The  New York Botanical Gardens are celebrating their 125th anniversary and this book from Gregory Long, who has been president and chief executive of the gardens since 1989, outlines the history and development of the gardens using hundreds of excellent photographs, beautiful reproductions of rare botanical art and a text which is so informative and which flows with such ease and enthusiasm that it might well tempt me to visit New York, something the Statue of Liberty, Times Square nor Macey’s could never do.

The world’s first botanical garden was established in Pisa in 1544; Padua followed in 1545; Oxford in 1621 and Chelsea in 1673. King George III’s private garden at Kew later became the Royal Botanical Gardens of Kew in 1840 and the work of such as Banks and Hooker fired an enthusiasm for such establishments around the world.

In 1891 Julian Hawthorne declared, “Americas is, I believe, the only country of consequence that does not possess an important botanical collection. . . . Surely the time is over-ripe for the foundation of such a collection as shall eclipse Kew itself and serve henceforth as a model to the world. . . . Here is an opportunity evidently vouchsafed by Providence in the nick of time” (Lippincotts Magazine, January 1891).

New York Botanical Gardens

In the summer of 1888, two New Yorkers, Nathaniel Lord Britton and his new bride Elizabeth Knight Britton visited London and, so impressed were they with the Botanical Gardens at Kew that they returned to New York and began promoting the idea of such an establishment for New York. This movement gathered support and momentum and in 1891 the legislative of the State of New York set aside 250 acres of land in the north of the city “for the collection and culture of plants, flowers, shrubs and trees, the advancement of botanical science and knowledge and for the entertainment, recreation and instruction of the people.”

Education has remained paramount to the gardens since their foundation; tens of thousands of schoolchildren visit each year; hundreds of students have received the PhDs here and as many as 2,000 scientific expeditions have been organised over the past 125 years.

The gardens are nowadays very simply described as “an urban oasis” but it is an oasis of amazing interest, beauty and magnificence and this book certainly “sells” it very well. Let me whet your appetite with some snippets  – for the book as much as for the gardens because reading and enjoying this book might be the next best thing to an actual visit and will certainly make the reader wish that fortune would shine down and grant the pleasure of a visit there.

There are display gardens, trial grounds, demonstration gardens, vegetable gardens, a native plant garden, hydrangea and paeonia collections. Daffodil Hill and Daffodil Valley were planted with 100,000 daffodils in 1920; these have naturalised in the meantime and 1,000,000 bulbs will be added to mark the 125th anniversary. The 2.5 acre rock garden with its historic cascade was restored in 2014 and it simply fabulous. The Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden which was originally designed in 1916 and completed in 1988 has thousands of roses and was given the Award of Garden Excellence from the World Federation of Rose Societies.

The Conservatory, inspired by that at Kew, is one of the most significant historical glass structures in the world and recreates conditions for plants of the rain forest, dry desert, cloud forest while the Palm House accommodates plants from the lowland tropical rainforest, aquatic plants and vines, upland tropical rain forest (with a collection of 8,000 orchids!), deserts of America and Africa as well as other special collections.

Oh, I could go on and on – special exhibitions, feature seasonal events, innumerable special collections, art in the garden, 50 acres in the valley of the Bronx River as a natural woodland, notable architecture, the library, the herbarium with 7.4 million specimens, of which 2.5 million may be viewed online.

It goes on and on, ever more impressive and ever more enjoyable. I may not get to visit but I have certainly enjoyed the experience through Gregory Long’s writing.  I suggest you can do likewise!


[The New York Botanical Gardens, Gregory Long & Todd A. Forrest, Abrams, New York, 2016, HB, 248 pages, $50, ISBN: 0-8109-5744-2]

Paddy Tobin

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