Tag Archives: New York Botanical Garden

If you’re champing at the bit to see the cherries

(I know I was) it’s easy enough to take yourself down the Mosholu Parkway to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. However, the place’s Cherry Collection –sounds like a high-end clothing line – might not be in full bloom yet. That’s okay. Cherry trees are spectacular even if they are just barely flowering. Like Prunus cerasifera var. divaricata.

Why did George Washington chop down a cherry tree? Unsure, and it might be a myth, but that could be another strike against him along with the facts that he sic’d his Revolutionary soldiers on the Indigenous peoples of the Northeast, also that he blew off spunky and beautiful Mary Philipse, and also that he had severely scarred skin from the smallpox he contracted as a youngster. That last was not his fault, so we’ll forgive him. And he does score a few points for freeing the 124 enslaved people that were his “property,”  albeit after his death.

But I digress. My friend Barbara and I were kvelling somewhat yesterday over the first few blossoms at the NYBG on an early spring day as crisp as a Granny Smith apple. Well, I was kvelling, but Barbara was shivering.

Even on a cold afternoon with a milky sky like yesterday’s they were lovely. Or perhaps especially on a day with clouds! The blossoms show up better. On a blue-sky day everything cherry-related almost overwhelms with sugary sumptuousness.

We saw just a whisper of blossom, a smudge of pink…

Trees on the verge, holding on to their promise, most of them barely in bud. The sense of expectation was palpable.

In a week or two this cherry orchard will be mobbed. Yesterday, there was no one around. Silent, and under the cottony clouds all the more mysterious.

Without all the frou frou of flowers, you become aware of the skeletons of the statuesque mature ones. The weepers. Their bone structure.

You could really notice the lenticels on the bark, the raised pores — the elegant horizontal stitchery that helps the tree breathe. Among the older, wizened specimens we saw a young one, no longer a sapling but more a teenager in cherry years.

Barbara and I ventured from our usual haunts along the Hudson River just for these trees. They’re about the only things that could pull a sane person away from our habitual perambulation, the River is so beauteous, so perfect.

In Japan during sakura season over 1,000 locations around the country showcase cherry blossoms and millions of people take themselves out into groves to worship the  trees and ponder the ephemeral nature of being. American arborists like to make a joke: How many trees does a regular person think there are? Christmas trees, and everything else. But there is one notable addition. Almost everyone knows these pink-white clouds of blooms every March and April along the eastern seaboard. They are just about the only trees people actually make pilgrimages to see. Even people who are not tree people become converts.

Barbara’s not only my walking buddy but my writing friend. Between our effusions over these flowers we talked of words and our experiences putting them on paper. The rare triumph when you succeed. The disappointment when you fail. The need to get what you care about out there to readers. We don’t have to explain why we need to, it’s so integral to each of us.

We stood at the edge of cherry blossom way. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? I asked. Barbara’s father before her wrote novels. He had a bestseller, after which the family moved into a nicer house. When she was little, Barbara said, she had wanted to be a painter. Her father presented her with a gift when she was 10 years old. “I’m going to give you the best present you’re ever going to get,” he said. She opened it and found a blank book, pages empty for her to write her own words.

When I was in elementary school I filled blank notebooks with my childish loopy signature scrawled over and over because that’s what I believed writers did. I seem to recall my parents feeling I was wasting paper. Only much, much later would I come to know how rare the honor is for a writer—actually signing your name in a published book for some reader who thinks your work is valuable.

Sometimes people came to their life’s work early. I’ve been reading a biography of the ornithologist John James Audubon in which he recounts one of the curious things which perhaps did lead me in after times to love birds, and to finally study them with pleasure infinite. A nanny kept several parrots and a monkey as pets, and when the biggest parrot demanded its breakfast one morning – Milk and bread for the parrot Migonne! — the monkey up and murdered it. The sensations of my infant heart at this cruel sight were agony to me…

Barbara’s knee sometimes hurts her. My foot aches. We are neither of us young. On the outside. Inside we are sixteen, or twenty one. The authentic age, the age when words flow one to the next uninhibited, unencumbered by physical defects. The life of the mind, of the senses. You could be in a wheelchair and kvell over cherry blossoms. In actuality writing and kvelling are synonyms. Ways of encountering the world. Appreciating your environment. Taking its measure.

