Monday, August 31, 2009

Pandas and Vacation

Chances are you've noticed that I've been remiss on blog posts for the last few weeks. It's true; I've been lazy.

And it's only getting worse between now and September 10 -- I'll be traveling until then, for work and vacation. On the bright side, I'll be visiting some good spots for blog material and will be downright annoying with this site in the last weeks of September.

In the meantime, last weekend I got a chance to check out the developing Asia Trail exhibit at the National Zoo.

After all my time working on zoo exhibits at the Bronx Zoo, I was excited to see a good capital project develop in DC. And I liked that fence detail, too.

Of course, nothing beats my previous visit to the National Zoo in February 2006, when the curators there were kind enough to show me some of the cooling enclosures designed to keep the pandas comfortable on hot summer days. As you can see, they also indulged me in a snapshot with one of their famous tenants.

Please come back in a week or two for more New York, Plants and of course the Other Stuff.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Paley Park

Certainly there has been plenty written about Paley Park, on 53rd Street between 5th and Madison Avenues. I'm not going to add to that material, but did want to post a photo in case readers are unfamiliar with it.

The park is beautifully simple; essentially a cube facing 53rd street, with ivy, rotational herbaceous plants and honey locusts. The wall of water at the back of the park - as every landscape architecture student quickly learns - was a brilliant gesture. The white noise it provides drowns out the sounds of city and profoundly adds to the sense of peace on has when sitting on the Bertoia chairs.

Right next door, you can also get a glimpse of NYC's own piece of the Berlin Wall and maybe snap a photo.

Paley Park occupies the former site of the Stork Club, a famous club in operation from before prohibition until the mid-60s. Honestly, I wouldn't have even noted this, had it not been for the fact that I'm catching up on Mad Men. The episode I watched last night included a party scene there.

Friday, August 21, 2009


Last night I caught the third game in the Mets-Braves series at Citi Field. Though my heart belongs to the Yankees, I'll happily root against the Braves. Sadly, the Braves won.

On the bright side, I got to see a baseball game in August in the lovely new Citi Field. Now I don't know much about baseball, but aesthetically I'd say the stadium was a big improvement on Shea. Or, for that matter, the former Yankees Stadium (I know. It's the house that Babe built. But really, it's not a great stadium.). Anyway, I was surprised at how much I noticed the smaller size and what a difference it made to me as a spectator. The amp system wasn't too annoying, the seats were comfortable and, wow: cup holders.

The landscape around the stadium wasn't too bad either. You could see from the photo below that they were going for a more natural, informal look. I'm not sure they quite achieved it.

The photo above shows purpletop (Tridens flavus) and Rudbeckia, which are both great plants for a native palette. But in the foreground, Nepeta and a species of Cotoneaster are lurking, neither of which scream to me Piet Ouldolf. Damn if I don't have a picture of them (then again, come on: my mind was on the game.). The trees are Ginkgo biloba - a great tree, but again, a pin oak would match a native palette better and probably fare well in this spot. (I'd love to say a sugar maple would be a good candidate but no doubt these are discouraged due to the Asian Longhorned Beetle.)

The above, overexposed, photo is of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. It's a nice moment where you're not quite indoors or outdoors. The cutouts almost remind me of a James Turrell piece.

Finally, I can't write about a baseball game without a shot of the field. I wish I knew more about baseball - baseball fans, to me, seem to be the most starry-eyed. But for the time being, I can at least appreciate a place where I can enjoy a refreshing breeze, a cold beer and a hot dog. Oh, and of course, where I can root for the home team.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I have been eyeing this median strip planting on Houston Street for a few weeks now. Each day on my way to work, I mean to stop by and take a few photos of the Gaura that's blooming there.

I finally got around to it yesterday.

Gaura lindheimeri or Gaura, or wandflower or butterfly gaura is a sweet, light, long blooming native perennial. The tall stems on which the flowers sit - in the right planting - can catch the wind easily, thus the name for this cultivar, 'Whirling Butterflies.'

Guara is derivative of the Greek word 'gauros' which means superb, majestic and proud. Lindheimeri comes from the name of Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer, a German-born man who ultimately found political exile in Texas. He is considered the 'Father of Texas Botany' - at least according to his wikipedia page.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Central Park, Yesterday

Yesterday I had brunch with some friends on the upper west side. It was kind of a perfect afternoon. The night before I had had a dinner party at my apartment, which meant the entire day was spent cooking or cleaning or trying to figure out how to seat eight people to dinner with an apartment that sorely lacks the required furnishings. By Sunday afternoon I was more than ready to be served by someone else. What made it better was that one of the group had juice with the waitstaff and we evidently had free refills on Prosecco.

