Flowers in New York, New York

by Clement Kent

March, 1989

A recent trip to New York City allowed me to squeeze in some horticulturalizing in very pleasant spring-like weather. I managed to attend the Flower Show of the New York Horticultural Society as well as the world-renowned Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Here's my report on these two venerable institutions.

The Flower Show

As I walked westward along 51st Street from Broadway I passed the loading docks of theaters, a Catholic medical center, and the fantastic Art Deco skyscraper of the New York Telephone company. The sun was shining and the air was warm ... but what was that? An empty lot surrounded with 12 foot tall chain link fence topped by 2 feet of wicked barbed wire, and filled with every conceivable variety of trash? Who were those shadowy figures lounging about their cardboard carton homes amidst the debris, near a tunnel under the chain link? And why did the sidewalk suddenly become covered underfoot with broken glass? The plight of the homeless in New York is undeniable, but I hadn't planned on analysing it on the way to the Flower Show... I stepped up my pace as the street dipped downhill towards the Hudson River, blocked from view by a raised expressway, 6 pedestrian level feeder lanes filled with manic New York drivers, and decorated on both sides by grim industrial warehouses. Only the sight of a plant nursery flyer thrown in typical New York style amongst the other debris on the sidewalk kept me going onward .....

An Earlier Flower Show: New Yorker cover from the 1930s showing society matron with Flower Show entryAs the accompanying cartoon from the New Yorker makes clear, the New York Horticultural Society has for many years been sponsoring a Flower Show at which some of the exhibitors arrive in style. This year was no exception; but the contrast between the surrounding areas near Pier 92, where the show was held, and the displays inside, lent a rather interesting edge to the occasion. At this year's show, the more upper crust members of the NYHS would have been well advised to have their drivers pull the limo right up to the entrance; few of them can have walked through town to the Pier as I did.

I admit that I was more than a little surprised at how the exhibit put on by socialite Mrs. C. Z. Guest eclipsed the massive displays by botanical gardens, parks departments, etc, which surrounded it. Mrs. Guest has the advantage of the institutions in that she is rich, she is famous, she is a gardener and garden writer and.... she and her collaborator Elvin McDonald (of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden) have taste.

Taste is something which is often lacking in flower show exhibits, where it seems masses of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths are often heaped together around a "quaint little path" or collection of artificially weathered garden gnomes. Now, flowers en masse are not to be sneered at near the end of a long winter - BUT, a mass does not make a garden.

Mrs Guest and Mr McDonald constructed a latticework gazebo brimming over with incredibly luscious orchids and flowering vines, but with two garden chairs well placed for sitting and enjoying the arrangement. In front of the gazebo topiary citrus trees in bloom contributed an intoxicating fragrance. To the sides, two long U-shaped beds of white roses made a simple statement which balanced and toned down the extravagance of the central display. And then, in the midst of each bed, a small latticework replica of the gazebo was covered by a single passionflower vine in bloom. The resulting composition had both formality and informality, lushness and restraint, and showed what careful attention to design, plus vast amounts of money, could do.

Near the Guest-McDonald display, another well to do pair of NYRS members, Mr & Mrs P J R Freylinghausen, had constructed two ponds, one formal, one informal. The unifying theme was provided by nearly life-size bronze statues of nymphs which spouted small jets of water. The formal garden I found dead and lifeless, but the informal one was a triumph - if only we could have something like this in our own shady back yards!

Around the edges of the pond over 50 species of shade tolerant plants, ranging from tiny ground covers to largish trees, had been artfully arranged in a very naturalistic setting. The clumps of plants were given enough space to show off the unique merits of each species, but were carefully set out in such a ragged, natural pattern that one could easily imagine being in the midst of a forest. That most excellent native ground cover, Tiarella, or Foam flower, was in full bloom with dainty white sprays of flowers above mottled foliage. As counterpoint to this there were the spotted leaves and pink-and-blue flowers of the native Pulmonaria, or lungwort, and the discreetly blue-striped white flowers of Puschkinia in several long arcs. Around the edges and under the shrubs many kinds of fern, including Maidenhair and Japanese Painted fern, provided foliage interest, as did the dark, grasslike leaves of Liriope, or Lilyturf, not yet in flower. Completing the admirably restrained floral display were the spotted flowers on stalks of Digitalis, the woodland foxglove, while Alchemilla (a.k.a. Lady's Mantle) and creeping woodland phlox added to the foliage picture.

It is no doubt mean and spiteful of me to suggest this, but I somehow doubt whether such artful displays could have been entirely the work of only a pair of gardeners. I wonder whether there is not at times a fierce competition between the bank books of some of the NYHS members in which the owners of the bank accounts receive more notice and acclaim than their many hired gardeners, who must after all have had a considerable role in producing these charming indoor gardens.

In this environment, with wealth and taste on one side, and the massed assaults of the tulips on the other, the display of the New York City Parks Dept (if I abbreviate it NYCPD hereafter I trust you won't think I'm referring to the Police of television fame?) stood out for taking a different and interesting approach. The NYCPD people had a bed entirely of Rosaceae - that is, plants of the Rose family.

In addition to the standard, dwarf, and bush roses forced into bloom which one might expect, a variety of interesting small woodland plants such as various strawberry and false strawberry species were shown to advantage as ground covers or rock garden plants. Amongst the rose bushes various shrubs and trees of the rose family, including Rowan and Kerria, could be seen. This selection of plants did not result in as showy a display as the tulip beds or orchid gazebos, but it was interesting and educational. Furthermore, unlike some of the conspicuous consumption of flowers around it (many plants would be forced for the show, then thrown away) a sign assured the viewer that every plant in the display would be planted in a New York City park that spring.

