Sunday, August 7, 2011

Around the Garden

My garden is my pride and joy, despite its many flaws, but the heat, the mugginess, the voracious mosquitoes finally drove me out. Sometimes surcease is as simple as escaping to someone else’s garden.

So on Thursday, this writer and her reluctant spouse headed for the jewel in the crown of New York City’s green spots: the New York Botanical Garden. Sited on 250 acres in the Bronx, close to the Zoo and Fordham University, the NYBG is as astonishing an oasis as Central Park, but with the benefit of interpretive signage.

If you hunger for botanical knowledge even as you lust after gorgeous plants, this is the place for you. Now through August 21, there is the added lure of a world-class exhibit titled “Spanish Paradise: Gardens of

the Alhambra.” Housed in the vast Victorian glasshouse, this exhibit combines scholarly curation with ravishingly exotic plants in stunning array.

The potted variegated lemon and grapefruit trees alone were worth the price of admission. Equally thrilling were the water-lilies, with huge blooms nodding in a refreshing breeze.

The Enid Haupt Conservatory, which houses the Alhambra exhibit, is also home to roomsful of desert and rain forest plants, complete with fascinating descriptions of the challenges many of these plants face. Any tequila lover would swoon at the size and variety of agave plants.

About 50 acres of the garden are devoted to forest left as when the Lorillard family bought the property – yes, those Lorillards, of tobacco wealth and fame. There is a restored stone building on the property known as the Snuff Mill, with water power supplied by the Bronx River. Great wealth led to the preservation of this paradise in the Bronx.

In addition to these native trees, including 200-year-old oaks, there are also collections of exotics, artfully displayed. An entire arboretum of conifers takes up another chunk of acreage, with rarities such as Japanese red pines, of which there is a striking small grove. A well-displayed collection of dwarf pines propagated from witches’ brooms by Dr. Sidney Waxman, long a fixture at University of Connecticut, was a welcome reminder of how excellent the research is at UConn’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Two stars of the gardens are the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, designed by Beatrice Jones Farrand, America’s first notable woman landscape architect, and the fabulous bookstore. (A third star is the LuEsther Mertz Library, but it was too nice a day to spend in a library!)

The rose garden may not be as enormous as the one in Elizabeth Park, but it is exceptionally well-maintained and well-documented. If you are interested in comparing forty or more of David Austin’s gorgeous, hardy, sweet-scented, disease-resistant shrub roses, go at once! There is even educational signage about some of the more environmentally-friendly roses – roses that require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides than many others do.

And, speaking of maintenance, I did see a weed there: two tiny patches of edible purslane. It was like seeing a beautiful woman with one curl out of place – just a perfect humanizing touch.

The bookstore ought to be visited at the beginning, rather than the end of the tour. A sensible person might then buy only what he or she could carry about for the day. The range of topics, the vibrancy of the photographs, the depth of subject matter, were simply staggering. In these days of vanishing bookstores, how exhilarating to find an anthology of poems about New York, collections of garden essays, coffee table behemoths for orchid-lovers, and fine scholarly treatises on rain forest ecology – all spread out before you, available for browsing. And then there were the calendars – enough botanical art to make a gardener’s pulse race!

Next week: How’re you going to keep’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen the NYBG?

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