Oliver Sacks’ newly released collection of essays, Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2019), contains a wonderful chapter on ferns, one of Sacks’ early and enduring loves. Called “Botanists on Park,” the essay describes how he joins a troupe of fern hunters—he was a member of the American Fern Society—searching for rare specimens in the dry grit of old railroad beds along Park Avenue in New York City. They would be amazed to discover new varieties. As an amateur fern expert, Sacks had written a fascinating book about ferns, Oaxaca Journal, published in 2002, when he was already considered “the poet laureate of medicine,” a world-famous neurologist, and beloved professor.
In this new, posthumously produced book, Sacks writes about being a young boy living in London, and his many, cherished visits to Kew Gardens and the South Kensington museums—especially the garden outside the Natural History Museum. There he was fascinated by long-extinct fossil trees, like Sigillaria, and other “Jurassic” plants. In his essay “Remembering South Kensington,” he writes:
“I wanted the green monochrome, the fern and cycad forests of the Jurassic. I even dreamed at night, as an adolescent, of giant woody club mosses and tree horsetails, primeval, giant gymnosperm forests enveloping the globe—and would wake furious to think that they had long since disappeared, the world taken over by brightly colored, up-to-date, modern flowering plants.”
In June, purple foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are in bloom at NYBG. Tall, striking spires with dozens of little finger-shaped blooms, foxgloves are native all across western Europe. Traditionally cultivated in English borders, there are about 20 different species. They bloom in colors from yellows, pinks, lavenders, and whites to purple, with dark spots inside the blooms.
The leaves form in large clusters during the first year, and there are no blooms. Large and fuzzy green, they look a bit like sage or even spinach. In the second year, the blooms appear and the seeds can eventually be collected for re-planting, or they may naturalize.
A folk myth about foxgloves claims that the foxes who make dens in the woodland hills wear the flowers on their paws when they attack rural villagers. Sometimes called “witches’ gloves,” the plant’s toxicity was known for centuries by herbalists. Other common names for the plant are also a dead giveaway to its potent effects, including “witches’ thimbles” and “dead man’s bells”.
The entire plant is poisonous, according to experts. But the leaves, in particular, contain more concentrated toxins.
Staghorn ferns make a dramatic addition to any indoor plant collection. Botanically, they are epiphytes—plants that thrive while hanging onto threes or hanging in mossy baskets. In tropical environments and in NYBG’s Conservatory, mature staghorn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum) look awesome with their huge, tan-colored, shield-like plates and green fronds shaped like antlers. The plates cover fairly shallow root balls that cling to tree trunks or other mossy homes.
The plants get their nutrients from the trees or moss they grow on and absorb water through their fronds. Like other ferns, the staghorn variety is among the most ancient of plants. (There are an estimated 10,500 fern species, according to the American Fern Society, some dating back tens of thousands of years.) The staghorn ferns are found from the Philippines and Australia to Madagascar, Africa, and South America. Ferns do not produce flowers, but are able to reproduce by sending very tiny spores into the air. The spores form on the underside of the fertile fronds.
Gary Lincoff taught for more than 40 years at NYBG. He passed on March 16 after a stroke at the age of 75. For those of us who took Gary’s classes, he remains so alive in our memories—his stories, the coursework he required, and his motivational advice are still working on our minds.
I first met Gary in the spring of 2011. I’m sure if he were alive that he wouldn’t remember me at all from among the thousands of students he taught. But his course “Introduction to Plant Science” was one of the all-time best classes for me.
In his class, which was required for a Horticulture Certificate, we handled plant specimens that Gary provided from 10 major plant families and closely read chapters of Brian Capon’s book Botany for Gardeners. But the most important course requirement for me was keeping a daily journal of plant “events”—what I saw each day on garden walks and how those things changed over time, using my own drawings and plant pressings. For the first time, I felt like a real scientist observing and discovering plants. Gary’s class truly opened up a new world.
Most of us know Laura Ingalls Wilder as the author of The Little House series. But now a wonderful new book by NYBG instructor and garden historian Marta McDowell reveals little-known facts about Wilder’s other life—as a settler, farmer, and gardener.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of Wilder’s birth. Her life began in 1867 in a Wisconsin log cabin, a frontier baby whose pioneer parents had cleared a forest to make a farm—“the quintessential American beginning,” says McDowell. McDowell traces Wilder’s upbringing and adulthood in the first part of the book—several chapters follow her from Wisconsin, to Kansas, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Missouri, and other places where Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane (her prairie rose), ultimately lived.
