On a crisp early spring day in Brooklyn there is a place you can go and lose yourself in thick tropical foliage, bone-dry air surrounded by desert plants, and rows of Magnolia trees in full bloom. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden was founded over a hundred years ago on a former ash dump; now the grounds are completely covered by a dizzying variety of gardens. You can walk by a Japanese garden with a 500 year old Shogun Lantern, a gift from Tokyo, then side step to an antiquated fragrance garden. There are perfectly manicured hillsides dotted with daffodils, a Shakespeare garden, a rose garden, lily ponds, large glass conservatories from Alice in Wonderland. You could pick a door, any door and enter an ecosystem completely different from the last, from Amazonian lushness to tiny bonsai trees to cactus deserts. But you first have to pass through the Magnolia Plaza.
The magnolia has been prized for its beauty and cultivated as an ornamental tree for more than a millennium. They’ve been around since before bees existed, likely pollinated by beetles. In China, Buddhist monks planted Magnolia trees in temple gardens as far back as the T’ang Dynasty, when they symbolized purity and openness. The magnolia trees of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden are dressed with velvet buds unfurling into large leathery ivory and pink fragrant petals. They flaunt their flowers from April to June, competing with the cherry and peach blossoms, daffodils and tulips. With flowers like fireworks, magnolias are unapologetically showy and I admire that.
Pass the magnolias, pass the lily ponds still bare from winter, below the aquatic plant room – warm, dank, and slightly prehistoric – you’ll find the tropical room. Here the air is warm and damp, like thunderstorms in deep summer. It smells of earth that’s never been completely dry, rich and cloying. Plants from the Amazon, African rainforest, and Southeast Asia compete for the sun streaming through the glass ceiling 65 feet up. Some of these plants are used for medicine, others for food or fragrance. We followed the circuitous path through the deep foliage, up and over a small bridge. Everywhere is green, a stark contrast to the city outside still thawing from winter. Small bushes with bright orange and green striated leaves make space beside other plants, some with leaves like a fan, or fringe, or sharp and pointed. Our cameras fogged in the humid air.
The Desert Pavilion: it takes a different type of awareness to notice the geometry in the cacti and the ingenious adaptations necessary for survival in such a harsh climate. The walls of windows are tinted, changing the hazy Brooklyn sky into a bright blue light. The sandy banks along the wall are replete with cacti and succulents from all over the world. On the left, cacti from the Southwest, Mexico, and South America; on the right, succulents from Africa, Madagascar and the Canary Islands. Despite the dry wind, the bright clear light, and the abundance of flora I am struck by the thought that we are definitely not in the desert. There is no way to mimic the huge sky overhead, the way the desert seems to expand when you’re in it, reaching out from you in every direction, endlessly. There is no way to replicate dawn or dusk in the desert, when everything becomes soft in the diffused light of the waxing or waning sun. The landscape, harsh in the midday sun, turns to pastels. From Mexico, Madagascar, Africa, and the Canary Islands to the Amazon and Asia, through a plaza of plants that bloomed under the feet of dinosaurs, we traveled through time and across the world without leaving Brooklyn. Even after a full day spent exploring, there are still acres of grounds where there is something new to see. The rose garden comes alive in June, the lily pond in July, lotus plants in August, and so on, blooming in rounds on the former grounds of an ash dump.