Leaving brunch at five in the afternoon, I decided to walk through the park, and try to catch something in bloom to blog about. Or at least find a nice specimen of tree that caught my imagination. I wasn't finding much I hadn't already covered, and then, at the pond I saw this:

Yep, he was swimming in the pond. At first, he was doing a breast stroke in the water, and I had to watch 'cause I was curious how deep the water was. When he stopped and stood up, you could see that either he was very, very tall or the water was a mere 3' deep.

Perhaps most amusing though, were the reactions among the people in the park, as well as those gawking from Central Park South. A lot of them were mad. Energetically mad. The woman near me called 311 to complain, and others began to speculate on whether or not he was crazy (granted, that was my first thought too, though watching him for even a moment made it clear he was simply enjoying a cold dip on a hot August day).

The whole spectacle also illustrated something about how city dwellers understand (or don't) the idea of nature. As 'natural' as Central Park may seem, it's still - evidently to many - a museum, or a set piece. As if this man was going to 'mess up' the pond -- sort of like the pond is that parlor room that no one ever uses. I understand, of course, that the Central Park Conservancy can't *let* people swim in the pond, but it was a little bit sad that people didn't connect this pond to a 'real' pond that people can and do swim in. I suppose it illustrates that even people who don't know a thing about landscape architecture or Olmsted still know that this park is not natural, not 'real.'

...Or they're all just busybodies stuck in the city on a summer weekend!

Friday, August 14, 2009

On Turning 10...

Tomorrow marks my 10th year, to the date, of living in New York.

I moved into a basement apartment on 88th and York 10 years ago, on a hot, hot afternoon. I drove a U-Haul full of hand-me-down furniture (too much of it) and my brother followed in his car. I met the broker outside my apartment, he gave me the keys and I let myself in. I had signed the lease just two weeks earlier after several weeks of a soul-crushing roommate search that involved a long list of dumps and potentially crazy roommates. I had thought I found a great apartment in Hells Kitchen. It was a share - two big bedrooms and two (!!) bathrooms. She seemed normal enough, until she said, "Well, I'm not looking for a BEST friend, just someone to hang with." Ahem. Walking out the door onto 54th street, I was still considering the share. But then a neighbor heard me leave and followed me out to the sidewalk. "Were you looking at the apartment?" I nodded. She went on, "Well, I promised her old roommate I'd tell anyone looking that she's a liar and crazy." I said thank you and started to leave. "Don't you want to know why?" she shouted as I walked away. No, no I didn't. That was enough. I began to look for a one bedroom or studio after that.

And so, what with my mind fuzzy from all the apartments I had seen, the actual place I picked had somehow, in my imagination, grown in size during the two week hiatus. The 500 square feet I remembered was much more like 300. Maybe even 250. I stood at the doorway, realizing this, when my brother, breathless from carrying the first piece furniture, asked, "Is all this stuff gonna fit?" For a minute I panicked. Would it? "Well, it all fit in the truck. And the apartment's bigger than the truck. So, um, yeah, it'll fit." We unloaded the truck, stacking boxes to the ceiling and cramming furniture against closet doors until finally everything was inside. Then we hopscotched across the boxes (there was no floorspace to walk on) and headed out to see a show at Blue Note. Michael left town the next day, sweetly worried that his big sister may well be devoured by all of her possessions. But eventually, with the help of bed risers and plastic storage bins, everything found its place. I stayed there for almost three years, until shortly after 9/11, which was around the time the landlord seemed to get terribly, horribly lazy about pest control.

I'm still in tiny apartments (only now I actually really do have 500 square feet! And light!) and I still rely on those storage bins. And sometimes the best reason not to buy new clothes is still the fact that I have nowhere to put them. But in other less tangible, quantifiable ways, I've graduated from my freshman year in New York. A lot of people say you're not an official New Yorker until you hit double digits. And though I'm not sure I really identify as a New Yorker, I am pretty excited to hit this milestone.

A bit about me: My dad worked for the government while I was growing up and we moved every three years, almost like clockwork. I was born very near New York in a town called Denville, New Jersey. I don't remember it at all; we moved to Northfield, New Jersey (ironically on the south end of the state) when I was about three or four. We lived there until just after my seventh birthday, when we moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I remember, very well, being at a restaurant with my parents when they told me about the upcoming move. There we were : my mom and my dad and I sitting at the table, and my little brother, aged four, under the table doing whatever kids do when they're painfully bored at a grown-up restaurant (he was probably building a fort with abandoned napkins and flatware). They told me we were moving to Malaysia and it was far away. I thought it sounded cool, mostly because I was told it would be hot all year and I could go swimming at Christmas. It's safe to say I took it in stride.

