Winter is coming. It’s only a matter of time before you’ll be climbing crusty brown mountains of ice and snow at street corners, fording knee deep slush puddles, or creeping down the Bronx River Parkway in your car at speeds that give the illusion you’re traveling in reverse (this all assumes our unseasonably warm fall turns a sharp corner). But before you jet off to the tropics for well-deserved respite, beware an unheralded danger. Not a rogue wave accident on the best paddle board for beginners or exotic jellyfish—I speak of something far more dangerous.
Worldwide, sharks are responsible for approximately five fatalities each year. By comparison, falling coconuts take roughly 150 lives. That’s right—while visiting a tropical coast you are 30 times more likely to be dispatched by an unassuming and immobile coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) than the ocean’s most evolved, sleek, and efficient predator.
My office is situated in a most advantageous location adjacent to the ever-changing exhibition houses, my beloved desert houses, and steps from the breathtaking courtyard pools brimming with flowering lotus and water lilies. Voltaire might say “it is the best of all possible worlds.” Directly outside my door hang several beautiful specimens of Staghorn Fern (Platycerium sp.) As I sit at the computer, I am delighted by the amazed exclamations these plants elicit—so much so I feel compelled to write this post in hopes of answering the many wonderful questions visitors seem to have.
For the most part, patrons agree that the plant appears otherworldly. “It looks like some type of alien!” is a commonly overheard remark. I completely understand the sentiment, but these plants are most certainly of this world—found throughout the tropics and subtropics from the Philippines and Australia to Madagascar, Africa, and South America, to be exact. The way they grow in habitat and the unique way we display them in the Conservatory certainly present an unusual spectacle.
The historic Enid A. Haupt Conservatory is well known for extraordinary seasonal exhibitions. The Holiday Train Show delights winter-weary visitors with festive lights, New York landmarks artfully crafted from natural materials, and myriad model trains chugging through a whimsical tropical landscape. The Orchid Show electrifies the senses, offering a veritable jungle of astonishing colors, forms, and perfumes. The annual spring-autumn exhibition showcases kaleidoscopic plantings and has recently paid homage to Monet’s garden at Giverny and the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller garden in Seal Harbor, Maine. Beginning May 16th, 2015, the vibrant Mexican garden of artist Frida Kahlo will find an ephemeral home right here in the exhibition houses.
All of these shows certainly warrant a visit, but I strongly encourage visitors to delve into the permanent glasshouse plant collections as well. This incredibly diverse assemblage, comprised of over 20,000 plants from around the globe, is the soul of the Conservatory. Since the grand building’s completion in 1902, many of these specimens have been collected by some of the most distinguished botanists and horticulturists of the era—from our founder Nathaniel Lord Britton to Sir Ghillean Prance.
Winter is suddenly upon us and, as the temperatures plummet and the city braces for the inevitable snow and ice, many will find their way to the garden’s iconic Enid A. Haupt Conservatory to decompress, take a leisurely stroll among the lush, tropical foliage, and escape the bitter cold. Some, perhaps inspired by the lowland rain forest houses or the desert displays, will jet off to warmer climes. While I freely admit that I already work in paradise, it’s nice to get out and see some of my plants in habitat now and again.
I recently took an exploratory trip through the Sonoran desert of Mexico and into Arizona. By design I made no specific plans and, like a slightly less profane version of Anthony Bourdain, I had “No Reservations.” From the dusty desert proper through the dense Chaparral shrubland and semi-arid grasslands of Arizona, much of the area ranges in temperature from broiling hot to bone-chilling, depending on month and time of day. Here it was late October and still scorching with nary a cloud in the sky to provide respite.
The landscape is truly as beautiful as it is unforgiving, and the same may be said of the plant life. My arms and legs looked as if they’d been shredded by a tidal wave of furious cats; such were the hazards of botanizing in a region so thick with spiny inhabitants. I would later discover the name for a cowboy’s protective “chaps” was actually derived from the word “Chaparral”—an arid and prickly biome on the Sonoran desert’s northern border. One quickly discovers the Chaparral functions quite efficiently as human sandpaper.
Who doesn’t love a sharer? Not an over-sharer, like Harold in Accounting, whose detailed inquest into his latest digestive afflictions has positively ruined my lunch hour three days running (I’m a horticulturist, not a doctor, Harold…we’ve been over this). No, I’m referring to the sweet woman who makes popcorn and secretly gifts you a handful, or the savior who brings coffee for everyone on Monday morning. And while you won’t even get within visual range of any popcorn or coffee in my possession, I am a prolific sharer of plants, so I do have a few friends left about the office.
