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.
Two bulb experts, Michael Hagen, Curator of the Rock Garden and Native Plant Garden, and Marta McDowell, NYBG instructor, author, gardener, and landscape historian, recently commented on some frequently asked questions about the gorgeous spring bulbs now blossoming in the garden . Here’s what they had to say.
Q: What are some of the easiest spring/early summer bulbs to grow?
McDowell: Narcissus seem to be almost indestructible and with so many varieties, you can have them in bloom for almost two months. Other choices: Crocosmia—graceful in leaf and flower and blackberry lily (Iris domestica or Belamcanda chinensis). Great foliage, flowers, and seed pods.
Q: What are some of the most difficult bulbs to grow, aside from climate issues?
Hagen: Climate aside, the hardest to grow are the ones that our native ground squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks, and gophers enjoy eating. Species tulips have been a particular challenge in the Rock Garden. If it’s a warm fall (and the chipmunks are not hibernating yet) they can be dug up and eaten right after they’ve been planted.
One of the biggest surprises is the fact that 25 percent of our prescription medicines—including many of today’s life-saving, well-known products—come from plant ingredients. The exhibition highlights dozens of plant species for their impact in promoting health or fighting disease.
A new series of photo-driven guides for the home gardener called the Plant Lover’s Guides devotes each lavishly illustrated book to a single popular plant. One of the newest installments in the series focuses on asters. It is written by Paul Picton and his daughter, Helen, specialist growers who operate prize-winning Picton Garden, near Malvern, in Herefordshire, England.
The Pictons are passionate experts in the field and their garden holds more than 400 different forms of asters that flower at their peak in the late summer and fall, right up to the frosty winter. Their book, The Plant Lover’s Guide to Asters ($24.95, Timber Press), available at the Shop in the Garden, recommends the best varieties and designs for different growing conditions, along with color combinations that work well, and in-depth advice on planting and maintenance.
To the delight of all visitors, two giant caterpillar topiaries—dubbed Frida and Diego—have recently been designed and planted by NYBG gardeners, Diana Babbitt and Katie Bronson, in the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden.
“We thought it would be fun to try to make a Frida caterpillar,” explains Katie. “So we looked at a lot of her pictures where she is wearing flower headdresses and we tried to make one of those.”
Frida is filled with deep purple-red coleus punctuated by bright pink Zinnia elegans that contrasts with nearly black Salviadiscolor on her body. Her raised head is softened by green ‘Round Leaf’ Hedera, and her eyes look straight ahead, portrait-style, under those famous bushy eyebrows.
Many of us got our first glimpse of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s life with the award-winning 2002 biopic starring Salma Hayek and directed by Julie Taymor, of Lion King fame. But the Frida now on view at The New York Botanical Garden’s exhibition, FRIDA KAHLO: Art, Garden, Life, is a totally different person from the film version.
The new exhibition is the first to “re-imagine” Kahlo’s garden and to explore her appreciation of nature—including the many plants, insects, and fascinating animal imagery in her paintings.
Frida Kahlo adored the garden at her home, the Casa Azul (Blue House), in Coyoacán, Mexico. Her painting studio directly overlooked the garden with its cobalt blue walls and fabulous collection of native Mexican plants. The garden was both an inspiration and a private haven during Kahlo’s personal battles with chronic illnesses and disabilities.
Every week during the school year, more than 1,200 young children participate in specially designed school programs developed and taught at the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden (ECAG). And that number swells to about 1,600 during New York City’s school testing weeks in April when more students stream into ECAG’s gardens and facilities because upper grades are taking tests.
“During the spring we see a big uptick in the number of school field trips. Our facility can serve over 2,000 students per week, allowing us to deliver programming to more children than any other children’s venue within NYBG,” says Fran Agnone, Coordinator of the Adventure Garden.