Inside The New York Botanical Garden

Gardens and Collections

Southern Magnolias

Posted in Gardens and Collections on July 9 2013, by Sonia Uyterhoeven

Sonia Uyterhoeven is the NYBG‘s Gardener for Public Education.

Southern magnoliaThis morning when I was walking to my office I noticed that the southern magnolia, Bracken’s Brown Beauty (Magnolia grandiflora ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’) was in bloom. My first impulse was the right one—to go up to the voluptuous, velvety petals, shoo the bees and other insects away, and stick my nose into it.

Not all magnolias have fragrances, but many do, and it is always worth investigating. ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’ has a distinctive lemon dishwashing detergent smell to it. It’s not a fragrance that is going to have you traveling from miles away to visit the flower, but it is nonetheless pleasant and worth a sniff or two.

Honestly, the fragrance is just a poor excuse to get close to the magnificent flower. The flower is substantial at 4-6” wide, with petals that are reminiscent of the undulating wings of a dove. Botanically speaking, since the petals and the sepals look so similar in a magnolia, they are classified as tepals. Sepals for the botanically less-inclined are the outer layer of the flower—in trees they are generally green leaf-like structures that protect the flower when it is in bud and then support it when in bloom.

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Botanical Fireworks

Posted in Gardens and Collections on July 3 2013, by Thomas Andres

Thomas Andres is an Honorary Research Associate with The New York Botanical Garden.

Tickseed or corepesis (Corepesis sp.) — Asteraceae
Tickseed or corepesis (Corepesis sp.) — Asteraceae

This Fourth of July, remember to look around you for pyrotechnics in the Garden. I don’t mean to suggest there will be literal fireworks at your feet, of course. Perhaps the closest a plant comes to that is the lowly clubmoss (Lycopodium sp.), which is actually a fern ally and not a true moss. In the fall, gathered spores from clubmoss are highly flammable and have been used for generations to make flash powder. Today you may only see it used by magicians, but it was once popular in early photography as a rudimentary flash for large format cameras, not to mention its use in actual fireworks.

The pyrotechnics I am talking about are the plants that bear a resemblance to our favorite fireworks in various ways. Some even have names that suggest this, such as ‘Giant Sunburst’, firecracker flower, flaming sword, and torch lily. They have the advantage over real fireworks by making a show in the daytime with a much longer-lasting display, making them much easier to photograph. They are also considerably more diverse, and I’d say more beautiful, albeit without the bang.

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Garden Moments

Posted in Gardening Tips, Gardens and Collections on July 2 2013, by Sonia Uyterhoeven

Sonia Uyterhoeven is the NYBG‘s Gardener for Public Education.

Schizophragma hydrangeoides 'Moonlight'
Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’

I often have visitors tell me that they love perennials, but their big challenge as gardeners is finding combinations that make it easy to synchronize bloom times. This is a real challenge particularly when the desire to create appealing plant partners meets a wish to provide multi-seasonal interest in the garden.

Annuals are an easy way to ensure season-long color, but they often lack the textures, stature, and architectural interest that perennials supply. In my walks around the Garden this year I have found two “garden moments” worth sharing—one serendipitous, the other planned. They are instructive examples in creating satisfying designs with limited plant palettes in your garden.

A few years ago, on a low stone wall in the Home Gardening Center, I planted a climbing hydrangea (Schizophragma hydrangeoides ‘Moonlight’). The climbing hydrangea is a woody vine that has blue-green, heart-shaped leaves and creamy white lace-cap flowers. It has stretched itself happily over the stone wall and filled in nicely.

Since the vine wants to crawl on the stone wall we needed to fill the space below, by its feet, and along the edge of the border. Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis) seemed like a logical choice. This perennial only grows 12-18” tall and forms a nice clump, with large, scalloped, light-green to blue-green foliage. Furthermore, lady’s mantle flowers alongside the climbing hydrangea in June, producing clusters of showy chartreuse flowers.