With cherry blossoms we celebrate not only the perfect flowers on the branch but the petals as they fall and drift off in the breeze. As they perish. No tragedy, just the way it is. Life and death, the whole kaboodle in a brief breathtaking moment.

So Barbara and I talked about writing. We always talk about writing. It’s what we do. Yes, we talk about health, husbands, idle gossip about people we know. But it always comes back to the experience of stringing words together and then, secondarily, the sometimes frustrating, sometimes exhilarating effort to get those words out into the world.

Barbara runs a program called Story Shop, a creative arts workshop that’s all about the intersection of art and writing, in which she encourages kids to create original stories but not necessarily on paper – the narrative can be assembled out of found objects, drawn, mapped, acted, sung. A key piece these days, she said, is building miniature worlds.

She explained  that the kids she knows in middle school tell her that today, teachers say that when you write you must only do so  from your direct personal experience – not employing the voice of another gender, race, even an animal. One student told her that she was dissuaded from making up a story about aliens because she’d never been to outer space.

So you couldn’t write a story from the perspective of a cherry blossom, I suppose, like this Prunus ‘Hally Jolivette.’

That, my friends, is tragic.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

A warm and moist hush prevails

in the exhibition area of the New York Botanical Garden’s Annual Orchid Show.

And is there any better kind of hush? Especially on a cold and blustery late winter day in the Bronx.

Orchid lovers endure heart palpitations all around. At least those not too consumed with taking pictures.

Photographers are legion here. So many photo opps, so little time.

Orchids posing throughout the place. You’d think they know they’re beautiful.

Who cares if they are vain? They deserve the attention.

Some amazing specimens here. The cane orchid.

So rare and yet so common.

As Chet Baker has it most cornily in My Funny Valentine:

You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Yet you’re my favorite work of art

I can name them if pressed. Not if the flowers are pressed, I mean if it is desired that I know their names. There is the slipper orchid.

The ghost orchid.

The moth orchid.

Most familiar is the corsage orchid, the one you’ll find at every prom.

But the anonymous ones, or the ones in front of which I am muscled aside by fellow Iphone snappers, are really just as fine.

I can also tell you the orchid’s biological features: the fused male and female parts in one structure, called the column; the solid, sticky masses of pollen, called pollinia; a modified petal called a labellum, which insects use as a landing platform. The lip might be small or large, ridged, ruffled, or pouch-shaped. Somehow it all sounds too sexy. Let’s have some innocent flowers, shall we?

After a turn or two down the humid pathways, Gil asks, “Have we been this way before?”

Who knows? In a haze of orchid splendor, before and after fade. It is total tropical immersion. My head spins. My mind fills with fantasies, dreams, nightmares, poetry. Didn’t a monster grab me last night in my sleep?

There is actually poetry conveniently installed here by the powers that be, verse by Wang Huizhi:

I release my feelings among these hills and streams;

Carefree and detached, I forget all constraints…

If you can tear your eyes away from the petals, NYBG has other treasures. Look up.

Or look down.

A king anthurium hailing from Colombia.

A floss-silk tree, from Peru.

As a break from the sometimes-a-tad-too-sweet orchids, I also like to observe what goes on behind the scenes. The vegetation trash in a bin.

Staff gardeners comparing notes.

All around above our heads there is a sound… kind of like birdsong. Are there birds in here? asks a woman, focusing her camera above at the staghorn fern.

Also, what is that thing? I tell her there is a label, it’s a staghorn fern. Oh, she says, I think it’s the sound of the wind.