If you’ve ever tried to create floral designs on your own, you’ll appreciate the work of Emily Thompson and Madeline Yanni—two amazing floral designers who have taught classes at NYBG and have their own floral design businesses in the New York metro area. Each designer has some great advice for making your own winter wreaths.
Emily Thompson’s Wild Style
Having studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and earned an MFA in sculpture at UCLA, Emily Thompson eventually moved to New York and first set up shop in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn, later moving to her current studio in the South Street Seaport district.
In the past, Thompson shared some of her inspired creative talents at NYBG’s midtown location, encouraging students to delve into the design elements that embody the forest, bog, and jungle. Thompson’s work is best known for its sculptural and naturalistic elements and is inspired by her native Vermont.
Greenwood Gardens in Short Hills, New Jersey, offers a refreshing escape from city life to a wonderful country estate. Located less than an hour from New York City, the gardens sit on 28 acres and have been open to the public only in the last four years. They continue to be restored and developed by a small but dedicated staff and many volunteers, all led by generations of the Blanchard family who purchased the property as their country home in 1949.
Upon arrival, a striking allée of tall Norway spruce and London plane trees flank either side of the entrance road up the hill to the main house and gardens. These artistically planted trees were selected by Peter P. Blanchard Jr. and his wife Adelaide Frick Blanchard in the early 1950s, and they were very carefully nurtured by their young son Peter P. Blanchard III.
Today he is the founder of Greenwood as a public garden, and serves as the President of the Board of Trustees. Blanchard is an ardent naturalist and author of We Were an Island: The Maine Life of Art and Nan Kellam (UPNE, $29.95), available in the NYBG Shop. He recently wrote a book that offers his personal insights from growing up at Greenwood, called Greenwood: A Garden Path to Nature and the Past ($20, available online). On an early November visit to the garden, I was lucky to meet him and to get a guided tour.
This year The New York Botanical Garden is celebrating chrysanthemums—the most iconic of all Japanese fall-flowering plants—in a new, awe-inspiring display. The Kiku exhibition (open through October 30) in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory has a unique contemporary feel with new sculptural shapes as well as the older traditional forms.
Kiku means chrysanthemum in Japanese. It is the national flower of Japan, part of the Imperial Crest, and the subject of regular exhibitions at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, where Japanese masters have trained New York Botanical Garden staff over the years to cultivate special shapes and colors in the traditional Imperial style.
Considered one of the best examples of a classic Italian Renaissance garden in America, Wethersfield Garden was originally just 1,200 acres of sloping hills, woods, and pastureland in Amenia, New York. The late Chauncey Devereux Stillman (1907–1989), a long-time supporter of NYBG, visited the area on a fox hunt in 1937 and promptly purchased the land.
Educated at Harvard (Class of 1929), Stillman was heir to a family fortune in banking. He became an accomplished equestrian and garden enthusiast, eventually joining the NYBG Board of Trustees in 1946 after a stint in the Navy during World War II as an air combat intelligence officer. According to NYBG Research Librarian Samantha D’Acunto, records show that he served on the board in various roles for more than two decades, until June 1967.
Although he had an advanced architecture degree from Columbia, Stillman wasn’t a practicing architect. One year after he joined the NYBG board, he went to work as a civilian for the federal government’s newly created Defense Department under Secretary James Forrestal and soon was moved to work at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he stayed until 1951—doing exactly what, we don’t know.
Dedicated 100 years ago in 1916 (on the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death), the Central Park Shakespeare Garden is one of the best Shakespeare gardens in the world. It was fully restored by the Central Park Conservancy in 1987 and is a great local getaway for plant and poetry lovers.
Landscape designers Bruce Kelly and David Varnell, hired by the Conservancy, expanded the area to four acres—repaving paths, adding lovely bronze plaques with Shakespeare quotations, and installing rustic fences and wooden benches (recently replaced by the Conservancy with newer versions).
The basic footprint of the garden has remained the same since the 1987 restoration, says the Conservancy’s Senior Gardener, Larry Boes. When he became the gardener in 2008, he moved several of the Shakespeare plaques to locations where he could actually grow the plants mentioned.