collections Network National Collections, or of historical interest. You may recall the plants removed, these included white pines, American hollies, native shrubs, and masses of herbaceous flowering plants.

We also removed 39 plants with wild origin. But you can think of those plants as experiments. We worked with them for roughly 20 years, learning their cultivation requirements and adding observational data to IrisBG (our plant records database). Now, having no specific questions remaining for them, we may let them go.

Plant curation is an exercise in making decisions for the future and sometimes it is about deciding what can be lost, which plants are of value and to whom? How quickly will they be needed? Is there something more valuable in need of space?  Which genotypes and species will be most needed? Which assemblages will help us tell our stories? Which individuals will help us accomplish our goals? For the most part, it is the fun of addition — bringing in plants for new gardens and experiments.

Construction planning allowed us to think broadly about plant curation, and necessary changes and opportunities for the new parking area. Like a healthy forest fire, we have cleared the way for renewal and growth. When construction is complete, we will plant more than 6,000 native plants at the new Welcome Center and guest parking lot, plus another 5,000 in our new Woodland Glade garden. Here is a look at our planting plan.

A rendering of plantings planned for Mt. Cuba Center's new Welcome Center, guest parking lot, and Woodland Glade garden.

In October, construction on a parking lot begins. This will be the first time we’ve added parking space in more than 30 years. This new expansion allows for even more people to visit and see our work. It will be a landing place for nature lovers, lifelong learners, garden members, and first-time garden guests to explore our native plants and the habitats which sustain them. From the moment guests leave their cars, they will be surrounded by the very building blocks of our gardens. Plants with a purpose, a community with a mission, and a landscape with a role to play in the lives of people and the planet.

For now, the vegetation loss seems like a lot to take in at one glance, but this landscape change is timely and necessary. We will sit with the sadness for a while. And then, in time, we will gain more than we lost.  We will become a richer community for it.

For continued updates on construction, please visit our construction updates page.

Amy Highland is the Director of Collections and Conservation Lead at Mt. Cuba Center. She joined Mt. Cuba Center as the Plant Recorder in 2006 and became the first curator of Mt. Cuba Center in 2012. Soon after, Amy was named Director of Collections to oversee both living and non-living collections for the botanic garden. In 2018 Amy’s work with the conservation community was recognized by adding Conservation Lead to her title. She obtained her degree in Public Horticulture from Purdue University before heading east for the Longwood Gardens Internship Program. There, in the plant records office, her love of plant systematics combined with her love of organization and planning.