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Life is Rosy: Hardy & Fragrant

Posted in Gardens and Collections on June 18 2013, by Sonia Uyterhoeven

Sonia Uyterhoeven is the NYBG‘s Gardener for Public Education.

'Francis Meilland'
‘Francis Meilland®’

Last week, I was out in the Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden with Ken Molinari, our Rose Garden Foreman, where he told me that we’re using a lot of foliar feeds this year. With so many roses—over 680 varieties and more than 4,400 roses—we have to fill up a large 100-gallon tank and go down on Mondays, when the Garden is closed, to spray the organic fertilizer on the roses. But it’s not solely out of convenience that we time this application for a day when the Garden is closed to the public; many of the fertilizers that we use are fish-based, and only a cat would be happy with the scent.

We have been using a blend of a number of products, including Organic Gem® liquid fish fertilizer, Monty’s® Liquid Plant Food (otherwise known as Monty’s Joy Juice), and Dyna-Gro Pro-Tekt®. The latter is a silicon solution which supplies potassium and silicon to help the rose build stronger cell walls, which in turn helps protect it from black spot and piercing insects. Add all of these ingredients together and you have a recipe for healthy roses that are better able to defend themselves from pests, diseases, and environmental stress.

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Wake Up Family Garden!

Posted in Gardens and Collections on April 9 2013, by Ann Rafalko

Learning in the Family GardenGuess what? It’s spring! Finally, officially, it’s time to dig into the ground and enjoy the feeling of dirt under your fingernails. At the Ruth Rea Howell Family Garden this simple joy is available to everyone, including our littlest visitors.

I was over there just this afternoon and little kids were grabbing shovels and being handed seeds and seedlings to push into the now warm earth. Of course, this magic doesn’t happen overnight, so everyone who drops in is invited back in a few weeks’ time to harvest and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Manager of the Family Garden, Toby Adams, gives you all the details on this wonderful drop-in program for families.

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The Torreya Tree: Foreign Territory

Posted in Gardens and Collections on March 27 2013, by Matt Newman

After months of dedicated effort, the NYBG‘s Native Plant Garden is scheduled for a grand reopening in May of 2013. Until then, we’ll occasionally touch on the plants, landscapes, and landmark features that have gone into this classic space. Visit the official page for more information.

TorreyaWith the Native Plant Garden opening in May, it seemed only right to highlight some of the plants and trees that have gone into its reimagining. I kicked things off a while back with the Spiranthes orchids growing here and there about the space. This time around, I thought I’d go in a different direction–and highlight the only non-natives to be found in the Native Plant Garden. Stately and full with spiraled needles, the decades-old Torreya trees near the center of the garden are the only explicit outsiders to have kept their citizenship during the landscape’s sweeping revision. But before you throw your arms up in a huff of indignation, hear me out!

When Oehme von Sweden first envisioned the new Native Plant Garden’s layout, the Torreyas–Japanese natives, originally–were some of the more notable residents popping up in discussions. They stood three abreast, dense and squat, their thick evergreen needles shadowing what the designers pegged as the center of the new landscape. The broad path of the water feature would brush right past them on its way through the middle of the garden, so it’s not as though these conifers were inconspicuous. And that left a question: what would people think, seeing foreign growth in a native sanctuary?

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For the Love of Chocolate

Posted in Gardens and Collections on February 6 2013, by Scott Mori

Scott A. Mori, Ph.D., Nathaniel Lord Britton Curator of Botany, has been studying New World rain forests at The New York Botanical Garden for 35 years. From 1978 to 1980 he took a leave from the Garden to serve as the Director of the Herbarium of the Cocoa Research Center in Bahia, Brazil.

Cacao pods
A close-up of pods of a chocolate tree. The fruits can also be red at maturity.

On a previous blog, I covered the natural history of chocolate but failed to admit my addiction to this melt-in-your-mouth delight. This problem of mine has reached the point where I have asked my wife to hide it from me, and then only dole out small portions on special occasions. Nevertheless, I still scheme to get more chocolate from her. But she has become familiar with my tactics as the years have passed, making extra rations almost impossible to get my hands on.

