Arts

New tropical plants added to historic Public Garden beds

Josh Altidor, who is in his second year designing and planting all 58 beds in the 24-acre Public Garden, has introduced new ideas as well as new plants.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Josh Altidor, who is in his second year designing and planting all 58 beds in the 24-acre Public Garden, has introduced new ideas as well as new plants.

Gaze across Boston’s Public Garden these days and you’ll notice something different: Lime-green ginger foliage and rich burgundy hibiscus leaves. Small rubber plants. Ornamental grasses and, here and there, a gigantic elephant ear plant.

“It seems a little more . . . tropical,” said Charles Willis, a Revere High School teacher and frequent visitor.

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Indeed, the riot of tropical plants and colors is a departure from the clipped, manicured glory that is the Public Garden. And that has raised some eyebrows.

“Not everyone is finding it in keeping with the traditional design of the garden’s annual beds,” said Lisa Meaders, a longtime member of the Beacon Hill Garden Club who is impressed by the designs.

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Gardener Josh Altidor is happy when people notice. “I kind of go for the bold statement,” he said.

Like the garden’s tall palm trees with spiky fronds, which have been planted in the past, Altidor is not native to Boston or, for that matter, to the United States. He is originally from Haiti and is the first Haitian-American to be in charge of the historic beds.

His title is executive assistant of Boston’s Parks & Recreation Department, and this is his second year designing and planting all 58 beds in the 24-acre Public Garden. Founded in 1837, it’s one of the oldest botanical gardens in America, famous for its extravagant, orderly Victorian-style floral displays.

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The vibrant foliage and mix of textures introduced by Altidor have turned up the contrast and given the beds a less uniform look. They accent the palms.

“It’s an honor and a blessing to be in this position,” said Altidor, 34. He wants his plantings to echo the diversity of the garden’s visitors. “I want the design to be eye-catching,” he said. “I want people to say, ‘We have this at home!’ ”

Altidor’s trajectory from son of an illiterate farmer in an impoverished country to college graduate with one of the most prestigious horticulture jobs in Boston has a storybook quality to it. He grew up in Les Cayes on Haiti’s southern coast where his father worked in the fields growing rice, corn, and beans.

Josh Altidor has introduced a riot of tropical plants.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Josh Altidor has introduced a riot of tropical plants.

Altidor, who speaks four languages, dreamed of “knowing more about growing stuff than my dad.” After graduating high school he was accepted at Haiti’s American University of the Caribbean to study agriculture and environmental sciences. In 2003, he met Shirley Stanton, a woman from Ohio, who was on a mission with her family. They stayed in touch by e-mail; she sent him money each month for tuition and food.

“It’s hard to describe how poor his family was,” Stanton said in a phone interview. “One of his professors e-mailed me and said Joshua had had no food in three days and they were in the middle of midterm exams.”

His professors told her he was the smartest student they’d ever taught, and asked for help finding an internship in the United States. She found one on an Ohio farm, and Altidor lived with the family.

More summer jobs followed at Toledo Botanical Garden. He spent a year at the state-of-the-art Metrolina Greenhouses in North Carolina, the largest heated greenhouse in the country. After graduating in 2005, he was hired by Toledo Botanical Garden.

“I’d say he is raising plants, not just growing them. It’s deeper than that,” said Matthew Ross, a former colleague. “And he brings to the table something that many people are starting to recognize, which is the diversity and integration of tropical plants.”

Altidor brought all this to Boston, where he moved in 2011 to join his future wife, Tania, a social worker he’d met at a Haitian American youth congress here. He worked part time for a Walpole landscape company and sent out resumes for full-time jobs, including executive assistant for Boston’s Parks & Recreation Department.

The department answered. “I’m like, ‘I think she dialed the wrong number,’ ” said Altidor, who started the job in 2013, and last year took over the Public Garden.

“Josh is the most hard-working person I’ve ever met in my life,” said Anthony Hennessy, superintendent of horticulture for the Parks Department. “He brings an air of knowledge to this place which is irreplaceable.”

Altidor had a lot to contend with at the city’s Franklin Park greenhouses, including the challenge of introducing new ideas to an old-school system.

“We’re not the most modern place in the world,” acknowledged Hennessy, noting the department has been level-funded for a dozen years. “The newest greenhouse I have is 25 years old. Some of them don’t have heat. Most of the smaller ones are at least 100 years old.”

One of the first things Altidor did was change the seeding practices, to make them more efficient. But there was so much more to do. “Josh was hand-misting all the seedlings, which was exhausting,” said Meaders, of the Beacon Hill Garden Club, which funded a watering system.

The city’s tight budget limits new plants, so Altidor uses existing plants that winter over in the greenhouses, including the palm trees. He goes for sharp contrasts and a strong palette, introducing ginger plants for their lime-colored foliage, and hibiscus for its vibrant burgundy leaves.

“This is the first time I’ve seen ornamental grasses in the Public Garden,” said Margaret Pokorny, a board member of Friends of the Public Garden. “And the elephant ears look great.”

Still, though no one would speak on the record, there are rumblings in gardening circles that this year’s plantings were not quite as expected, that this is not the Public Garden’s finest year.

“He hasn’t had a lot of resources to work with, and has faced a lot of obstacles,” said Meaders, who calls Altidor “the seed whisperer.”

“For the most part, [response] has been very positive,” Hennessy said. “I haven’t heard too much negative.”

Neither has Altidor. “Not yet,” he said, laughing. He’s already working on next year’s design, which he said coyly will include a tropical surprise native to Haiti. (Google “caricature plant” for a clue.)

“Having me here designing and planting the annual beds gives us Haitians something to be proud of,” he said.

“I kind of go for the bold statement,” said gardener Josh Altidor.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“I kind of go for the bold statement,” said gardener Josh Altidor.

Linda Matchan can be reached at linda.matchan@globe.com.
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