Malaysia was amazing, especially in the (ahem) early '80's. Fine, 1981. We lived in a house that seemingly functioned as a terrarium - it was as if the walls of our house were just a touch permeable. We could keep nothing out. We lived with plants, frogs, geckos and snakes. On occasion, we experienced a few rats and enough species of insects that we could have charged admission to wild-eyed entomologists. We even had a monitor lizard take up residence in our powder room. For a tomboyish girl, it was pretty awesome. I remember drinking warm Coke out of plastic baggies - they didn't have bottles or cans then. Towards the end of our tour, our very first McDonald's opened, which was amazing for an 11 year old who could get a bit homesick for the states. They didn't serve hamburgers though -- for fear the Muslim population would make the reasonable assumption that pork was involved. Instead, they were labeled beefburgers. Which, when you think of it, makes much more sense. And no strawberry shakes, instead we had durian shakes.

In 1985, we moved to the DC area and instead of dealing with creepy-crawlies, I was dealing with cliques and malls and the Importance of Wearing the Right Jeans. I remember telling classmates about what it was like in Malaysia and they would quickly volley back looks of disdain. Honestly, I probably (okay, definitely) talked too much, but we were also all ten years old, and any ten year old has enough problems, what with the onset of adolescence, than to feel inadvertently challenged by some new kid who moved here from a country they hadn't even heard of.

In 1988, we moved to Turkey. We lived in Ankara for three years. Recently I had a reunion with classmates from Turkey. It was great to catch up with them and to find out what women and men they've become, but most interesting was that when our conversations drifted into what it's like to have moved around so much, they echo back some of my own sentiments about the experience.

Turkey, incidentally, is a wonderful country. I loved living there. I was thirteen when we arrived and sixteen when we left. Being in a city that has many taxis, I was afforded a pretty independent lifestyle for a teenage girl. The people are incredible, the ancient architecture and art is amazing and the food's pretty delicious. Go. It has changed a lot over the years, and it's a complicated country, caught between the Middle East and the West, but I can't wait to return.

After Turkey we went back to northern Virginia where I spent my junior and senior years at high school. Then three years in college (I was a nerd), and then three years in grad school. And then New York. And then ten years.

So you see, it's really, really weird to have spent ten years in a place. I've never done it before. It's strange to think I could be a New Yorker, 'cause I'm much more comfortable being the New Kid. I suppose since New York has such a transient undercurrent of people, you feel like you're in a new place every three years anyway.

Of course, that said, I've developed some wonderful friendships here, too. And somehow I've managed to feed my appetite for plants and nature while still living in a city where my garden is limited to the fire escape at my apartment window.

Here's a few things that I have to show for myself after all this time:
  • I've spent about $153,000 in rent*.
  • I've lived in five apartments.
  • By training for three marathons, I figure I've run about 1000 miles of NYC asphalt.
  • I've been to countless cringey off broadway plays/dance revues/concerts/art openings.
  • (I've been to good ones, too.)
  • I've actually auditioned for a broadway play (honest: as a lark)
  • I have, however, sung on a broadway stage, in front of an audience.
  • I've survived an apartment fire!
  • I can have a half-hour discussion with someone about the best way to take the subway from Greenwich Village to the Upper East Side.
  • On that note, I know which car to ride in so that I can make the speediest exit above ground for far too many subway stations.
  • I've been on, who knows, maybe 100 first dates.
  • I've been on, well probably, 25 second dates!
  • I've ridden the Cyclone at least 10 times.
  • I've seen a slew of famous people and casually ignored almost all of them. (Apologies to Daniel Sunjata; what can I say, it was 1AM on a weekend night!)
  • I've inventoried about 400 species of plants in 14 Manhattan parks.
  • I've never lost that fiery annoyance for tourists who stop short IN THE MIDDLE of the sidewalk to take a picture.
  • I do however, offer them directions if they're lost.

*Never, please never, quote this figure back to me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Veggie Garden, Rockaway Beach

I went to Rockaway Beach last week for the first time ever -- I was participating in a beach clean-up sponsored by the Surfrider Foundation. On my way from the subway to the beach, I fell in love with this garden.

