Recently I was invited by the New York Botanic Garden to say a few words at the dedication of the Judy and Michael Steinhardt Maple Collection, as a number of cultivar specimens – though relatively young – came from Buchholz Nursery to complement the existing 70-year-old maple trees already in place. Not only that, but the venerable botanic garden was coincidentally celebrating its 125th anniversary, hyped as NYBG/125. Obviously I was honored to supply specimens for their newly refurbished maple section of about five acres...that was made possible by the generosity of the Steinhardt family.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony featured plastic shears for the photographers before real ones were handed to Mr. Steinhardt to actually cut the ribbon. Mr. S. wasn't particularly careful with the sharp tool and his wife quipped that he had never held a pair of shears before in his life. Then later at a tree planting ceremony he was accused of not having enough dirt on his spanking-new shovel, and then in his zeal some soil was tossed into his wife's shoe.
Some older maples in the garden were three Acer sieboldianum and I imagine they are spectacularly colored today. A single specimen of Acer nipponicum from Japan was a surprise to see, and it was also bearing seed. I pointed out that there was no known rootstock compatible with nipponicum and they might want to collect the seed, but then I was told that the NYBG had no propagating department. I used to grow a single specimen of Acer henryi but it became too large for its space and it was removed, so I envied the allowance given to New York's A. henryi. In leaf it could be mistaken for Acer triflorum, although the flowers and fruits of the two species are very different. Furthermore A. triflorum features exfoliating bark while A. henryi is smooth, and henryi is in the section negundo and triflorum is in the section trifoliata. Acer henryi was named by botanist Pax in 1889 for the Irish plant-hunter Augustine Henry who discovered the species, but it was first introduced in 1903 by E.H. Wilson when he was working for the Veitch Nursery firm.
At noon we were served a great lunch in an old historic stone mill house, and afterwards the botanic garden luminaries thanked the Steinhardts for funding the garden development. My speech was brief, for I was but the rustic wildcard from Oregon, and I pointed out that I admired a world-class botanic garden for planting and promoting cultivated variants – cultivars – in their effort to display to the public the incredible variation in some plant species, in particular with Japanese maples. Then, as I've done before, I recited my stock opinion that Japanese maples are like pretty girls: who ever tires of another one?
In 2002 I attended the International Maple Society conference at Westonbirt Arboretum in England, and a prominent Canadian botanist dismissively waved his hand and commented that “certainly we have enough maple cultivars;” like: who needs to add any more. At the NYBG I asked my two beautiful daughters to briefly stand, then to sit back down. Then I mentioned that they were both born – or introduced – after 2002. The point was that the world didn't need either of them from the botanist's point of view, but that the world is certainly better off that they were hybridized after all.
And the same is true with maple cultivars. Deanna Curtis, the Curator of Woody Plants, wrote about individuals in the collection, that "Acer palmatum 'Manyo no sato' has leaves patterned in lime-green and purple," while those of 'Ikandi' – a Buchholz introduction – and 'Aizumi nishiki' “unfurl in a carnival of pink, white and green.” Ms. Curtis, in the dedication pamphlet, concluded that, “Today the expanded Judy and Michael Steinhardt Maple Collection combines classic maples with new introductions. It is the perfect place to appreciate the beauty and diversity of these trees in every season.”
Deanna kindly ferried me and my family through the Garden, both before and after the dedication via a six-seat golf car, and she zoomed energetically through the collection. We paused briefly at a colorful tree trunk and I took photographs. But as to the botanical identity – I've been confused a few times before – was it an Acer griseum or a Pinus bungeana?...for they can look so alike...and throw Abies squamata into that mix as well. I think that a botanic garden should plant Acer griseum, Pinus bungeana and Abies squamata all next to each other, to both confuse and to entertain the gardening public about the similarities of the various trunks, and I think I should begin with my own. Fortunately I photographed the label, and I was reminded that we were all looking at Acer griseum, the Chinese “paper-bark” maple.
The giant conservatory was a fun place. Small-flowered Chrysanthemums were trained to resemble bonsai, or kiku in Japanese. The difference was that they were grown from cuttings just eight months ago. One was trained to resemble a swallowtail butterfly while others were cascading in the kengai (overhanging cliff) style. The white Chrysanthemum behind us was started in October, 2015, and the single-stemmed specimen featured 210 flowers. I don't know much about 'mums except that they make their appearance in the autumn, and usually they are grown as tight buns in pots, something to put next to the front door. A “spider” chrysanthemum called 'Lava' caught my eye however, and at first I took it to be a Dahlia, and I pondered if the C. genus was as wonderful and complex as is the Acer.
|Calathea 'Royal Standard'|
|Costus speciosus 'Variegatus'|
Other plants in the conservatory were colorful, although I knew little about them. Calathea 'Royal Standard' is commonly called a “prayer plant,” while Gomphrena globosa is the common “globe amaranth.” Costus speciosus 'Variegatus' was the “crepe ginger” but it is not very hardy coming from tropical Asia. I couldn't find the label for the fern, but nevertheless it gleamed in the sunlight. Theobroma cacao, the “chocolate tree,” was in flower and the blooms sprout from the trunk and branches. The genus comes from tropical America but its name comes from Greek theo for “god” and broma for “food.”
