A Gardening Life: Kim Tripp

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Dr. Kim Tripp Profile

By Barbara Paul Robinson

“It’s just a romance,” says Dr. Kim Tripp, Director of the New York Botanical Garden, about her feelings for conifers. “I love their special spirit and beauty.” Although she is a conifer enthusiast and expert, Kim loves all plants, viewing them as the “natural architecture of our space.” In fact, on one of her many plant-finding expeditions, this one to Yunnan, China, a conifer — a yew — saved her life. Alone on a steep cliff, she stretched to collect the yew’s seed but the rocks slid out from under her. Only by clinging to that yew and clambering back up did she avert disaster.

Growing up in Sag Harbor, Long Island and encouraged by her parents, Kim developed a deep interest in the natural world early on. She thought about becoming a veterinarian, but she preferred plants. As a young child working in the vegetable garden, she was fascinated by the suspense of watching her newly planted seeds emerge and grow. But even then, she had a special fondness for trees.

These interests took her to Cornell for her B.S. and M.S. in plant science, followed by a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. To her surprise, she was drawn to research, particularly about plant metabolism, their unique ability to absorb CO2 and hence, their importance to our environment. Kim might have kept to this scholarly path, but the late, great plantsman, J. C. Raulston, recognized her broader talents. He enlisted her as curator of the conifer collection at the small arboretum in Raleigh now named for him. De facto, Kim became J.C. Raulston’s Assistant Director, his “jack of all trades,” staying for six years. Then the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts offered her a Putnam Fellowship, or what Kim calls a “fancy post-doc.” Working with the Arnold’s living plant collections, she realized how much she enjoyed the context of a botanical garden and arboretum.

What Kim calls her first “real” job followed. She became Director of the Botanical Garden at Smith College, with a joint appointment in biology. The entire campus of 125 acres was the “garden,” based on a late 19th century historic design; it included a glass conservatory in need of restoration. Kim became deeply enmeshed in restoring an historic landscape and conservatory while also teaching at Smith.

Research relating to work on the Smith conservatory took Kim to the Library at the New York Botanical Garden, prompting NYBG’s request for her to consult on the development of their living collections. Shortly thereafter, she was invited to become NYBG’s Vice President of Horticulture. “I was ecstatic with surprise at this remarkable opportunity. I doubted it was true, but of course, I said yes.”

A self-described workaholic, Kim was just off on a four day intense trip to Japan to work on a cultural exchange for NYBG’s 2007 Kiku chrysanthemum exhibit. But her gray-blue eyes grow soft as she admits that when traveling, “I can also be quite dreamy — to allow space for new ideas to come.” To create that space, she escapes to her country place where she keeps her horse and emphatically does not garden. This allows her “to unhinge from the pressures of the regular routine, to free the mind.”

This past March Kim became the Director and the first woman to lead NYBG’s programs in its history of over a century. She is responsible for all program areas, supervising the science program (over 100 NYBG scientists conduct extensive and international research), the Steere Herbarium (the largest in the western hemisphere), the Mertz Library (with over 1,000,000 items, including an extraordinary collection of rare books), public education for adults and children, and of course, management of the gardens and living collections. When President Gregory Long appointed her Director, he knew she had superb credentials and was a “natural manager.” “People love working for her because she is so committed and so good at the real work herself.” He also discovered “her exquisite taste, just right for this historic landscape, so in synch with the way it was meant to look.”

With NYBG in the midst of a 100 year restoration and renewal, Kim is the perfect person for the job. As Director of NYBG, Kim sees herself as an advocate for the plants of the world, through plant science, horticulture, and public education. An idealist who cares passionately about what she does, Kim believes that what takes place at NYBG “matters hugely to the planet.”