Flower power at the Alpine Garden | VailDaily.com

Flower power at the Alpine Garden

Bret Hartman/Daily file photoThe Betty Ford Alpine Gardens and Nicola Ripley, director of horticulture, have been getting a national reputation for expertise in high-elevation gardening.

VAIL ” It started with mountain climbing.

That’s how Nicola Ripley became interested in alpine plants. That interest led, eventually, to the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens and the creation of a fine collections of alpine plants.

Ripley, a native of England, is the director of horticulture and research at the Betty Ford gardens. That job means she’s in charge of getting plants and reproducing the different mountain environments found in the garden, from high desert to lush highlands.

A quick tour through the garden shows only beauty. Stay a while, and talk to the woman who knows every plant and bush, and it becomes clear there’s more at work here.

The Betty Ford gardens is a wealth of information for local gardeners who want to know what plants will and won’t grow in their neighborhoods. The garden also has a wider outlook: part of the garden is a copy of a Himalayan mountainside and there are plants from the Andes in South America and the Alps of Eastern Europe.

Those reproductions of native environments are a teaching tool, Ripley said. Beyond that, the collection of plants now in Vail is gaining national and international recognition. So is Ripley.

She was recently named to the board of the American Public Gardens Association, where she represents the smallest garden of any board member. She also has spoken to the London-based Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

But speaking, research and writing has to wait until frost season. When things are growing, it’s hard to get Ripley out of Vail.

The main problem is people. The Betty Ford gardens only has three full-time employees: Ripley, executive director Jim Brandmeyer and garden supervisor Melissa Kirr. The rest of the work is done by interns and volunteers, and that leaves precious little time for anything but gardening.

“While there are pretty borders and colors around the paths, there’s a much bigger plant collection in the 3 1/2 here than in many bigger gardens,” Ripley said.

That collection is now more than 3,000 different species. Keeping track of what’s in the garden and how it’s doing is a big job. The work changes a bit after the first frost, but there’s still plenty of to do.

When frost season hits in the fall, it’s time to prepare speeches, apply for grants and findi new plants.

“We try to get seeds ourselves or from other collections,” Ripley said. “Our Himalayan collection is mostly from an English man who collects those plants himself.”

Getting as many plants as possible has become a mission for botanic gardens all over the world. It’s not just a numbers game, either. Ripley said botanic gardens can become places to keep species alive and to maintain collections of seeds from plants that may be vanishing in their native environments.

“People don’t always understand how important a botanic garden is,” Ripley said. “It’s an educational thing on our part to get people to understand.”

“People,” in this case, range from individual donors to Congress. That’s why the American Public Gardens Association’s next annual conference will be in Washington, D.C.

“There’s not much government money for plants,” Ripley said. “Animals get most of the attention.”

In a bid to get more attention, and maybe a bit more money, the national group is about to start a major push to raise the profile of botanic gardens. One member of the garden’s board of directors said Ripley’s growing reputation will be a big help.

“It’s incredibly important to have her there,” board member Gwen Scalpello said. “And it’s a wonderful recognition of Nicola’s talents and dedication.”

Scalpello said Ripley’s willing to take on more than just the plant collection. “She’s carried the load on where the garden is going,” Scalpello said. “She was a guiding force behind the children’s garden, and she pulled a group together for interpretation in the garden.”

Best of all, the results are on display for anyone willing to take a few moments. “I love the blue poppies in the Himalayan garden,” Scalpello said. “It’s fun to show people that special blue flower.”

Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 748-2930, or smiller@vaildaily.com.

Vail Daily, Vail Colorado

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