It's completely ramshackle, but replete with ornamental perennials and vegetables.

The net fences indicated that, though the garden looked like it may have been abandoned, its owner is still actively involved. It has all the great bones of a potager; it just needs a bit of finishing school.

It's also a safe bet that the gardener in question knows a thing or two about natural pest control. Marigolds (or Tagetes species, most likely T. erecta, though Tagetes minuta also works) like the one below, have been planted throughout the garden. Marigolds are believed to have chemicals that deter pests such as aphids and have been a popular companion plant to tomatoes and other vegetables for years.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sophora Blooms

So, the Sophora is in bloom in Manhattan now. Which is bittersweet for me, because it means that that summer is winding down. ...August is great in New York; the subways aren't too crowded, the restaurants aren't packed and, generally, work isn't too crazy, either. But the sad part is that after August, it's September and before we know it, the weather starts to turn cold. And I really, really hate the cold.

ANYWAY, back to the Sophora. Despite the personal symbolism, Sophora is a lovely tree. It's large enough to be a street tree, but has showy flowers and fruit. Chances are, even if you don't know the tree, you've walked down a sidewalk lately that looks like this:

Sophora japonica (technically it's Styphnolobium japonicum now, but for sentimental reasons, I'll call it Sophora) is a legume, thus it's related to Lupinus, Gleditsia, Robinia and Cercis. You can see the similarity among these cousins by noting the somewhat pea-like flower and the long bean-like seed pods they produce.

I tell my students the Sophora seed pods are easy to spot because they look like edamame.

Below is a great specimen on Second Avenue. The flowers make quite a show and last for a while. To me, when this tree is in full bloom, it reminds me of a fireworks finale full of chyrsanthemums. Though I'm not sure my students would really get that visual. I doubt you would, either, really.

While the above tree is great, it's still no match for what I must assume is the largest Sophora in existence. That's surely the specimen at the Jardin du Plantes in Paris.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Papaver somniferum

Below is the notorious Papaver somniferum or opium poppy, growing in Giverny, France. Most people probably know that this plant is responsible for the drugs morphine, codeine and of course, heroin.

Poppies were first recorded as a cultivated plant by Sumerians around 4000BC. They called it the 'plant of joy' presumably due to the narcotic effects the plant had on them.

The seed pods themselves are quite sculptural in the garden but no, you probably won't be able to do much with this plant in its rare form. (Not that you'd try.) The process of converting the milky sap of the fruit into a drug is fairly complicated, as I recently learned in an article on PBS Frontline. But you can enjoy the lovely flower of this annual, self-seeding plant. You can also enjoy poppyseed muffins, but remember what happened to Elaine on Seinfeld.

There are over 100 species of Papaver. Though I cannot find out why this plant was given the genus name Papaver, somniferum refers to the sleep-inducing qualities of this plant.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Birds, Shackleton and (2) Plants

Hi all,

I'm back from vacation and don't have much material right now to blog about, so in case you haven't checked out my plea for votes on the "Blog Your Way to Antarctica" competition, I'm posting it below. Please, please go to the site and enter a vote for John and me.


I'm Jennifer Horn and I really hope you vote for me to be your blogger. I’m a horticulturist and landscape architect, living in Manhattan and have been writing a blog called New York, Plants and Other Stuff since December, 2006.

Yes: it’s counterintuitive for a horticulturist to blog about Antarctica, where only two vascular plants grow. That’s why I am bringing my good friend John Rowden along for the trip. John and I became friends when we both worked at the Wildlife Conservation Society, headquartered in the Bronx Zoo. John was the curator of the Central Park Zoo and took care of all kinds of animals – from polar bears to tree frogs. But John’s real passion is birds. He’s an ornithologist at the Audubon Society with an encyclopedic knowledge of the seabirds we’d encounter. He also knows a thing or two about penguins.

While John helps me prepare posts about the animal life we encounter, I’ll supply a historical context. To be painfully frank, I have had a crush on Ernest Shackleton ever since I read 'Endurance' – the incredible record of his expedition to Antarctica from 1914-1916. Some blog posts would contrast his experiences with our (more comfortable) expedition.

Of course the blog can’t just be data. We’ll share stories about our days and nights and what’s on our mind during the journey. We’ll tell you about our traveling companions: who they are; why they’re with us and what they hope to find in this amazing place. Besides all the snow and ice.

John and I are both intrepid travelers; between us we have lived in Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey, California, Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey and of course New York. The list of places we've visited is much longer. ...Though incomplete without the addition of Antarctica!