Thursday, March 18, 2004

Urban Expeditions: The New York Botanical Garden

(A tale in which our intrepid blogger steps out his front door)

It being Spring Break, the other day (Thursday, to be precise) I decided it was high time to get out from in front of my computer and do something.

The Orchid Show currently up at the New York Botanical Garden came instantly to my mind, I myself being one of those orchid nuts. So I readied myself for the most decidedly un-Spring-like day and ventured out. Herein lies the tale of my journey.

The journey begins.

Interborough travel just got a lot easier thanks to the reopening of both sides of the Manhattan Bridge in February. Even better, they’ve re-routed the D-train right past my neighborhood. The far end of the D-line is my destination. Nothing beats subway travel, especially off-peak. I’m sure if Walt Whitman were alive today he would have written a ‘song of the subway …’

So I left my house shortly after 16:00Z and made the simple transfer to the Norwood, Bronx-bound D by 16:19Z. It was about this time that I began to dwell on the fact that in my haste to get out of the house, I failed to pack provisions – food and water. My wallet was bound to suffer as a consequence.

As usual the train poked along over the bridge. After all these years of construction, it’s still slow! What gives? Finally the trained cleared the serpentine tracks of lower Manhattan and roared up Sixth Avenue (ok, maybe growled. Squealed?). I knew from past experience that shortly the train would veer west around 53rd Street then north again at Eighth Avenue (a.k.a. Central Park West). At 16:41Z we passed 42nd Street and all its dancing feet. I was feeling hungry already. Lesson to be learned: don’t leave home having only consumed 3 cups of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal.

By 16:46Z we cleared Columbus Circle. The Upper West Side was bypassed in the blink of an eye (slight hyperbole here) and we were on our way to the forbidding hinterland of upper Manhattan and the Bronx.

It’s 17:01Z and I feel I have to pee. We’ve entered the Bronx by now, wizzing express past Yankees Stadium with nary a pause. Bedford Park Boulevard, the penultimate stop on this line, is my goal. The trained pulled in at 17:15Z. With all due haste I walked the eight irregular blocks of Bedford Park Boulevard from the Grand Concourse to the Garden entrance.

I arrived at the gate around 17:30Z, making for a door-to-gate travel time of less than one and a half hours. Not bad. Feeling nature’s call more urgently than ever, I headed with great singleness of purpose to the nearest restroom. (A warning to all tourists and visitors: this is probably the greatest hazard posed by the great city for any erstwhile sightseer.)

Having taken care of business, I proceeded on to the magnificent Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, wherein lay my grail: the orchids. (Enid is quite an interesting name, don’t you think? If ever I have a girl child, I think I’ll name her Enid. She’ll be scarred for life.)

Having made it to the imposing 1899 glass house, I readied my camera in anticipation of some choice digital shots. But lo, and behold! A little sign told me that photography is strictly forbidden in the orchid show, except on Tuesdays between 10 and 12 local time and for the price of an extra photographer’s ticket (a whopping $35 if you’re not a member!). I was a bit miffed by this, but no matter. Perhaps I’ll come back next Tuesday, or not.

The conservatory is indeed beautiful, more inside than out. Upon entering I had to wait several minutes for my glasses to unfog in the warm, humid air. Admission to the conservatory, and thus the orchids, is $10, in addition to the $6 at the gate. Members get in free. I’m glad I’m a member, but it’s sad and bit shocking this costs so much. Some call it economic reality. I call it the loss of public culture.

As was to be expected, there are a lot of beautiful orchids here, placed in lovely and (mostly) realistic settings. I say ‘mostly,’ because I don’t think you’ll find many Phalaenopsis sprouting out of the ground in the wild. Like most of the orchids on display here, they’re epiphytes. There are some really strikingly lovely vistas to be had. I particularly enjoyed the long gallery festooned with Spanish moss and orchids hanging from every limb and beam.

In terms of the flowers themselves, of particular note were some so-called ‘Pansy’ orchids – Miltonias, originally from the rainforests of Central and South America. There were also many fascinating intergeneric hybrids, such as xBurrageara Kilauea, xColmanara Wildcat and a striking collection of xOdontioda with unusual colors. The Psychopsis –‘butterfly orchids’ — were pretty cool too.

The show is comprised almost entirely of modern hybrids. I saw very few species. Since the Garden wants to be a museum of plants and prides itself on conservation and research, you’d think they’d devote some attention to the species, many of which are endangered, from whence all these commercial hybrids are derived. It also would have been great to see some of the rare and beautiful lady slipper orchids of North America. But perhaps that would have been technically infeasible.

Having said that, I have to acknowledge that there were a few species amongst the crowd of upstarts. I caught a glimpse of Phalaenopsis aphrodite, the prototypical white moth orchid. Then there was the grotesque Dendrobium spectabile, appearing more like a carnivorous alien than a plant. Near the Dendrobium was Angraecum cesquipedale, “Darwin’s Star Orchid.” Unfortunately, this rare beauty was half-wilted on the day I was there. Indeed, many of the individual flowers, particularly among the Paphiopedilums and Phragmipediums, seemed past their prime.

All in all the show was attractive, but not as big as I hoped – I breezed through in well under 40 minutes. I’m not sure that’s worth the $16, although the Conservatory is pretty big and there are lots of other cool plants to look at. Especially spectacular is the main rotunda of the conservatory, which features a substantial collection of palms of all sorts and sizes.

Having dispensed with the orchids, I moseyed on over to the new shop and visitor’s center. This brand new collection of buildings at the main entrance to the Garden is quite classy and adds much to the well-heeled image the Garden is projecting these days.

No doubt about it, the shop is great, although I was annoyed to find many of the orchids for sale inadequately labeled, especially among the Phalaenopsis. It’s a pet peeve of mine. No serious collector wants plants without names. The shop’s real strength is the book section, which easily puts the one at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden to shame. They have a particularly good, serious, botany section, and even a vintage book section! Most impressive.

As you can imagine, by this time, I was pretty hungry. Being, alas, provisionless, I paid a visit to the Visitor’s Center CafĂ©, in search of sustenance. $9.78 got me a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Ouch, ouch! Such are the wages of bad planning.

After another spin through the Conservatory for a second look, there was naught to do but retrace my steps back home. Having to pay a visit on the Upper East Side, I took a different route, walking a little farther along Bedford Avenue to the 4 train and heading downtown to 86th Street. From there I wended my way over to my buddies on West 13th Street, and thence back to Brooklyn. God Bless unlimited Ride Metrocard!

The Orchid Show is only up until March 28, if you want to see it.

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