New York Botanical Garden

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  4/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 176 minutes (including lunch) — I could easily spend a whole day
Best thing I saw or learned The display of plant carnivores:  flytraps, sundews, pitcher plants.  My favorite members of the floral kingdom.

Carnivorous Plants, New York Botanical Garden

New York Botanical GardenBoth New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike tend to think of the Bronx as entirely, unremittingly gray: paved urban overdevelopment at its very worst. In reality, the Bronx features large expanses of green.

  • Pelham Bay Park (home to the Barstow-Pell Mansion) is the largest of the city’s parks.
  • Van Cortlandt Park (home to the eponymous house) is also sizable.
  • Wave Hill and the other verdant bits of Riverdale along the Hudson are beautiful.
  • Woodlawn Cemetery recently got certified as an arboretum.
  • And let’s not forget the Zoo.

But of all the many green spaces the Bronx has to offer, the most beautiful must surely be the New York Botanical Garden.

Chihuly at New York Botanical Garden
Herbarium and Library, Fountain, Glass Art

The New York Botanical Garden dates to 1891 and sprawls across 250 acres. (Don’t worry, there’s a tram.) Its vast holdings include a spectacular neoclassical Herbarium & Library, and an even more spectacular glass conservatory. Calvert Vaux and the Olmstead Brothers had hands in the Garden’s design, and of course it’s hard to beat them for this sort of thing.

New York Botanical GardenThe Garden has pretty much everything you’d expect from such a place. Its formal gardens burst with flowers year-round (though they’re of course at their best in the spring). Hillsides of apples and lilacs, a world-class rose garden, and a slew of cherries also check of boxes. Azaleas, peonies, herbs, conifers. Essentially, if it’s a plant, they likely have it.

Less expectedly, the Bronx River flows through the New York Botanical Garden, including a little waterfall. Back in the 19th century there used to be industry on the river, and an 1840 mill building remains as a vestige of its less bucolic past. Moreover, the garden is home to the last bit of old-growth forest in the city. A 50-acre patch of trees, carefully tended and managed today, the Thain Family Forest offers at least a hint of an echo of a feeling of what this place was like before it was New York, or even New Netherlands.

There’s also a Children’s Garden, designed to help city kids get a feel for plants, and a section devoted to helping home gardeners get ideas that might work for them. Not so relevant for most New Yorkers, but I bet it helps folks from Westchester.


Chihuly at New York Botanical Garden
Chihuly in the Library Rotunda

For the past several months, the New York Botanical Garden has played host to a special installation of Dale Chihuly’s glass art. Specifically chosen works, some of them monumentally large, have been installed at carefully selected locations throughout the Garden and its buildings. It’s fantastically beautiful — his organic forms and complex color combinations go extremely well in natural (or quasi-natural) settings.

In order to avoid confusing this review, I have sorted out my impressions of the Botanical Garden, considering the Chihuly-inflected parts separately from the “core” garden, which is what the ratings at the top reflect.

A companion website provides descriptions and commentaries on the Chihuly pieces, and a bit about how Chihuly and his team design and execute them. As swirly, organic abstractions, I’m not sure there’s a lot to learn from them — this art is safely apolitical, which is kind of a relief after say the Whitney Biennial or any number of other exhibits I’ve seen this year.

Chihuly at New York Botanical Garden

Their delicate beauty and impressive engineering are hugely entertaining — and immensely Instagrammable.

I don’t normally rate exhibits (as opposed to museums) but I’ll make an exception for the Chihuly show:

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  

Are Botanic Gardens Museums? Part 2

Back when I reviewed the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, I asked rhetorically whether gardens should really be considered museums at all, or if that set unfair expectations or a bad yardstick by which to judge them. Now that I’m reviewing the other one, I’m still not sure. However, the Garden’s website says “The New York Botanical Garden is an iconic living museum.” So, point in the “pro” column.

Herbarium, New York Botanical Garden
All About Rice

I previously called botanical gardens “zoos for plants” more than museums. That’s true at the New York Botanical Garden, but only to a point. The Herbarium & Library Building unambiguously constitutes a museum. When I visited, in addition to some Chihuly pieces an interesting display examined six (seemingly) random families of plants: conifers, rice, cycads, Brazil nuts, and ferns. The Herbarium also featured a vast family tree of all the different plant groups, and a discussion of what an herbarium even is.

New York Botanical Garden
Native Plant Garden, With Chihuly Boatful of Balls

Other parts of the Garden also seize opportunities to edify. That’s particularly true in the native plant garden and the wetland, and within the engineered environments in the conservatory.

I also re-asked myself the other question I asked in my Brooklyn review. To wit: why not just save money by visiting a park instead? I think the trek to the Bronx, and the admission charge, are justified. The New York Botanical Garden’s 250 acres make it nearly 5 times the size of the Brooklyn garden. The NYBG contains wonders within its vastness, conferring a real sense that you’ve escaped the confines of the city. Which you almost literally have. Admittedly, vastness and wonders do not necessarily map to my rubric of edifying, entertaining, and “should you go?”

So Should You Go?

New York Botanical Garden
Palm trees under glass

With or without decorative glass strewn all about, the New York Botanical Garden is beautiful. Assuming good weather few better places exist in the five boroughs to spend an afternoon outdoors — especially in the spring. It succeeds at edifying as well as entertaining, especially if you visit the buildings within the garden.  At the end of the day, as a museum or not, this place more than justifies a special trip.

New York Botanical Garden

For planning purposes: Fordham University is located rather close to the New-York Botanical Garden. If you want to maximize the efficiency of your Bronx visit, you could combine the Garden with quick stop at the Fordham Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art. And then Arthur Avenue for Italian food afterward.  Also, note that while it takes about 10 minutes to walk to the Garden from the closest subway stop (Bedford Park Blvd. on the B or D line), Metro North has a Botanical Garden station a straight shot from Grand Central.


For Reference:

Address 2900 Southern Boulevard, Bronx
Cost General Admission:  $23 Weekdays, $28 Weekends; New Yorkers can see the grounds for $15.
Other Relevant Links


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