For the summer of 2022, the New York Botanical Garden is staging an extraordinary event of major scope that if you’re fortunate to be within driving distance of its location in the Bronx or visiting the Big Apple this summer, this botanical garden established in 1891 is a must-visit destination. A tourist in Manhattan this summer, after visiting the urban sights, should seriously consider taking the 20 minute train ride from Grand Central Station in Manhattan on the Metro-North Harlem local line to Botanical Garden Station, located directly across the street from the Garden’s Mosholu Entrance in the Bronx!
Until this vegetable gardener paid a visit to see the New York Botanical Garden’s Around the Table: Stories of the Foods We Love, I never saw a field of barley, the first food plant ever to be domesticated! Signage near the field of barley points out that there is “archaeological evidence of barley breads in the British Isles dating back to the Iron Age” (start date 1200 B. C.). The informative signage also notes the culinary uses of barley: “in addition to breads, barley is used in soups and stews and is an important ingredient in the fermenting process for brewing beer and making other alcoholic beverages.”
Near the field of barley was also a field of dwarf sorgum, with signage noting that it was “first domesticated in ancient Sudan over 6,000 years ago and today is one of the most important crops across the entire African continent, eaten by millions as a staple food in dishes like Sahelian couscous or porridge dishes like uji.”
Throughout the grounds of the botanical garden and in the greenhouses, thumbs way-up for the easy-to-read and informative labeling of the extraordinary displays of edible plants, and more. A visit to the New York Botanical Garden this summer while Around the Table: Stories of the Foods We Love is staged (through September 11, 2022), besides a way to get close to nature, is a noteworthy educational experience that will be long remembered.
Within the beautiful and historic Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, hundreds of varieties of edible plants including fruit bearing trees are on display in the glasshouse galleries. It was a memorable experience for this upstate New Yorker.
How common or often can a 21st century American see up close:
A dozen pineapples (its native habitat in southern Brazil and Paraguay, first made known to Europeans following Columbus’s voyages to the Caribbean and eaten by sailors in the 1800s to help prevent scurvy); an olive tree; pearl millet (an important grain native to the Sahel Zone of West Africa and which is grown in some of the driest regions in the world); red amaranth (a traditional food crop for the Maya people of Guatemala); banana trees (although hundreds of banana varieties in varying shades of pink, green, and yellow grow wild in their native Southeast Asia, only the “Cavendish” is commonly available in the grocery store); coffee plants (native to the Ethiopian highlands, the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world) shade grown under palm trees; cacao trees (whose Latin name, Theobroma, means “food of the gods” with signage pointing out “for good reason: the large seeds of cacao are the source of chocolate); breadfruit (described as “one of the most productive crops on Earth,” a staple food of the tropics, originating in New Guinea, the Maluku Islands, and the Philippines); taro (another staple food for islanders throughout the Pacific whose underground stem is mashed and cooked); and papaya trees (first domesticated in Mesoamerica, within modern-day southern Mexico and Central America and, in 2020, India produced 43% of the world supply of papayas).
In the courtyards, outside the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, on display were staples of the world’s tropical regions including rice, taro and banana; grapes, olives, and other Mediterranean region plants; arid climate crops such as figs, citrus and pearl millet. Also growing in the Tropical Courtyard were edibles familiar to this backyard gardener in upstate New York: peppers, tomatoes and other nightshades. Also a familiar sight, given the revitalization of cultivating hops in upstate New York, were the hops in a “spirits garden” spotlighting the plants used to make beer, wine and liquors!
A ride on the botanical garden’s tram made it easily doable to visit the African American Garden: Remembrance & Resilience exhibition near the Edible Academy on the far northern section of the 250-acre garden. This garden was created to provide “a brief look at the history of the African American experience in the United States through the lens of plants.” It was fascinating and educational to see up-close cotton, tobacco, indigo, sea island “bennie” (which means sesame in several West African languages and whose seeds “enslaved Africans brought to the Americas in the early 1700s and used to make flour, thicken sauces, and add protein and nutty flavor to foods”) and sugar cane growing.
If a visitor has sufficient time, a visit to the Mertz Library Building at the botanical garden, and the five exhibits in its galleries are highly recommended. A display of artwork by Lina Puerta in a show called “Accumulated Wisdom,” gives a visitor an appreciation of the hard-working laborers who produce much of the food Americans consume.
Vegetarian cookbooks are spotlighted in a gallery exhibition called Steam, Sear, Sauté: 150 Years of American Vegetarian Cookbooks. An examination of the cookbooks on display provides a way to “Trace the history of vegetarian eating in the United States, beginning in the mid-late 19th century when it was a religious practice and popular Victorian moral stance.”
An exhibit in another gallery in the Mertz Library, Sowing Resilience: Origins and Change in Agriculture, spotlights the history and future of agriculture. A focus on the revitalization of Native American foods is of special interest.
There is also a gallery in the Mertz Library with an exhibit, …la tierra es nuestro alimento / the land is our nourishment, on the botanical garden’s Bronx Foodways Oral Histories Project. This project launched in 2021 records and preserves first-hand food narratives from “urban farmers and gardeners across the borough of The Bronx.” It’s quite moving, emotionally, to watch the videos on a large screen of individuals expressing appreciation for their community and urban gardens, which provide refuge, community and fresh, healthy foods, including foods commonly grown in their native countries. The videos are also available for viewing on-line.
Placed throughout the Botanical Garden are tables designed by artists living or working in the Bronx that “bring to life stories about the exhibition’s featured plants and other notable foods.” Visitors are encouraged to sit at the tables, but outside food can only be “enjoyed” at the Clay Family Picnic Pavilions, a short walk from the main entrance. And there are dining options offered at the Botanical Garden’s Pine Tree Café and Hudson Garden Grill.
Around the Table: Stories of the Foods We Love (through September 11, 2022)
The New York Botanical Garden is located at 2900 Southern Blvd., Bronx, NY 10458
The Garden is open 10 a.m.–6 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday, and Monday federal holidays.
The Garden offers free bicycle racks at all entry gates and encourages biking as an alternate and more sustainable mode of transportation.
But “Biking is not permitted anywhere on Garden grounds.”
For bike routes to The New York Botanical Garden within city limits, download the New York City Bike Map.
(Frank W. Barrie, 7/5/22)