Most people go to New York for the shopping, or to watch a Broadway show, or to scout out locations from their favorite sitcoms. Not me. I went to New York City for the gardens.
Of course, I was curious about the city itself. I made my pilgrimage to the Met, wandered Park and Madison Avenues, and ate Lox and bagels in Brooklyn. Despite its concrete jungle reputation, New York City has incredible public spaces. Among them, sensational public gardens.
So, when I finally got my act together and booked a flight out to New York City last June, I had a generous list of gardens to visit. At the top of the list, Wave Hill in the Bronx.
I first heard of Wave Hill through Ken Druse’s 1996 book ‘The Collector’s Garden’. This glossy book with its incredible tales of domestic plant collectors through the last decade of the 20th century inspired me with the potential joys of a plant obsessive’s life. And it offered Wave Hill as the epitome of what a plant lover’s public garden could be. The photos captured my teenage imagination - flaming autumn sumacs spilling down towards the Hudson, hot-colored tropical borders blazing with scarlet ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias, dramatic potted vignettes dripping with honey-colored brugmansia and gawky bristling Pachypodium lamerei higher than an adult’s head.
Twenty years after the publication of ‘The Collector’s Garden’, I woke at 7 and dragged myself to the closest subway station from the friends’ apartment in Brooklyn where I was staying (thanks, Casey & Matt!). Two trains, two bus lines, a few weird conversations with strangers, and a I found myself in a leafy lane in the Bronx, disgorged from the bus along with a crowd of pastel-clothed churchgoers.
A short stroll later, past picket-fenced houses and overgrown hedges, I found the gate to Wave Hill. When I emerge through the shrub-masked parking lot, I’m thrilled by the expanse of lawn sweeping out towards the river view (Here’s a map in case you’re as easily disoriented as me). To my right, the Flower Garden is spread like a glorious three-dimensional carpet. Directly in front of me, framing the edge of the bluff, is the pergola overlook. To my left, woodland. It’s a spacious and endlessly interesting view.
Plant nerd that I am, I turned instantly to the Flower Garden. Four powder-blue obelisks rise above pillows, mounds, and cushions of bloom. The standout plants are Hydrangea arborescens (I’m guessing ‘Anabelle’), iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule), siberian iris, and black-whiskered white-star nigella. Flickers of blue and white larkspur rise above the mass of rounded plants. Sweet peas and clematis twine around the obelisks.
While the in-ground plantings are lovely and varied, the stars of the Flower Garden are the potted vignettes. Being early summer, the cool-season annuals are still in full bloom. Sherbetty iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule), canteloupe-hued California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), and pansies were full of vibrant bloom. One of the most intriguing vignettes was composed of dark red and brown-hued plants: a dark chocolatey-flowered nasturtium (I’m guessing ‘Black Velvet’), a purple and green fingered coleus, chartreuse cut-leaf sweet potato vine (could be ‘Illusion Emerald Lace’, ‘Solar Power Lime’,‘Goldfinger’), and - star of the show - a rich brown nicotiana.
I’m guessing, since this is Wave Hill, that these may be the legendary ‘Ken’s Coffee’ strain selected by Ken Druse. I’ve grown a few of the weirder nicotianas and am especially interested in the dark-colored strains. ‘Hot Chocolate’ is an older strain, veering towards more burgundy hues. Chocolate Flower Farm has their own special selection called ‘Chocolate Smoke’, which is supposed to be more clearly brown. I haven’t grown Ken’s strain, but these plants at Wave Hill had a rich color and stunning green eyes. Please, somebody, do a comparative trial of these different chocolate varieties.
After my investigation of all the treasures in the Flower Garden, I was lucky to wander the rest of the garden with my friend, the always phenomenal Lindsey Kerr (now curator and garden manager at Lord & Schryver Conservancy in Salem, Oregon). Lindsey gave me great insight into the secrets of fine gardening on the East Coast. We marveled together at the incredible edited self-sown annual combinations in the wild garden. Glowing golden verbascum towers and blue larkspur wands sparkle through the contorted stems of the sprawling sumacs that I’d fallen in love with years ago in those “Collector’s Garden” photos.
I came to Wave Hill hoping to find an inspired and inspiring collection of plants, arranged for aesthetic delight. The garden gave more. It’s gardened with a light and joyful hand. It’s playful to a degree that I’ve rarely seen, and which is incredibly hard to achieve. It more than lives up to the promise that I’d gleaned so many years ago. And it’s at the top of the list to return to on my next visit to NYC.