Of course, chocolate doesn’t begin as the confection we know and love. The fruits of the cacao tree produce two edible treats for humans–the first is the pulp that surrounds the seed and the second is the bitter seed that, after processing, becomes the source of our favorite chocolate. Although the pulp can be made into a delicious juice, I usually open the pods and suck the pulp from the seeds to quench my thirst and boost my energy when I am collecting plants in the field. The pulp is the reward given to monkeys and other animals in exchange for disseminating the seeds, carrying them from the mother tree to a place where they have a better chance to germinate and escape predation. On the other hand, animals do not eat the seeds because they are too bitter.

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Crazy for Cattleyas

Posted in Gardens and Collections on January 15 2013, by Sonia Uyterhoeven

Sonia Uyterhoeven is the NYBG‘s Gardener for Public Education.

Cattleya labiataIn December, I recounted the story of the renowned 19th century botanist Asa Gray’s quest for Oconee bells (Shortia galacifolia). The New Year brings new stories; this one takes us on a journey from the northeastern region of Brazil to English hothouses and Scottish botanic gardens. It is the tale of one of the early discoveries of the corsage orchid: Cattleya labiata.

In 1816, a naturalist named William Swainson traveled into the jungles of northern Brazil in search of exotic ferns, mosses, and tropical plants to send back to collectors and botanical gardens in the United Kingdom. One of his shipments reached a man named William Cattley. A collector and avid horticulturist, Cattley lived on the outskirts of London in Barnet, England, where he grew topical plants–including orchids–in his hothouse.

Many stories from the past are surrounded by a certain mythology, and this one is no exception. The romantic version of this tale is that Cattley received a specimen of the orchid used as packing material to protect a shipment of ferns. The keen horticulturist was wise to see that he had something special in hand, and rescued the orchid from the packing material.

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New York’s Nodding Ladies

Posted in Gardens and Collections on December 19 2012, by Matt Newman

Spiranthes cernuaLadies’ tresses orchids aren’t the most flamboyant flowers in the redesigned Native Plant Garden. Neither are they the most exotic orchids you’ll ever come upon. But seeing them sprout up from the wetland area, I can’t help but find these local perennials engaging. Few people realize how widespread the world’s orchid population really is, and far from being the exclusive charge of southern climes and tropical islands, members of the Orchidaceae family range across much of the United States and into Canada. Naturally, that includes New York.

But make no mistake: these aren’t the neon-painted Phalaenopsis orchids you see lining the shelves at your local florist, though their occasional fragrance makes up for such docile color. They’re small and narrow in profile, rising into a tall, green “spike” around which spirals a staircase of drowsy white flowers. They look a bit like stressed snowdrops, wound into coils that grow in stiff stands. Thriving in a wide range of habitats–fields, damp meadows, moist thickets and grassy swamps among them–that clean simplicity might explain the allure of this New York City orchid.

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An Ever Changing Forest

Posted in Around the Garden, Gardens and Collections on December 6 2012, by Travis Beck

Travis Beck is the NYBG’s Landscape and Garden Projects Manager, overseeing large landscape design and construction projects here at the Garden. His current undertakings include the redesign of the Native Plant Garden and trail restorations taking place in the Thain Family Forest.

The Thain Family Forest at The New York Botanical Garden is a remnant of the deciduous forest that once covered most of the region. Unlike many of the remaining forests, the Thain Family Forest was never cleared for timber or agriculture, and includes numerous grand trees. Today, many of these are well over a century old.

Superstorm Sandy reminds us, however, that humans are not the only ones to fell trees. Her strong winds uprooted or snapped the trunks of over one hundred trees in the Forest. Where these trees fell, gaps now exist in the canopy, creating opportunities for the next generation of trees to grow. Our records show that Sandy was the most damaging storm in the Garden’s history to impact the Forest, but hurricanes, nor’easters, and thunderstorms are part of the natural disturbance regime for northeastern forests. Such storms open gaps in the canopy and allow for new growth to fill the space.

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