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Bellevue Botanical Garden 2.0

Autumn is more layered and colorful at the Bellevue Botanical Garden this year. And no wonder, with the dream team involved in its recent four-acre renovation. Jim Olson of Olson Kundig Architects designed the new visitor center complex, with landscape architecture by Swift Company. Dan Hinkley brought his plant expertise to the team, so you can be sure there’ll be unusual plants to catch your eye.

The cluster of new buildings, including the education center, offices, assembly hall and gift shop, is small in scale and connected by a single, wide roofline. A granite water wall, fern garden and trellis of fragrant vines greet visitors as they walk beneath the building’s portico.

Now through early November is an ideal time to visit. “The fall color should be pretty spectacular,” says project manager Lisa Corry of Swift Company. Look for Chinese tupelo, maples, a dense row of katsura trees lining the entry drive, and an állee of copper beech.

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Many of the plantings need time to grow in, especially the natural tapestry hedge of unsheared deciduous and evergreen shrubs. It’ll take a few years for the hedge plants to create the 25-foot-deep mass of varied textures envisioned by the designers. A new wetland, designed by the Watershed Company, and the parking lot transformed into a winter garden with groves of witch hazel, give plenty of reason to visit through the seasons and years.

What? A tabletop grape vine?

We’ve marveled over the new, diminutive versions of blueberries and raspberries. But who could have imagined that grapevines, known for their rampant growth, could be downsized to the scale of potted geraniums?

Pixie Grape (a cultivar of Vitis vinifera) is a new dwarf, a genetic mutation, which tops out at about 18 inches high. It’ll live happily in a pot for years, producing sweet little Champagne grapes that ripen to deep purple in July.

Last summer ‘Pixie’ was an award winner at Cultivate ’14, the country’s largest horticultural-industry exposition. It’s produced here in the Northwest by wholesaler Log House Plants in Cottage Grove, Ore. Five more dwarf varieties are planned for 2016, but for now we’re promised ‘Pixie’ will be available by next Mother’s Day.

An artful homage to healing plants

Artists Jean Whitesavage and Nick Lyle, working out of their studio on Whidbey Island, recently completed two botanical screens for a new building in Washington, D.C. What could be more appropriate for the Association of Medical Colleges headquarters building than plants that are, or have historically been, sources of medicine?

Each section of screen, or perhaps it should be called a curtain, is 31 feet high by 18 feet wide and rises three stories up through a stairwell. The sculptures somehow manage to be both transparent and concealing, and as hefty as you’d expect from pieces crafted of hand-forged steel. Even at this dramatic scale, you recognize medicinal plants like pomegranates, tamarind, horse chestnuts, hibiscus and rugosa roses.

Lyle and Whitesavage designed and crafted Flora Medica as part of the architecture of the new building, an artful reminder that nature is our first, and perhaps best, medicine.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.