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Beyond Central Park

NYBG Kiku Butterfly Bonsai, New York Botanical Gardens

Manhattan’s most famous green space, Central Park, sprawls through the center of Gotham City. But, edge a bit further out … and a 20-minute ride on Metro-North’s commuter train will take you to the New York Botanical Gardens(NYBG) in the Bronx. Welcome to 250 acres of tranquility – in New York City.

It’s autumn, the part of the year when it’s time for planting spring bulbs, rather than blooming, and leaves are falling from the trees, rather than sprouting from them; yet NYBG’s big sell is that there is always something blossoming. Like the rest of New York; there is, thankfully, no off-season at the gardens.

Guests are greeted by a guide to help plot out each visit. Turn left to enter a poetry walk with benches, old fashioned street lamps and majestic pines. Then there’s a Perennial Garden, with rooms of purples, golds, reds and yellows crowding one another, vying for attention. Poetry is interspersed among your stroll:

“Late autumn fireworks–

I suddenly glimpse

my own shadow.”   Mitsu Sikuki “A White Tea Bowl:100 Haiku from 100 Year Old Life”

Nearly eight-million plants, the second largest collection in the world, live in the Herbarium, which helped the NYBG establish a PhD program in plant sciences and attracts scientists and students working on molecular and genomic research.

But, I’ve come to see Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Garden, a dramatic display of chrysanthemums (called Kiku in Japanese), a regaled symbol said to represent longevity and rejuvenation. The Kiku represents more than a season; it is the symbol of Japan itself. One can find chrysanthemums on clothing, stamps, coins, pottery…almost everything. They are thought to have the power to prolong life and hence was fascination of royalty and the privileged. In the past only powerful could glimpse this type of display; today you can travel to the NYBG and be awed as well.

In the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, one can see not one display of Kiku flowers but multiples. This is not your typical Japanese garden with a lovely red half moon bridge for you to walk upon. This is a display of Japanese chrysanthemums that will make you want to take out your camera or your cell phone to capture their images. It does not inspire quiet reflection to ease the worries of the mind, it is rather an exhibit that inspires awe and wonder.

One must have patience to be skilled in Kiku design. It takes eleven months in order to train a flower to become a living sculpture. The Kiku team worked with expert Yukie Kurashina and Kodai Nakazawa in the NYBG greenhouses carefully pinching back and removing buds throughout the year. They created traditional patterns and forms, respecting and representing their culture. Today Kodai is back in Japan with his family being recognized as one of the country’s greatest chrysanthemum master.

A giant swallowtail butterfly — each wing grown from a single stem — is the centerpiece of the Conservatory. It’s like a floral architecture masterpiece. An example of Ozuhuri or A Thousand Bloom, one wants to get closer to see how it is created. The Ozuhuri is treasured in Japan for its artistry.

Another display is of cascading mums. In yellow and white, they look like a waterfall growing over a cliff and are lengths of over six feet. These dramatic falls are more popular in the United States than in Japan.

The third display is Ogiku which are double or triple stem chrysanthemums. These enormous flowers are often six feet tall and require support for their huge flower.

No Japanese garden exhibit would be complete without a Bonsai section. Bonsais are meticulously trained for over 20 years to create a picture of nature. Bonsai actually means “plant growing in a tray” and these miniature landscapes expose the essence of the tree.

One can work a short distance and take in the Scarecrows and Pumpkins exhibit in the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden. There is a maze for children as well as a puppet theatre and a lab where one can see live bats.

If all this is sounding exhausting as pounding the pavement in Times Square, take heart; there is a tram which covers the length and breadth of the gardens, including a library with rotating art exhibits.

This month the art of Rachel “Bunny” Mellon is on display. She was a major benefactor of many museums and owned a collection of rare art. My favorite was a book from Holland showing tulips whose bulbs were considered rare and valuable.

So, whether you live in New York or are visiting there this fall, consider a trip to the New York Botanical Gardens. Plan to stay there the entire afternoon because you won’t want to go home.

Amy Hughes

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