Change, more than anything else, is the quality that brings me back to landscapes day after day. And, as an impatient lover of change, few things bring me joy like the spring onslaught of ephemeral woodland flowers. This week, I’d like to draw attention to three spring ephemerals which I encountered at the Arkansas Arboretum just outside of Little Rock.
The term “arboretum” conjures up something quite grand. A reserve of soaring trees and careful botanical curation, with QR codes and every species immaculately labeled with provenance and date of accession. The Arkansas Arboretum isn’t like that. It’s a relatively small parcel of forest tacked on the back of Pinnacle Mountain. The “Arboretum” park of its name comes from the fact that the site is topographically and ecologically diverse. As one walks along the .75-mile trail, there are labelled 6 different zones that represent different ecological regions of Arkansas, such as the Ozark Plateau.
My primary reason for visiting the Arboretum this week was triggered by a local friend posting photos of the Yellow Troutlily (Erythronium rostratum) in full flower last weekend. This species has an unusual range, growing primarily in Arkansas and northern Alabama, with some straying into Missouri, Texas, Tennessee, and Louisiana. This species is unusual amongst erythronium in that its starry yellow flowers face upright, rather than hanging down (like a cyclamen). The flower habit gives the plant a highly distinctive look, with a cheerier, less modest disposition than the northwest US species. The bright gold of the flowers’ interiors shows to good effect, with the pale fawn-pink on the outside of the petals only evident as flowers open and fade. The foliage is what you’re expect from an Erythronium, subtly mottled with dark-on-light green ovoid leaves.
I was amazed at the abundance of Erythroniums at the site - massive drifts more than 20 foot square. My timing was a bit off to capture any photos of their full bloom. On my first midweek visit, there were only a few blossoms left. True to their ephemeral nature, by the weekend, there wasn’t a flower to be seen. In cultivation notes for eventually growing this species, all of the large drifts occur in the lower forested land - almost floodplain conditions - near the stream which runs through the arboretum. I didn’t see any specimens in the higher or hillier parts of the Arboretum. So, it seems that a moist loam and filtered shade will foster the best growth of Erythronium.
At the edges of the floodplain, but increasing along banks at the edge of paths where leaf-mould has gathered, I found sprinkled populations of rue anemone (Anemonella thalictroides). Unusually, compared to the plants I’ve often seen in cultivation, the plants at the arboretum had flowers that were all varying degrees of pink. Some were pink-blushed, but many were a full Mary Kay cadillac pink. I’ve been looking for information on the distribution of the pink- versus white-colored forms of rue anemone, but haven’t found anything yet. For those less familiar with this plant, it’s a dainty eastern US native with foliage that resembles meadow rue (Thalictrum sp.). The leaves pop up sporadically in mid-spring, shortly decking themselves with abundant tiny multi-petalled flowers that look like something off your grandmother’s wallpaper pattern. They cavort happily through the crowns of larger perennials, then die back within a few weeks to tiny tubers - ready to bounce back the next spring.
Even higher, on the crests of hills and at the tops of ridges, I found a strange plant that I didn’t recognize. It had large juicy rosettes of leaves - almost like a Virginia bluebell (Mertensia virginica) or Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia) - but small white to pale blue flowers. Yep, that’s right - acid wash denim colors. Consulting with the ever-expert Jared Barnes (thanks, Jared!) and big brother Google, I’ve deduced that they are the Wild Comfrey or Blue Houndstooth (Cynoglossum virginianum). This is a species that I know little about and haven’t seen widely in the horticulture trade. Strange, since it’s blue and every horticultural retailer knows that blue sells - especially blue native perennials for shade. I have grown its relative the Chinese Forget Me Not (Cynoglossum amiable) which is an annual, great for cut-flower growing, and with a much truer blue flower. I’m curious to learn more about this Wild Comfrey. Its foliage is most striking (see photo below). Please let me know if you have experience growing it or observing it in the wild.
These three plants are the stars of this week’s wildflower walk at the Arkansas Arboretum. You can find a more regular visual record of my jaunts into the wild on on Instagram. I am aiming to add to this blog several times a week - please join me again as I continue to explore the ever-surprising ways of plants and landscapes!