Tracking systems

Every winter the New York Botanical Gardens pulls in the crowds with a fabulous miniature railway that winds its way through the Conservatory. Trains and Plants – what more could you want?

Words: Alys Fowler

Pictures: Andrea Jones

There are two ways to get to New York Botanical Gardens. You can take the clean, fast overground from Grand Central (where you should fill up on oysters from the bar in the basement first). Or you can take the tunnel and ride the subway. It takes a lot longer, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper, which is why, once the overground had bankrupted me, I picked up courage to ride the 456 all the way.

I was an intern at the NYBG from 1996-7 – a great way to spend the second year of a five year diploma at Kew.  I spent most of my time – apart from coldest bit in the winter – at the rock garden training to be an alpine specialist.

It was a paid internship sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute which, sadly, they don’t do any more.  Looking back it was a golden moment to train. Everyone paid you; now anyone going into to horticulture comes out hugely in debt like any other student.

So few people rode all the way from lower Manhattan to the Bronx at 6am that by the end I knew them all by sight. The gang would sit in the very first carriage for the thrill of seeing through a tiny window in the front the dark belly of Manhattan recede to high lines of the Bronx.

If you crane your neck at the right moment, you can get a slice of baseball at the Yankee Stadium. Cheap thrills.

Bridge over the city

Brooklyn Bridge towers above a miniature model of New York created by Paul Busse and his team at Applied Imagination.

It takes 30 people to build the 140 model buildings: botanical artist, bridge builders, cedar mountain sculptors, train technician, track engineers and car mechanics all work together. The building takes between 40-1000 hours to create.

Busse trained as a landscape architect. Now in his 70s he still plays with trains and likes it best when people recognise the buildings first and the material second. Eucalyptus and magnolia leaves create roof tiles, trestle bridges are made from willow twigs, and poppy seed pods make urns–the whole wonderful world spans a quarter of a mile and has appeared at the gardens for over 20 years.

Ellis island

Model electric trains from all eras weave over waterfalls, across bridges and through tunnels taking an aerial route through the tropical biomes of the Enid A Haupt Conservatory.  All lit by twinkling fairy lights.

First stop Ellis Island Immigration Centre, the first bit of the new world that the old order saw when they disembarked to make their name.

Again each building is made entirely out of natural material. Twigs, cinnamon quills, acorns, nuts, berries, seeds and leaves make up the architectural features.

A tram passes Thomas Fortune Ryan House (built 1893)

Thomas Fortune Ryan made his money in tobacco, train and sub machine guns and built the many hundreds of miles of tracks that ran New York’s streetcars.

He bought this five storey, limestone finished, early Renaissance style house from Isaac Stern, a successful dry store owner. Famous for the moulded wreaths and floral swags running the length of its top floor, this fabulous house contained a curved marble staircase and a ballroom that Ryan gutted to house his huge collection of Renaissance art.

11 years after his death in 1928 the house was demolished.

Very little Germany

The yellow building to the right is Schumann Sons, a jewelry store with a distinctive glass marquee that stood on Fifth Avenue from 1910 to 1914.

The building to the left is Scheffel Hall, near Gramercy Park. Designed in 1894 the area was then known as Little Germany and the build style is known as ‘German American eclectic Renaissance Revival’. In other words it was a beer hall. During the 70s, it became Fat Tuesday’s jazz club, where all the great names of the day played. Now it is a Pilates and yoga studio.

That is New York’s history in a nutshell.

Thank heavens for Enid

I have a soft spot for this room as I got to be its keeper for a while, watering the mighty staghorn ferns, filling up the urns of the hohenbergia (a bromeliad to the right of the picture) and learning the intricacies of caring for the carnivorous plants (that is what’s in the cabinet at the back).