Go through the flame-draped tunnel…

And you will find… more orchids.

I like my cigar but I take it out of my mouth once in a while, says Gil, quoting Groucho Marx.

Yes, there are a lot of orchids here.

Strangely, it turns out we know the young lady who “designed” the show.

She is the daughter of an old friend, and I happen to know that her big brother is named Huckleberry. She did a great job here.

Along the way it is possible to learn that the most rare color for orchids is blue. But I see no blue orchid among the thousands here. I ask a security guard, Have you seen a blue orchid here?

No, he says helpfully. But I think there’s one at the library. In a pot. Nice idea, but then we’d have to take ourselves out of the fragrant sauna into the cold gale outside. We’ll stick to the fleshy white ones here.

Eventually it is necessary to exit. You like orchids?… Nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men, their perfume has the rotten sweetness of corruption. That’s from the noir classic The Big Sleep.

The gift shop offers johnny jump ups, a welcome respite from the orchidium.

And… more orchids, of the 24-dollar variety.

Let’s pretend orchids are really as special as they seem to think they are.

They deserve the glory.

At least once a year.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman

Magical miniatures everywhere you turn

at New York Botanical Garden’s annual Holiday Train Show.

A smart novelist named Christopher Moore said, Children see magic because they look for it. Yes, especially on Christmas Eve. Today. If you want to conjure up A Visit From Saint Nicholas, by another writer named Moore, Clement Clark Moore, go to the New-York Historical Society (so genuine a place they kept the hyphen). They have both his desk and the original manuscript.

Here at NYBG you’ll have to make do with a perfect replica. All the New York icons are here. A Macy’s behemoth.

A diminutive Bethesda Fountain, the original installed in 1873, presented here in a small jewel of a Central Park.

Everything is hand crafted of natural materials: pine bark, black cherry, eucalyptus stems, grapevine, acorn caps, magnolia leaves and many more.

The trains range from the traditional locomotive to the cutesy ladybug.

Childish wonder prevails. Most people are rapt.

Some not so much.

I hear a father counseling a bored pre-teen daughter: Just take it in. Another grinch opines in a loud whisper: Is there an adults-only time slot? True, there are many puffy coats jostling up against each other in front of the more popular displays, and lots of fidgety kiddos. But most visitors are delighted to be out of the deep freeze and crowded in to the steamy Enid A. Haupt Observatory, marveling and posing.

I think I love the most the way some structures glow from within.

And of course finding my old favorites here. The New York Public Library, complete with its lions, Patience and Fortitude.

Because it is New York, where we tend to color outside the lines, locations outside the city limits can also be found here at the train show. Like Sunnyside, Washington Irving’s snuggery in Tarrytown, complete with a perfect little wisteria vine.

The George Washington Bridge, of course, but also, nestled beneath it, the Little Red Lighthouse.

Always something new. I notice a rendition of the Freedom Tower, as if the Freedom Tower was constructed of glass. What natural material was used to create this effect? Dragonfly spittle?

If you can drag your eyes away from the trains you’ll find some equally amazing plant life. Goeppertia insignis hails from Brazil. Ripe green smell of the rain forest.

A wonderful program started in 1992 in New York City. Called Poetry in Motion, it features brief poems by famous and not-so-famous writers posted in metropolitan subway cars. Poet Billy Collins, the former U.S. Poet Laureate whose work manages to straddle both critical acclaim and popular appeal, has said, I’m a great believer in poetry out of the classroom, in public places, on subways, trains, on cocktail napkins. I’d rather have my poems on the subway than around the seminar table at an MFA program. One of his poems, Grand Central, features a building here miniaturized.

The city orbits around eight million
centers of the universe

and turns around the golden clock
at the still point of this place.

Lift up your eyes from the moving hive
and you will see time circling

under a vault of stars and know
just when and where you are.

At the train show, Grand Central is a standout. I kinda wish there was a tree stump large as this one framing the real magilla. That would be cool.

