The Holiday Train Show at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory may have attracted record numbers of visitors this season, but just outside in the Conservatory Courtyard you’ll find four spectacular, 15-foot-high sculptures that are—in my honest opinion—not to be missed! And yet, some visitors may forget that the indoor attractions like the upcoming Tropical Paradise exhibition aren’t the only ones the Conservatory has to offer. Open the exterior doors on the side of the Palm Dome pool opposite the entrance and you’ll see the Four Seasons in all their winter (and spring, and summer, and fall) majesty. They’ll be there through March 30! For my part, I plan on visiting them regularly, because they not only represent the seasons of the year, but seem to constantly change moods depending on the weather and time of day.
The sculptures were inspired by the genius of Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who came to prominence around 500 years ago. No matter your age, you too will be inspired by these pieces, especially when considering the work that contemporary artist Philip Haas undertook to transform them from paintings into monumental 3D portraits. They seem so alive that you might not realize they’re actually composite fiberglass representations of various plant materials, not dissimilar to the models of New York buildings in the Train Show, which use real plant parts to form famous architecture.
The Native Plant Garden impresses me in many ways, but from an ecological stand point, what I see as the most exciting aspect is not what was planted or constructed. It is the birds, insects, reptiles, and amphibians who have decided to take up residency. Where did they come from and why are they here? None were intentionally introduced, but build it (or plant it) and they will come. They are indicator species of the quality of the environment.
Each species has its own story. Hummingbirds are attracted to the stunningly bright red cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and bee balm (Monarda sp.), swallowtail butterflies and bees frequent the coastal plain Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium dubium), etc.
But then there are what I estimate to be over a dozen species of fierce predators that have little interest in the plants except to occasionally perch on them. They are superb flyers, though they are not birds, and, when young, are aquatic without wings. Some are camouflaged, especially the females, while others are brightly colored and highly territorial. All have excellent vision, at least for detecting movement.
As a botanist, my idea of paradise is to have an identification tag appear on every plant that I or anyone with me does not recognize. At The New York Botanical Garden we enjoy what is about as close as you will get to that paradise. I am so thankful for those who perform the monumental task of labeling the plants in the Garden, even including the cultivar names on the labels where applicable.
Cultivar names (as in cultivated varieties) are those names that appear in single quotes following the scientific (“Latin”) name of the species. If you see an “x” in the name, that means the plant is an artificial cross by plant breeders between two species. The scientific name consists of two parts: the genus and the species name, with only the genus name capitalized. But in the case of cultivars, sometimes only the genus name is given because the species is not clearly delineated.
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.