Back outside was a scrappy blue spruce, and if I heard correctly it was the original Picea pungens 'R.H. Montgomery'. I used to grow both 'Montgomery' and 'Globosa' but I could never tell them apart, and really neither are good long-term conifers in Oregon, or at least not at my nursery, and the specimen in New York didn't look very impressive either. The good Colonel Montgomery was a well-known accountant who wrote more than 40 books about accounting practice and tax laws. Montgomery spent his last years in Florida where he enjoyed his 83 acre Coconut Grove Palmetum. He was survived by his lovely wife Nell who out-lived him by 37 years. I imagined that if Nell enthused so greatly about palms, she would have absolutely gushed with excitement over my Japanese maples...and that perhaps I could have posed with her in front of 'Ikandi' or 'Geisha Gone Wild' in a white suit.
Deanna Curtis was well-prepared for my visit, having researched plants in the NYBG that came from Buchholz Nursery. We drove past a good-looking Abies pindrow that was a 2003 accession from Buchholz Nursery, and I begged her to stop the golf cart so I could take a photo. Just as I pressed the shutter an old man jumped into the frame. Another time I was told that a Podocarpus was from me as well, and a gardener was enlisted to search for the label. He indeed found the name but I have already forgotten it.
I couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit the old library, for it was displaying Rachel “Bunny” Mellon's collection of books and manuscripts. She collected drawings, prints, painting and sculpture on the subjects of horticulture, botany, natural history etc. – all things connected to the natural world. I didn't notice the no photography sign at the entrance, but was soon scolded by security and I put my camera away. Anyway, you can see a few items that the collection contained, and I suppose I would have surrounded myself likewise if I had been given the chance. Which is maybe why I have gathered a collection of plants – they are of equal beauty as Mellon's objects, and a whole lot cheaper to acquire, and everybody is invited to take photos of them.
Our time was short at the NYBG, too short, and if I was younger I might apply for a position as an intern or gardener. One must touch the plants and observe them in all seasons – to sweat under them in summer and to freeze next to them in winter – to really appreciate them. Many thanks to Todd Forrest, the Vice President for Horticulture and Living Collections, and to Deanna Curtis, the Curator of Woody Plants, for making my visit possible and most enjoyable.
A few days after the NYBG event we took a train north and then picked up a zipcar to drive to Mt. Kisco. Our destination was Iroki Garden – the “garden of surprises,” which is own by the same benefactors, Judy and Michael Steinhardt. Cathy Deutsch, who has been to Oregon and has purchased plants from me, led the tour along with her 3-year-old daughter Arden.* The cute tyke was fussy at first, and I could tell that she didn't really want her mother's attention spent on a bunch of Oregonians. It didn't take long for my wife and daughters to win her over, however, and she eventually concluded that we could actually be fun. I admit that I don't have much use for children under the age of three – and that includes my own kids – but Arden was a sweetheart and she did a good deal of the guiding of us.
*Cathy majored in English literature. Arden was part of a forest north of Stratford-upon-Avon, the setting of Shakespeare's As You Like It.
Iroki is a zoo as well as a plant collection. Dear Arden was quite familiar with the set-up, and she demonstrated just how one rides the tortoises and then cuddles with Whinny – or Winny – or Winnie – the goose that pooped on the initial step into the aviary. Of course A. eventually stepped into the mess and C. had to deal with that, but she did do with such motherly grace...that Haruko fell completely in love with her, in love with both of them. I thought I was hilarious with tagging the dumb fowl as “Winnie the Poop,” but no one laughed. At the beginning of our visit, Cathy offered that she didn't attempt to get too involved with the animals, implying that she had enough to do without them, but clearly Daughter A. did not agree and she exhibited a familiar rapport with the critters. Again, we wanted to adopt the kid and take her home with us; but since that won't happen we would love to meet her again one day, perhaps when she is a teenager or a beautiful 20-year-old.
Iroki is unlike any other garden I have seen. It is formal at times, but then also wild. There are hundreds of Japanese maple cultivars but they blend in nicely with the native flora. Lots of room for kids to run around, and in fact it seemed like the grounds were designed to please children. One quirky feature was a huge stick construction, and Cathy announced – from a distance – that we could climb up it if we wanted. I didn't see how that was possible at first, and the idea seemed like a lawsuit waiting to happen, but little Arden headed up a ramp and we all caught on. Halfway up was the “living room” where one could make music by swatting the bamboo tubes, and Arden gleefully showed us how.
Iroki is not a Japanese word, or if it is my wife doesn't know it. Iro is “color” in Japanese and ki means “wood.” Chamaecyparis obtusa – hinoki – is hino (fire) and ki (wood), but she insists that iroki does not go together like that. Indeed, a name of mystery; and the “garden full of surprises” was more fun than I could have imagined. Fun to be three years old again.