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.”
As part of #plantlove at NYBG, we’re talking with people from all over the Garden about what inspires their passion for plants. Today, meet Kadeesha Williams, Community Horticulturist and Urban Agriculturist with Bronx Green-Up at NYBG.
I’m lucky to have grown up surrounded by plants. My parents come from farming backgrounds in South Carolina, so it was natural to raise their own food when they moved to NYC. I often think of my family’s community garden, Taqwa Community Farm here in the Bronx, as the place where I first had my experiences with plants. It isn’t, though.
When I was three or four, my father and grandfather kept a garden in our backyard, and I remember how lush it always was. There was a rose of Sharon bush that grew to the size of a small tree, two Persian silk trees, and forsythia along the fence. In the middle they grew tomatoes, cucumbers, collard greens, and cabbage. I felt tiny walking through that garden, like a fairy princess in a magical forest. I dream about that place often, even as an adult, because of how it shaped the world I desire. I don’t think I’ve ever shaken that dream, and I want to share the experience with everyone.
Being in a garden should remind us of how small we are, and that is a beautiful thing.
As part of #plantlove at NYBG, we’re talking with people from all over the Garden about what inspires their passion for plants. Today, meet Daryl Beyers, Adult Education Gardening Program Coordinator and instructor at The New York Botanical Garden.
I grew up with a love-hate relationship with plants. I loved all the trees and flowers surrounding my childhood home but hated the three acres of lawn my father made me mow on the weekends. This consideration of plants as either inspiration or chore formed the horticultural ethic of my university studies in landscape design and my early professional practice in gardens. Then, while teaching my first gardening course at NYBG nearly a decade ago, I unearthed another plant-people relationship: “To grow a plant is to know a plant.”
The fierce curiosity of my students to learn and understand the how and why of gardening showed me how and why we all connect with plants. Our #plantlove manifests in many ways, such as through the care and attention given to a houseplant, the calming influence of a groves of trees, or the exuberance of walking through wildflowers. Every plant has its charm, but as they charm us we charm them too, into forms and functions that shape where and how we live. That’s what gardening is.
As part of #plantlove at NYBG, we’re talking with people from all over the Garden about what inspires their passion for plants and our environment. Today, meet Fabian Michelangeli, Curator in the Institute of Systematic Botany at NYBG.
I grew up outside Caracas, Venezuela, on the campus of a research institute where my dad is a researcher. All three of my maternal great uncles were systematists or taxonomists of some type, so it’s no surprise that I ended up working in biology. I always knew that this is what I would do, as I’ve always loved evolution and adaptations to new environments, and learning how organisms cope with that. Plants are a great system to answer questions about evolution and adaptation.
I’ve gone collecting from areas at sea level to those at 13,000 feet above; places where you collect from your car, to places that require a week’s hike, or many days by boat. I’d rather be cold and wet in my tent than sitting at my computer. For my undergraduate thesis, I did an ecological study on the top of a mountain in southern Venezuela, by myself for a week while focusing on small mats of vegetation that grow on rocks. That, to me, is still one of the best weeks of my life, 25 years later.
As part of #plantlove at NYBG, we’re talking with people from all over the Garden about what inspires their passion for plants and our environment. Today, meet Jessica Tobon, Outreach & Education Coordinator for the NYC Compost Project at NYBG.
I love growing plants, learning their names, and watching them change day by day, a passion I discovered back in 2012. After graduating with a business degree, I found myself going through overwhelming family troubles, and my professors recommended I take a chance on something new. Soon after, I completed a six-week landscape architecture program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. My new career path was clear, and I continued learning about plants while earning a Horticulture Certificate at NYBG, as well as a Master Composter Certificate with the NYC Compost Project. As a plant lover, it’s important for me to help close the cycle between plant cultivation and decomposition. Today I train Bronx volunteers and residents to compost their plant waste, and hopefully help inspire people to become plant lovers themselves.
Esther Jackson is the Public Services Librarian at NYBG’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library where she manages Reference and Circulation services and oversees the Plant Information Office. She spends much of her time assisting researchers, providing instruction related to library resources, and collaborating with NYBG staff on various projects related to Garden initiatives and events.
Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867 – 1944) was a book designer, field collector, botanical illustrator, mystery writer, and more. She was born in 1867 in New York City to a wealthy and artistic family and raised along the Hudson River in Danskammer. Her father, Maitland Armstrong (1836 – 1918),[i] was a stained glass artist and diplomat. Her sister, Helen Maitland Armstrong (1869 – 1948),[ii] was a prominent stained glass artist, with whom she collaborated on a number of book design and illustration projects.
Armstrong’s first book cover design was published in 1890 when she was 23 years old. When she began to work in book design, Armstrong didn’t reveal that she was a woman, using only her initials – “M. N. Armstrong.” However, in 1892 she won an award for her book design work at the World’s Colombia Exposition in Chicago. From there she went on to design approximately 314 book covers, and by 1895 she established her stylized signature “M. A.” Prior to that, she had not always signed her designs.
As part of #plantlove at NYBG, we’re talking with people from all over the Garden about what inspires their passion for plants. Today, meet Heather Lorusso, a student in the School of Professional Horticulture Class of 2021.
I’ve been interested in plants and nature since I was a child, but growing up in South Florida, I spent most of my time in the water and not in the garden. It wasn’t until I had the chance to move to the United Kingdom in 2014 that I was able to explore my love of plants. I took one course with the Royal Horticultural Society and was besotted! I spent the next four years working in gardens and nurseries and visiting some of the most famous gardens in the world. Soon I realized that the more you learn about plants, the more you want to know! This is one of the reasons I decided to continue my horticulture education at NYBG, where I’m continually astonished with the amount of knowledge and resources it holds.
In addition to the beauty and sense of fascination that plants give me, I’ve found that they tend to bring the best of the world together—they’re able to unite people of all different ages and backgrounds under the umbrella of #plantlove. And using binomial nomenclature, we are also able to speak the same language!
As part of #plantlove at NYBG, we’re talking with people from all over the Garden about what inspires their passion for plants. Today, meet Cecilia Zumajo, Ph.D. student at the Garden.
My Name is Cecilia Zumajo, and I am a Ph.D. student here at the Garden. I’m studying plant evolution and development, specifically seed ovules and seed development in gymnosperms. I grew up in Colombia, and growing up in a neo-tropical country exposed me to the enormous diversity of flowers and fruits, in terms of shapes, colors, textures—everything! So I started looking at fruits specifically, and all of the genetics underlying the diversity of fruits.
When I came here, the landscape was so very different. Mostly gymnosperms, such as pine trees, ginkgo, all of those. I started looking at them differently because in Colombia I didn’t like gymnosperms at all. For me, they were an invasive thing—we actually have a lot of zamias and cycads originally from Colombia, which are great, but we also cultivate a lot of pine trees for wood. I only knew the pine forest, which impacted the soil by making it more acidic. After the pines, nothing else would grow in that spot.
Women’s History Month is underway, and here at NYBG we’re celebrating countless contributions to the Garden’s missions in science, art, horticulture, and so much more with several events in March. The Garden’s own co-founder, Elizabeth Knight Britton, was a world-renowned botanist and advocate for the natural world, and so many other venerable women in their fields have contributed to the field of plants through their research, illustrations, landscape design, and activism. This year, we’re highlighting a few who have worked with NYBG, and helping to expound on the work of others who deserve the spotlight.
As part of #plantlove at NYBG, we’re talking with people from all over the Garden about what inspires their passion for plants. Today, meet Rocky Douangchanh, Public Education Coordinator.
“My passion for the Garden began in fall of 2005, when I joined as a Volunteer Explainer in the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden. I came to understand that learning wasn’t a practice bound to a physical classroom, but one that flourished in many forms. I was grateful for the work that I did educating children and developing plant science-based programming. In the 14 years since, my responsibilities here have grown, and I’ve grown with them, finding a voice, vision, and an understanding of NYBG’s role as a living museum. I’ve also come to feel accountable to the community of educators, volunteers, staff, and visitors who think of this place as a second home.”