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June 10, 2011 9:21 pm

Beauty in the Bronx

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New York Botanical Garden

The Enid A Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden showing a homage to the Patio de la Acequia at Alhambra de Granada

In the Bronx, New York, I have just looked down the densely-planted avenue of a Spanish-Muslim garden and have lost my sense of location. The designers of this summer show would be delighted. In the glass exhibition halls of the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) they have worked to catch the spirit of Andalusia’s 14th-century garden, The Alhambra, on its hillside above Granada. They have brought Moorish Spain to their famous Enid A Haupt Conservatory and given its style a convincing update.

The gardens at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show were lucky that this design was not in the competition for Best Garden In Show. Its planting, management and conception are exemplary. It is packing in visitors, including crowds from the city’s Hispanic community, but it is running until August 21 at a critical time for the garden’s future.

Unlike a Chelsea garden, a summer show at the NYBG has to look its best for three hot months. Intelligently, it links up with the garden’s library and outdoor plantings through a model that European botanical gardens ought to consider. Texts and poetry relating to the Alhambra garden are placed around the garden’s displays where they overlap with flowers beloved of the Alhambra’s historic gardeners. It is great to see the poetry and literature of gardens being related to living plants. Teachers visiting with their school-classes love the idea. They can visit the poems by Lorca and others and relate their trips to literature as well as plants. I would love to see a British botanical garden with the imagination to relate a show to Milton or DH Lawrence and show how flowers in gardens and nature are so important to great English authors. In the garden’s library the show’s researchers have had a coup. The Hispanic Society of New York has loaned a fascinating range of early images of the gardens of the Alhambra and the Generalife on their adjoining hillsides. In 1829 the American Washington Irving took up residence in a flat in the Alhambra, long before tourism began. His romantic descriptions of the site became famous before he returned to America’s Hudson River Valley and invented the tale of Rip van Winkle.

Remarkably, Irving’s very own notebook is on view, showing his neatly-written key to the Arabic script which he learned in Granada. His book on the Alhambra was published under the name of “Geoffrey Crayon, Gent”, but this still-famous visitor was not just a fantasist.

The gardens’ vice-president of horticulture, Todd Forrest, showed me the print which had been a springboard for the show’s designers. Not even New York could hope to recreate the fine stucco–work, Arabic calligraphy and water-canals and fountains of the Alhambra palace. The gardens began in the 1340s when Britain was being ravaged by the Black Death. Naturally, nothing of the original Alhambra plantings survive and only a few of the likely plants are known through Arabic literature. Later images best evoke the gardens, among them a little-known book of 1812, by Alexandre de Laborde, a French officer with Napoleon’s army. One of its fine prints shows a view down a thickly-planted avenue of the Generalife garden which the designers saw they could best develop in the New York garden’s glass exhibition space.

The garden’s president, Gregory Long, has transformed the NYBG in the past 20 years, turning it into the greatest success-story of its kind. “We aimed to be true to the spirit,” he told me under an arching eucalyptus, an Antipodean plant unknown to the Alhambra’s first gardeners. “We asked ourselves what plants the Muslim patrons in Granada would choose nowadays from the families we know they liked.” They would love the vast modern range of their beloved jasmines, roses, lemon trees and aromatic plants. Muslims in southern Spain had a truly American spirit of adventure in their gardens. We know they shipped in plants from the gardens of Syria and North Africa, which they had developed after their Mediterranean-wide conquests. They would be delighted that jasmines now come as small bushes of white-flowered Jasminum laurifolium, the lemon-trees now have variegated leaves and roses include the superbly-scented Sharifa Asma, a David Austin hybrid rose that English gardens have overlooked.

In the past five years Long has propelled the garden to stage five major indoor shows each year. Outdoor plantings, too, have scaled new heights, from superb beds of the new Chinese peonies to a complete replanting of the Beatrix Farrand-designed rose garden and an amazing 11 acres of azaleas in woodland, the star outdoor display in spring. It has been a joy to watch this triumphant progress, making the garden the essential visit for anyone feeling homesick in Manhattan.

Ambition and success do not come cheaply and the garden does not sit on an assured cushion of funding. Every year it needs to raise $25m from private donors by integrating them into its projects. In 1989, a fifth of the garden’s funding was provided by New York City and state public grants. That proportion has reduced to 4 per cent, but remains crucial for the salaries of the working gardeners and maintenance, items that private donors are less keen to underwrite. The city authorities now threaten that from July 1, this funding will be cut by a further 50 per cent, in line with the funding of the other cultural institutions in the city’s budget. More than $2m will go, destroying more than 40 gardening jobs that are filled by local applicants from the Bronx. The Alhambra show may be the last of its kind.

In the total city budget the sums saved will be trivial but the impact on a great New York success story will be disproportionate. As I talked to the female force behind the Alhambra exhibition I thought of the craziness of such “across the board” percentage cuts.

Fran Coelho, now in her fifties, came to the garden from Trinidad and entered its School of Gardening in 1979. Every day she leaves at 5am for her huge curatorial responsibility, the glasshouse plants that she inspects at sunrise for signs of stress and aphids. She is a phenomenon, both restless and optimistic. The indoor shows depend on her deftness and the ability of her and her back-up team to sustain the freshness for 15 times as long as a Chelsea show. Some 8,000 plants have been grown specially for the Alhambra plan and are checked and changed every feverish Monday throughout the season. In her head she carries a vision not just of the opening night for the press and the Spanish ambassador, but for every single week ahead when the white stocks will have faded and the hundreds of lovely Salvia patens Blue Angel are over.

Her Spanish palette for the Alhambra has been deliberately aromatic: “If the Alhambra’s founders were alive now,” she observed, “they would love it.”

If they were alive now, they would certainly love her, the woman who amazes visitors by making living chandeliers out of hundreds of overhead orchid plants and who knows exactly where to hand-water each of the garden’s thousands of prickly desert plants. As we admired the Madeiran geraniums, her eye was ranging critically over every item apparently at its best. Remembering Trinidad, I asked her if she had ever played cricket, sensing a spin bowler in the making. “Of course,” she answered. “I batted, with a mean cover drive.”

New York City owns the land and buildings of the garden, but if it slashes the remaining funding, the likes of Coelho will not come up through the system. The garden’s batting order will have gone and one of the city’s glories will no longer be thriving on a level playing field.

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