I love Manhattan, but when I need a break from the endless rows of concrete canyons, I head to the Bronx. Tucked inside the city’s northernmost borough is one of the country’s most beautiful historic landmarks: the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). With lush flora, intriguing exhibits and exciting family friendly programs and activities, the garden is a perfect escape when I’m looking for a good old fashion nature fix and a dose of culture.
I first went to the garden a few years ago when a friend suggested that I meet him for a couple of hours of nature photography. To be frank, I was meh on the idea. I’d lived in Manhattan for over a decade and I’d never been, and I had no burning desire to go. I incorrectly assumed it was going to be a pain in the ass to get to. My friend quickly set me straight: the garden was an easy 20-minute train ride on Metro-North from Grand Central Terminal. I should stop whining.
I Should Have Gone Before
The train let me off across the street from the garden. I paid for my ticket, met up with my friend and off we went. I knew it wouldn’t take long before he teased me about it being my first visit and right on cue, he dove right in.
“You’ve seriously never been here before?” He said with a you-gotta-be-kidding-me face that suggested I’m a poor excuse for a New Yorker.
“Seriously,” I responded embarrassed and a little annoyed.
Avoiding the conversation, I made a B-line towards some striking yellow flowers with blooms the size of bread plates and took some pictures. While I wasn’t in the mood to fess up, I knew I’d missed out.
Without a doubt, I’d return.
The Botanical Garden
The largest of its kind in the United States, the Botanical Garden is over 250 acres of expertly curated indoor and outdoor gardens, plants, rolling hills, trees, sculptures and several bodies of water including the Bronx River, to explore. (New York residents are eligible for a free Grounds-only pass with access to the outdoor gardens and collections and the Everett Children’s Adventure Garden.)
But the spectacular grounds are a fraction of what NYBG offers. Annual exhibits are mounted throughout the year such as the highly anticipated Orchid and Holiday Train Shows, as well as major multi-dimensional productions that weave a single theme throughout the property. Previously lauded shows were based on the art and lives of Frida Kahlo, Claude Monet and Dale Chihuly. There are also night events, lectures and musical performances.
This Season’s Big Show
Devotees of Georgia O’Keefe will love this season’s new exhibit inspired by her 1939 trip to Hawaii, aptly titled Georgia O’Keefe: Visions of Hawai’i. (Now through October 28th) Twenty of these lesser-known paintings are on display—the first time they’ve hung together since their New York gallery premiere in 1940.
Leaving behind the desiccated skulls and desert landscapes of Santa Fé, O’Keefe was captivated by the dramatic landscapes and floral vistas of the Islands. During her nine-week sojourn, O’Keefe, who was commissioned to paint two ads for what’s now the Dole Pineapple, explored the manicured gardens and wild jungles of the archipelago by day and hobnobbed with the social elite by night.
“She was blown away by the outlandish otherworldly beauty,” said Todd Forrest, vice president for horticulture and living collections. “She kept on saying to Stiegletz, [her husband and famed photographer] you won’t believe these paintings when you see them, you will not think that what I am painting is real. That was her sense of the Hawaiian paradise garden.”
The garden presents its own take on the Hawaiian Paradise Garden within the Enid-Haupt Conservatory, where O’Keefe’s adventure is brought to life. Inside you’ll find a lush flower show with many of the exotic flowers and plants she would have encountered during her adventure. Strolling down the main path flanked by hundreds of exotic blooms, I felt as if I were walking in the lavish oasis of a socialite’s estate.
O’Keefe’s collection hangs in the art gallery inside the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, just to the left of where you enter the property if you take the train. Be sure to check out the short film entitled Off the Far Away Somewhere: Georgia O’Keefe’s Letters from Hawaii, narrated by Sigourney Weaver, and the wall-sized display illustrating O’Keefe’s journey through the islands. Outdoors, sculptures by Hawaiian-Chinese sculptor Mark Chai, inspired by the forms of the plants O’Keefe came across, grace the grounds.
Rounding out the exhibition is a garden-wide celebration with many performances and events throughout the summer featuring the traditions and cultural heritage of the islands, plus Hawaiian-inspired foods including a new Poke truck (vegetarians welcome).
Families at the Botanical Garden
Families can rely on a wealth of kid-friendly programming including drop-in nature exploration or gardening activities in addition to experiences that complement the major exhibitions. Garden members can also benefit from a more formalized, longer-term series that take places one day each weekend over six weeks.
During the week, visitors can walk through the property on their own or take advantage of audio tours (Daily from 10 am – 6 pm) or spend a Saturday morning (11am-12pm) exploring the grounds on a Bird Walk with a naturalist.
A newly expanded three-acre Edible Academy gives kids and adults alike the opportunity to dive into “hands-on gardening activities; special cooking demonstrations,” and other year-round programs.
To plan your visit – check out What’s On on the garden’s website. You can see an overview of what’s offered throughout the year or filter a search by day, month or topic.
Botanical Garden Hours
Every day except Monday from 10 am-6 pm
From January 16 – March 2, the garden closes an hour earlier at 5 pm.
For admissions information, click here.
For directions and public transportation options, click here.
For tips on how to make your visit more enjoyable, click here
Photography lovers: NYBG is a great place to practice your landscape, floral and macro photography. The gardens are beautiful and unlike Central Park, you don’t have to worry about people getting in your way.