After passing through the garden exhibits, I came to the flower arranging area. About most of what I saw, the less said, the better. The judges, exhibitors, and I come from different schools I'm afraid. But I cannot resist mentioning the multiple prize- winning display of Mrs John P sketch of the prize-winning flying saucer arrangement Meade, in the Novelties section, which consisted of a flying saucer tipped at a 45 degree angle, with sprays of white cattleya orchids and allium buds fastened to a framework of corkscrew hazel stems. This bizarre arrangement was shown in a rectangular niche painted black, and did indeed give the intended effect of an alien contrail of flowers spewing out of both ends of the saucer. It was fascinating, imaginative, and it left me quite cold, but the judges loved it.

Past the flower arrangements, the last half of the hall was devoted to booths and displays of various vendors and non-profit groups. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's Research Service had an interesting display of new varieties of flowers being developed for the pot- or cut-flower markets, of which the dwarf kangaroos paws (Anigozanthus sp.) in various colors were notable - these are possibly the most unusual Amaryllis family plants (from Australia) you will ever see. Also worth looking for was another Australian introduction, the,Wax Flower, with the jaw-breaking name of Chamelaucium umbellatum - a cut flower with good ferny green foliage and clusters of small, waxy five-petalled flowers in several colors.

Here too the booths of the various environmental groups were notable, with even a poster about the effects of acid rain! Perhaps some day an American administration will actually do something about it? The Cornell University Extension service had a booth with Master Gardeners and their extensive list of very cheap publications.

In the commercial section of the hall I was very grateful for the rigid unwillingness of Canada Customs to allow me to bring back live plants - otherwise I might have boarded the aircraft to go home juggling any number of beautiful orchids that would have seriously damaged my pocketbook! As it was I got away without buying anything, a great relief as it left me some cash for the muggers on the street.

An Innocent Visits the Brooklyn Botanical Garden

Not having had enough of New York flowers at the flower show, the next day I set off on the subway to find the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Our hotel was on Lexington Avenue, and the subway map showed the Lexington Avenue Line continuing on to Brooklyn, with the stop at Franklin Avenue shown right next to a green blob marked "Botanic Garden". Aha, I thought, nothing could be simpler.

Two changes of subway train later I was somewhat less sanguine about the simplicity of it all. Somehow the NY Transit Authority couldn't figure out how to run one train all the way through. The rapidly increasing PQ (Poverty Quotient) on the train as we approached Brooklyn might have told me something too. But in the event it was only my emergence into the sunshine at the rubbish-strewn Franklin Avenue that made clear to me that Brooklyn has definitely seen better days. What's more, there were no greenhouses, gardens, or lawns in sight. But, only slightly daunted, I set off in what should have been the right direction.

Several blocks of urban wasteland later I was beginning to wonder if I didn't really want a nice subway ride back to the hotel and a long soak in the bath ... when to my enormous relief I spied a greenhouse dome down a side street which looked only mildly life-threatening. My toes fairly twinkled as I strode along to the great wall and wrought iron fence behind which the BBG protects itself from latter-day Brooklyn. Inside I was for once relieved rather than disturbed by the uniformed guard at the entrance. I would have to hazard a guess that a number of the BBG's neighbors are more involved with the daily struggle for existence than with the finer points of garden design.

Once through the gift shop I emerged into the Magnolia Plaza, surrounded by big mature trees of Magnolia 'Elizabeth', a yellow magnolia bred at the BBG and named for several Elizabeths who had worked there over the years. The fine large buds were not yet open but held great promise for April or May visitors. In the courtyard I joined a free tour of the Garden led by one of the Volunteers. We visited the garden for the blind, with Braille tags next to a variety of fragrant or tactilely interesting plants, the first such garden specifically for the blind. Next to it the snowdrops and winter aconite were blooming in the Shakespeare garden (this was March ll!). Around the corner a Japanese apricot, Prunus mume 'Tosibai', had just opened the first few buds.

At this point the tour was interrupted by an elderly gentleman who asked the Volunteer if she knew where the black pussy willow was - he had heard it was blooming. She directed him to it, and in return he told us where to find thousands of early Crocus tomasinianus in bloom. After he had left, our guide told us he was the distinguished Dr. Nelson, a retired member of the BBG staff. The tour went off to see the Japanese garden, but I followed Dr Nelson's advice and went off to the crocuses - thousands of them in bloom early in March was too good to be missed!

They were blooming in the grass under a number of spreading trees on a south facing bank. This species crocus naturalizes very well in grass, seeds itself abundantly, and so manages to spread quite well in lawns. Its pale blue-grey inner petals are cloaked by darker colored outer petals when it folds up for the night. In the shade of some shrubs the snow was still deep - while inches away the crocuses bloomed by the dozen. This sight alone made the subway trip worth it!

sketch of the 800 year old bonsai juniper, deceased From the crocuses I proceeded to the greenhouses. The BBG is in the midst of a program to renovate its conservatories; five new ones have just been completed and are now open to the public, while two more are being built. Each house has a different theme - one is tropical, one temperate, one desert, one aquatic, and one is devoted to Bonsai plants. There I saw a 2 foot high Japanese maple that was just coming into bud - it looked quite beautiful and certainly didnt look a day older than its 94 years. Of course it was a comparative youngster next to the diminutive 138 year old oak tree or the 144 year old juniper, while none of these could really compete with the serpentine trunk of the >800 year old juniper in the display case. I say trunk advisedly, because a few months after arriving in the BBG from Japan in 1971, this ancient tree died. Its 3 foot tall corpse however is on display.

On my way out of the gardens, I discovered that I could have taken a different subway line and have been deposited right at the gate to the gardens, at the Brooklyn Museum stop. There is also a large parking lot shared by the museum and the gardens for those who drive. So, next time you are in New York, do try and visit the BBG - I think you'll enjoy it!

Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t