Propagating plants can be as painless and satisfying as popping corn, pressing “brew” on the coffee machine, or simply eating lunch outside under a shady tree to avoid Harold. This is especially true of rosette succulents like Echeveria. Often referred to as Mexican Hens and Chicks, these Central and South American species adore sun, tolerate neglect, and exhibit a vast array of captivating leaf forms as well as flower and foliage colors. Truth be told, it’s a painfully easy group of plants to become enamored with and collect. The good news is that propagating and sharing your echeverias is a great way to make someone’s day and assuage the guilt of having spent far too much money on internet plant auctions. Be sure to remind your very patient and understanding spouse that smiles are priceless. PRICELESS.
The following is an excerpt from a conversation I had with my lovely wife regarding one of my favorite plants:
“No, it’s not dead.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, it’s what I do for a living, so yes, I’m sure.”
“I think its dead.”
“I assure you it is alive.”
“I’m just saying it doesn’t look that way.”
As thrilled as I’d be to title this blog post “The Time I Was Right,” let me set aside petty triumphs (I’ll celebrate later) and address this mystery plant that looks dead, but isn’t. You don’t often stumble across Cynanchum marnierianum for sale and very rarely will you see it on display. The reason is fairly evident—most people wouldn’t consider a plant that looks like a bundle of dead twigs all that stimulating.
Call me a contrarian, but when I hear someone exclaim how ugly a plant is, it makes me love it that much more. Let us save the pretty plants for those with no imagination! I think maybe Proust said that. I appreciate conventionally beautiful plants as much as the next person but, like Grumpy Cat or Adrien Brody, some things appear so bizarre one can’t help but love them.
Visitors to the Garden will notice a number of small installations throughout the grounds as part of our new Curator’s Spotlight series. Behind the many gardens and collections that make up NYBG’s 250 acres is a legion of dedicated horticulturists and passionate curators, and for this new series we invited them to choose their own subject to focus on from the plant kingdom.
There is so much to see in the vast diversity of the Garden. Who better to guide our visitors and direct their attention to some of the individual beauty on display than the people who cultivate it? See the Garden through the eyes of its experts in this new video for Curator’s Spotlight, in which Kevin Character overviews some of the fun new installations our curators have dreamed up. Hear from our own Christian Primeau, Manager of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, on why he chose to highlight the whimsical colocasia, also known as elephant’s ear.
More videos are coming soon! In the meantime, keep an eye out for Curator’s Spotlight installations on your next visit. See the full lineup here.
Walt Whitman once wrote, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” For a poet who glimpsed a universe of wonders in a mere sidewalk weed, his beard might have dropped off in amazement had he fixed his gaze upon little Aloe rauhii but it seems the best beard oil is serving him well, his beard did not fall off! Before turf-lovers get upset, it is not my intention to besmirch your lawns, good sirs and madams. Like Whitman, though far less eloquently, I simply hope to call your attention to the marvel of smaller things. Things that, perhaps, you might just miss. In a glasshouse like the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory—exploding with bold textures, extravagant colors and flowers that often flirt with the ostentatious—occasionally missing small things is a forgivable offense.
Orchids are wildly fascinating. Whether you enjoy them on a purely aesthetic level or delve more deeply into the evolution and specialization of certain species, you cannot help but draw a deep sense of satisfaction from these plants. For natural pollinators of orchids however, the “orchid experience” can prove the best of times or the worst of times, depending on which flower attracts their attention. To that end, this is a tale of two orchids.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the legendary Darwin’s Orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale. This lovely Madagascar native’s large, star-shaped flowers are annual jaw-droppers in the NYBG’s Orchid Show, often drawing throngs of eager fans and photographers. As the story goes, Charles Darwin studied the narrow, 10-15” long, nectar-filled spur that hangs from the rear of each flower, surmising that whichever creature fed on the nectar (and subsequently pollinated the orchid) must posses a proboscis of truly epic proportion. His hypothesis was largely ignored or ridiculed, leaving the mystery of the Angraecum pollinator to remain unsolved for decades. Unfortunately, Darwin would not survive to see his theory substantiated.
With less than a week between now and the opening of our 11th annual Orchid Show, it seems as good a time as any to poke our heads inside the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory and see what’s what with our hard-at-work horticulturists! There are literally thousands of exotic orchids to arrange in time for the March 2 opening, and with Tropical Paradise only just packing it in for the year, our staff is rising to the challenge of kicking off this yearly favorite with a proper bang.
All hands are on deck to make our naturally-inspired display the most colorful and gratifying experience you’ll have in New York City this spring. And few know the ins and outs of this complicated process like Christian Primeau, Manager of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Working along with the curatorial expertise of Vice President of Glasshouses and Exhibitions, Francisca Coelho, Christian and the rest of the team are implementing stunning designs, plant by plant, with an eye for both color and natural arrangements. But these wouldn’t be quite the same without an unforeseen addition to our exhibition: a few of the 300 Garden trees affected by Hurricane Sandy this past October.