There are no subway cars here. I ask a Botanical Garden staffer to explain. The “MTA cars wouldn’t have the proper gauge to fit on the tracks,” he articulates before wishing me a Merry Christmas.

I don’t know why, if in this universe they can perfectly capture a vanished Coney Island, it’s not possible to produce a subway car with poetry in it.

Charles Simic also has contributed to Poetry in Motion.

Every morning I forget how it is.
I watch the smoke mount
In great strides above the city.
I belong to no one.

Then I remember my shoes,
How I have to put them on,
How bending over to tie them up
I will look into the earth.

The art of the train show manages to be both mundane and sublime. Zora Neale Hurston wrote, Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place. So do these small, intricate, perfect displays. What would New York be without its water towers? Look closely, they are here throughout.

By the way, if the holiday season finds you in need of poetic sustenance, you can make a toll-free call courtesy of the Poetry Society of America and hear the work of Pablo Neruda read aloud by Billy Collins. The number is (212) 202-5606. You can do it while standing in the cold at the New York Botanical Garden or in the steamy enclave where the Garden has perfectly reproduced itself.

Or just gaze in backlit windows of these sublimely silent tableaux.

You might relate to the following, The Moment, by Marie Howe, also from a subway car posting:

Oh, the coming-out-of-nowhere moment
when,     nothing
no what-have-I-to-do-today-list

maybe    half a moment
the rush of traffic stops. 
The whir of I should be, I should be, I should be
slows to silence,
the white cotton curtains hanging still.

Bye the bye, my New Year’s resolution for this as every year is to eliminate the word should from my vocabulary. Life becomes more magical. It’s tough to do, but I think worthwhile. You should do it too.


Filed under Jean Zimmerman

I set my intention to notice kindness

as we amble off through the Thain Forest–the largest enduring old-growth tract in the New York City vicinity–at the New York Botanical Garden, paying heed to the recorded forest bathing app the Garden has thoughtfully provided. These woodlands offer just some of NYBG’s 30,000 trees.

I’ve been thinking about kindness. Have been telling folks on tours at Ellis Island that back in the hospital’s heyday, people were kind to each other. Were they really? Are they still? Here at the NYBG, they’ve been kind to one of the iconic tulip trees, bandaging it up against the exigencies of old age. The equally senescent little-leaf linden, brawny as it is old, doesn’t need any help, thank you very much.

I see a sweet chestnut hull. It had been kind to its seed, cushioning it and fending off attackers with its prickers. Kousa dogwood offers its fruit so generously for the birds.

It’s a quiet day, cool, calm, lucid. The season offers its early-autumn bounty.

A gentleman shows off his skills with a stick. Good for your balance, and your fingers! he tells me with a smile.

At the NYBG farmer’s market, a person generously offers worms for composting, to the strains of a nearby harp – something you do not see every day in the Five Boroughs, a kindness here in the Bronx.

We find ourselves distracted by the rose garden. The kindness of the head gardener, who although camera shy and quite busy with raking mulch takes a little time to talk about the various cultivars on hand. Wish it were possible to capture fragrance in a photo.

The kindness of schoolgirls willing to pose for an old fogey with an Iphone, their faces blossoms.

In Thain Forest, the forest bathing app drones: Bring your attention to your ears…feeling whatever sensations are happening…be aware of the sounds around you… you might feel tingling sensations…all that matters is that you notice them…and drift away…

NYBG cares for the oldest, the biggest, like one impressive American elm – and also the smallest and most vulnerable, in their plant nursery.

Be kind to the bedding plants! Water on hand, ready to provide protection even in the virgin forest, which is after all really a part of New York City.

We took our time. The farm stands are winding down. One is kind enough to sell eleven dollar’s worth of yellow onions and white donut peaches as they pack it in for the day.

Sometimes – not always – kindness abounds.

Leave a comment

Filed under Jean Zimmerman