To many visitors, the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) is an inspiring place to explore beautiful landscapes; it’s also a world-class scientific institution that nurtures important plant collections and develops educational programs. NYBG touches people’s lives in other ways, too, whether it’s working with Bronx organizations to create community gardens or doing research around the world to support biodiversity and conservation. Because of COVID-19, this green urban oasis currently requires visitors to reserve tickets in advance and follow new safety protocols.
NYBG was founded in 1891 after noted botanists Nathaniel Lord Britton and his wife, Elizabeth Britton, made a honeymoon visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, near London. The couple proposed their idea for a similar garden in New York that would lead scientific research and increase public knowledge of plants. The garden’s site was chosen because of the scenic Bronx River Gorge and surrounding terrain. Today the 250-acre NYBG includes 50 specialty gardens and more than a million plants. It also offers hundreds of classes for the public and garden professionals. The more than 100-person scientific staff uses on-site resources such as the Mertz Library, an herbarium with 7.8 million preserved specimens, and the Plant Research Laboratory.
What to See and Do
Year-round, NYBG has plenty to explore and revisit. The Azalea Garden and the collections of magnolias, lilacs, cherries, and crabapples bloom colorfully in spring, and fall brings blazing hues to the maples and oaks. Even in winter, green pines and spruces enhance the garden’s paths. Here are some highlights not to miss.
An NYBG icon, the domed Enid A. Haupt Conservatory is a stately Victorian glasshouse (currently closed) with plants from tropical rain forests, deserts, and temperate zones. Its outdoor Courtyards (open) hold magnificent lotus plants and water lilies. In front of the Conservatory, the Perennial Garden includes four distinct garden “rooms” themed by setting and color—one has warm and another cool colors, for example—providing changing vistas spring through fall.
One garden trend today is the use of native plants, notably ones that help sustain wildlife. The 3.5 acres and almost 100,000 plants of NYBG’s bold, modern Native Plant Garden, opened in 2013, focus on wildflowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees native to northeastern North America. The red cardinal flowers and river birches are reminders that plants don’t have to be exotic to be beautiful.
With towering oaks, maples, tulip trees, and others, the 50 year old-growth acres of the Thain Family Forest survive as a remarkable reminder of how New York City looked before Europeans arrived. Trails run near the Bronx River and through the forest; the city feels far away.
In contrast with the forest is the fragrant Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden, where 650 rose varieties bloom from May to October, drawing crowds of admirers. Famous landscape architect Beatrix Farrand designed the formal, geometrical space and elegant paths in 1916. The collection showcases heirloom roses as well as modern hybrids that are easier to grow and more sustainable.
NYBG presents seasonal special events that are New York City favorites. These include the family-favorite Holiday Train Show, where model trains zip past 175 New York landmarks recreated in miniature from natural materials such as tree bark and acorns, and winter’s Orchid Show in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Summer through fall, annual garden-wide special exhibitions explore the relationship of plants and gardens to the work and lives of artists and thinkers. Landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx and artist Frida Kahlo were past subjects; coming in 2021 is “Kusama: Cosmic Nature,” a multisensory exhibition of the artist’s work and life. During these events, vendors from the Bronx Night Market and dancers and musicians from the Bronx are often featured, and Bronx Days offer free admission to residents on select days during some special events.
Growing your own food and healthy eating are increasingly important topics these days. In 2018, NYBG expanded the Edible Academy, its 3-acre year-round, on-site educational facility, to help even more local kids, families, and the public get practical experience growing food and caring for the environment. The LEED Gold-certified Classroom Building, with its demonstration kitchen and technology lab, is just one of the new facilities. The Children’s Garden Program takes place in one of the Howell Vegetable Garden’s three gardens; all offer hands-on classes and programs. Although its regular activities are currently suspended, the Edible Academy is working with NYBG’s Bronx Green-Up, including donating the produce it grows to local organizations.
Since 1988, NYBG’s Bronx Green-Up has helped local groups set up more than 300 community gardens throughout the Bronx. It also partners with organizations to green the borough and address the problems of access to fresh food and food insecurity. As NYBG’s community garden outreach arm, it offers training and education to residents, organizations, urban farms, and schools, including free certificate programs and workshops. In response to COVID-19, Bronx Green-Up is coordinating 18 neighborhood gardens and urban farms, called Community Farm Hubs, that want to increase food production and distribution safely. Besides helping build raised growing beds, it provided seeds, compost, and 6,000 vegetable seedlings from NYBG’s Edible Academy.
Whether you’ve come to admire the garden or to learn more about plants to grow, a visit to NYBG will always inspire hope.
Side Dish: Head to nearby Arthur Avenue, the authentic Little Italy of the Bronx. Browse the Arthur Avenue Retail Market and pick up biscotti and specialty breads at Madonia Brothers Bakery. Tempting restaurants line the streets, including Zero Otto Nove, currently offering takeout and outdoor dining.
Visiting: New York City residents should check NYBG’s website for information about reduced admission, including the IDNYC program. The NYBG is on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, across from Fordham University and north of the Bronx Zoo. Metro-North has service to Botanical Garden Station, opposite the Moshulu Entrance; it’s a 20-minute trip from Grand Central Terminal. Subway service is via the B, D, 4, or 2 train. See the MTA website. The garden has parking (extra fee), and street parking is available.
By Linda Cabasin
Linda Cabasin is a travel editor and writer who covered the globe at Fodor’s before taking up the freelance life. She’s a contributing editor at Fathom. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @lcabasin.