Skip to main content

The following post was part of a larger article in the Arnoldia Journal from the Arnold Arboretum about the impact of COVID-19 on botanical gardens. To see the complete article, go HERE.

Haunted By That Day
By Nancy Kartes, Garden Manager

On January 21, 2020, our nation’s first case of COVID-19 was reported in the Seattle area, just a few miles from Bellevue Botanical Garden. I was not paying attention to the news. As garden manager, I was deep into planning our first big event of 2020: a Lunar New Year Celebration scheduled for February 2. We had been snowed out the year before, which would have been our first year celebrating this event, so excitement was high over the favorable weather forecast. We expected over one thousand visitors. I could imagine red-and-gold lion dancers snaking through entry gardens that would be redolent with witch-hazels and sarcococca. The hot pink blossoms of Camellia ‘Mary Christian’ (pictured at right) —evocative of the tea plant C. sinensis—would be punching through the winter gray.

One of our community partners, Lily, began each planning meeting by serving different varieties of Chinese tea. Her gracious habit kept me connected to the mission of our collaboration: teaching the public about botanicals used in Chinese teas. Lunar New Year was to be the first of four events celebrating Chinese tea arts through the seasons. At our pre-event check-in on January 24, Lily was visibly shaken. She was wracked with concern over the news out of China. She had been in touch with friends and family there and felt it would be disrespectful to hold a large public celebration at a time when so many were suffering. She and her colleagues feared the virus would spread here. I agreed to cancel the event out of respect for the Chinese community. At the time, I didn’t think it was necessary to add “out of an abundance of caution.” It was a scramble to put the brakes on with just a little over one week’s notice: cancel the lion dancers, the musicians, the tea ceremonies. Notify the public, the volunteers, the dignitaries.

While our garden was deep in winter dormancy, with so much unseen beneath the surface, novel coronavirus was silently making its way through our community. Our area was destined to be the first epicenter of the outbreak in the United States. Events and programs fell like dominos, one after the other as our understanding of the pandemic evolved, until our governor issued a stay-at-home order and everything ground to a halt on March 25. Our facilities closed. A handful of crew members would continue coming in to care for the garden, which remained open for walking, free as always. Everyone began panic shopping for toilet paper, which I could not understand. I stocked up on veggie seeds and compost.

On January 24, I didn’t see any of that coming. I now feel haunted by that day and my ignorance in thinking that the virus was far away and not our problem. Thanks to our Chinese friends, we made the right call and that decision may have saved lives. I remember that we, at the Bellevue Botanical Garden, are the lucky ones: no staff layoffs, volunteers eager to return, and all of them healthy. I remember that we are strong and resilient. And I remember that, in the Garden, the hidden promise of winter dormancy burst into an early spring, with daffodils, daphne, and rhododendrons coming into bloom, each, in their turn, providing respite from pandemic fears.


Witch hazel photo © Hilda Weges | Other photos courtesy of Nancy Kartes.

Leave a Reply