The Enid A Haupt Conservatory is modelled after the Palm House at Kew Gardens and Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. Built in 1902, it went through a series of major renovations, but by the 70s like much of New York it was in a state of extreme disrepair

When demolition looked likely, Enid A Haupt placed $5 million dollars on the table. The Bronx was a no go area and remain largely that way even when I worked there. This conservatory had just been restored when I arrived. It is the heart of this garden and it was a huge privilege to look after it for a while.

So much to See and Do

There is so much going on at the New York Botanical Gardens.  There’s a 50 acre forest for starters that includes the largest surviving area of woodland that once covered the whole City.

In the family garden children are encouraged to get down and dirty digging for worms and generally finding out what gardening is all about.  In summer they run courses and scholarships for children.

Anyone who does visit in the depths of winter (ie January) is like to find plenty of colour with orangey-yellow crotons, fuchsia bromeliads and bright rose-red hibiscus.

Leaves and eaves

The Olana villa was home to Frederic Edwin Church, a major figure in the Hudson River School of Art.

The villa overlooks parkland and a working farm both designed by Church, and has wide views over the Hudson River Valley and Catskill Mountains that surround it. This was inspiration indeed for landscape painters steeped in the  romanticism of Constable and Turner as well as contemporary writers such as Thoreau and Emerson.  It is easy to see why Paul Busse, a history buff with a soft spot for all things natural, would choose to reproduce this mansion.

Look closely and you can see that the roof is made from eucalyptus leaves and the sides of the building from horse chestnut.

Behind the scenes

When I worked in the New York Botanical Gardens the train show was six or so years old – well known enough to bring crowds, but relaxed enough that you didn’t have to book.

I remember taking a boy I wanted so desperately to impress to the show. At that point, I made labels for the rock garden, those black plastic squares telling you the genus, species and geographical location. I made them in a tiny attic room and I quickly cottoned on that nobody visited. You could curl up and sleep all day, which meant you could party all night.

My boss eventually worked it out when the labels numbers dwindled. He asked me what I’d rather do? Work in the Enid A Haupt conservatory?

My late nights came to halt but there were other adventures to be had.

The train show had worked: the boy liked me.

Four conservatory favourites

Clockwise from Top Left

1 Persea is a genus of 150 evergreen trees found in the Laurel family. The most famous member is the avocado, Persea americana. The avocado is native to central Mexico, but has become an important commercial crop in tropical and Mediterranean climates across the globe.

If you save your stone, you too can have your own avocado plant. They make an excellent houseplant, unlike a croton. They are tough, forgiving plants.

The stone should be suspended using pins with its bottom sitting in a glass of water then kept somewhere warm at least 16 degrees C. Four week or so later the stone should split open to yield a root and shoot. Once the root has touched the bottom of the glass of water, it should be potted on.

2 Ctenanthe oppenheimiana aka the Never-Never plant. One can only assume it is called a never-never plant because it never, how much you seem to neglect it, dies.

Go on, try and kill it.

3 Gardenia jasminoides ‘Veithcii’ is known as the Cape jasmine and is loved for its intensely fragranced pure white double flowers that appear in late winter.

This is a tricky but rewarding houseplant. It needs the sunniest of places, somewhere warm and moist such as a hot house.  When you want it to flower you must lower the night time temperatures to initiate the buds and then gently raise them through the day.

It does smell divine, but it perhaps best admired when someone else is doing the hard work of growing it.

4 Fittonia verschaffettii Fittonia verschaffeltii is a low growing creeper that is destined to spend its captive life growing in terrariums and bottle gardens. Pretty in pink, it maybe it’s an almost impossible house-guest if not housed in its bottle as it demands high, constant, humidity and will give up the ghost quickly if left in stagnant conditions. A tender thing, it also burns terribly if left in direct sunlight.

Found in the Acanthus family it is native to South America where it creeps along the floors of tropical rainforest – hence the love of low light and constant humidity.

If thirsty fittonia wilt and collapse, but can be quickly revived by dunking the whole plant in a bowl of water. However playing God this way takes its toll on the plant. Over water and you will get infested with compost gnats.

A tricky customer but, if bottled gardens are your thing, one to master.