Friday, May 21, 2010

New York Botanical Gardens

4/11/2010, Sunday 

MUSEUM: New York Botanical Gardens (
TIME:        3 hr
COST:       $15 parking, free admission with guest passes from a friend)

We were warned.  Looking back over the events of the day, I can say that for certain.  Like characters in a fairy tale, we were taken aside and given quite clear instructions, which we ignored.  “It’s the biggest flower show of the year, and it can get crowded,” we were told.  “You’ll be fine if you just go early in the day.  It’s indoors, so if possible, go on a day with bad weather.  And whatever you do, don’t wait until the end of the show.”  Yet there we were, in the afternoon of a beautiful sunny spring day, on the last day of the New York Botanical Gardens Orchid Show. 

The crowds were massive.  It was a 30-minute wait just to get into the parking lot.  It seemed like everyone in the city of New York and their mother just had to see flowers today, and I definitely mean “their mother”, as two thirds of the crowd were middle-aged to older women.  I have nothing to say in defense of our foolishness, except that we were given free tickets to the very expensive flower show (normally $20 each, plus $15 for parking), and we just hadn’t been able to fit it into our schedule before this weekend.  Somehow, we had convinced our friend Peter that this was a good idea, so at least we had company waiting in lines (see picture at right) on this badly planned outing. 

On the plus side, the flowers were lovely.  The orchid show is a yearly event, and takes place in the magnificent Haupt Conservatory, a Victorian era wrought iron framed, "crystal-palace style" structure designed by the famed Lord & Burnham firm, and without a doubt the largest and most beautiful greenhouse I’ve ever laid eyes on.  This year the show’s theme was “Cuba in Flower” and there was an emphasis on Cuban orchids and “Caribbean atmosphere” which consisted of a few adobe and grass hut-like structures spread through the different rooms conservatory.  A little hokey, but honestly I didn’t even notice the huts until they were pointed out.  The real stars here were the orchids, and they were everywhere.  Brilliantly colored orchids sprouted along side every path, dripped in vivid cascades from nearly every tree and rafter, and seemed to poke at you from every bush and branch in the place.  There were areas where you literally had to brush hanging strands of these delicate flowers aside to get by.  Of course Paul, being a bit of a plant rebel, was much more impressed by the large display of carnivorous plants than any mere orchid, and mused for several minutes over his lost pitcher plant collection, abandoned in our move from Seattle.

In most areas of the conservatory, there were so many flowers to take in that I didn’t mind waiting for the line to move.  However, there was a lot of waiting, and while you’d think the crowd at a flower show would be sedate and polite, this is New York after all, so that was not always the case.  In the most orchid-dense room, toward the end of the tour, there was a long delay as nearly everyone pulled out their cameras to snap pictures of their favorite flowers.  Not having brought my camera today (more bad planning) the time dragged a bit, but there was group of women behind us that was just fuming.

They complained loudly for several minutes about everyone taking pictures and discussed an organization system where people taking pictures would move to the left so those who wanted to get through could move by on the right.  They eventually started yelling this and pushed past people, including us.  Their organization system wasn’t a bad idea, and they initially got a bit of movement in the mob, but then they stopped and blocked off the entire path so they could take group pictures.  Peter, who had been the closest to them when they were complaining, just about lost it right there in a justifiable orchid-fueled rage.  When we finally got out of the conservatory, he had a good 30-minute rant.

Fortunately, there is more to the New York Botanical Garden than just the orchid show, so we had a lot of places to walk while Peter cooled down.  It's one of the premier botanical gardens in the US, spanning 250 acres, and containing 50 separate “curated” gardens as well as 50 acres of un-logged virgin woodlands, the last piece of the original forest which once covered all of New York City.  It also has the Mertz Library and Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory, containing the most important botanical and horticultural library in the world, the largest herbarium in the Western Hemisphere and a large research center and graduate studies program dedicated to the study of plant genetics worldwide.  As impressive as the library was, it was too beautiful a day to be indoors, and we spent our remaining time wandering the gardens.  The curated gardens are wonderfully diverse and designed to be seen at all different times of the year.  While we were there Daffodil Hill and the Cherry, Magnolia and Lilac Collections were in full bloom. The Conifer Arboretum and Rock Gardens were also lovely, and we all enjoyed the forest paths next to the babbling Bronx River.  I was a little disappointed that the roses weren’t blooming (I’m a sucker for a good rose garden), but that just gave me a good reason to come back. 

In all fairness, I should note that Peter was not the only one to have a good garden rant this day.  There’s a tram that circulates in the gardens, blasting a loud audio tour at all times.  For me, it was more than little distracting from quiet garden contemplations.  While we were walking along one lengthy section of trail/tram path, we heard a whole section of the tour backwards, as we were walking in the opposite direction of tram travel.  It was so distracting that Paul started yelling spoilers to passing trams, telling them the next part of the tour.  “Kew Gardens!  It was inspired by Kew Gardens!”  It offended my garden decorum, not only to be interrupted every 10 minutes, but also just the fact that people would take a tram around a garden at all.  How can anyone experience a garden from a bus?  Yet all trams were full.  Paul, ever the nice one, made the suggestion that the trams were important for the handicapped or those with limited mobility, but most people on them appeared fully capable of walking.

To sum up, the New York Botanical Gardens is definitely worth a visit for any garden fancier, or just anyone who likes a good walk.  We would recommend not going to the Orchid Show on the last day, but clearly we don’t listen to that sort of advice.  Paul initially questioned whether or not a botanical garden could actually be counted as a museum, but I argued for the inclusion of this particular one based on its extensive library, watercolors collection and herbarium (which we didn’t see).  However, by the end of the day, Paul was won over by the concept of a garden as a museum, pointing out that the gardens are carefully curated (planted), exhibits (plants) change throughout the year just as in a brick and mortar museum, and can you really argue that flowers are not art?
Images from the New York Botanical Gardens in this post, from the top: Orchid from "Cuba in Flower"; the Lilac Collection; crowds at the orchid show; the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory; two more orchids and a collection of orchids around palm trees in "Cuba in Flower"; the Herb Garden; the Magnolia Collection; Daffodil Hill; and waterlilies blooming in the conservatory courtyard.


  1. What gorgeous pictures of flowers. They make me want to go there right now! Without the crowd, the orchid house would be the place to take a leisurely stroll! Is there anything more beautiful than an intricately designed and delicately colored orchid? Lynn

  2. Great picture of the waterlilies!

    Rage amongst orchids
    Flower's scent and anger's taint
    Both perfume the air


  3. After your visit to the Botanical Gardens you might appreciate this quote, which is in Latin, so you know it's classy (pun intended). Odi profanum vulgus et arceo("I hate the unholy crowd and avoid it.")- Horace. This is not as snobbish as it sounds, because it is really aimed at the philistines, including certain high and mighty people who could not be attacked openly - Augustus Caesar, for example. - Mike