By Meg A. Parsont
Friday, April 22 is Earth Day, and the perfect time (well, it’s always the perfect time!) to explore some of NYC’s many community gardens and green spaces. As I walked around the Upper West Side today, I saw begonias and pansies planted in tree pits, red and pink geraniums in window boxes, and crabapple trees in full profusion in Riverside Park. This is also prime tulip time, and the Upper West Side has some of the most stunning tulip displays in the city.
Every year, droves of nature lovers make a pilgrimage to the West Side Community Garden, which is known for its annual Tulip Festival (happening now through the first week of May, or so). The festival warrants multiple visits, since new varieties come into bloom every few days while others fade. As I stood in the entrance to the garden earlier this week blissfully taking in the remarkable variety of tulips, I overheard another visitor rave to her friend, “All of this in New York City. Who woulda thunk it?!”
From vibrant red and yellow blooms called “Keizerskroon,” which means “Emperor’s Crown” in Dutch, to delicate pale orange tulips called “Apricot Beauty” to the full, fuchsia-colored “Margarita” which resembles a peony when it opens, the tulips in the West Side Community Garden are a veritable feast for the eyes.
One small but mighty flower that holds its own among the tulips is the grape hyacinth (muscari) that is in bloom now. You’ll see its electric purple blooms—which resemble petite bunches of grapes—along the borders of some of the flower beds. Interestingly, grape hyacinths aren’t actually related to true hyacinths.
Fun Floral Fact
Contrary to popular belief, tulips didn’t originate in Holland! They originally grew wild in Central Asia, and in the Middle Ages were brought to what is now Turkey, where they were cultivated. The word “tulip” is derived from the Persian word for “turban.” By the late sixteenth century, tulips finally reached the Netherlands, where they were such a novelty and in such high demand that they stirred up “Tulip Mania,” with prices skyrocketing as people bought and sold tulip bulbs.
Tulips are also flourishing right now in both the Lotus Garden and The 91st Street Garden in Riverside Park. In the 91st Street Garden, the daffodils are still going strong, their yellow blooms contrasting beautifully with the bright red tulips that have been planted in recent years in many of the plots, as well as a number of other tulip varieties.
Other perennials are also beginning to make an appearance in the 91st Street Garden, including a lovely patch of light blue-purple Virginia bluebells (Longwood Blue) by the gate to the rectangle section of the garden. In the plot next to the bluebells, be sure to look for several small clusters of double-ruffled ranunculus blooms in both white and vibrant enamel yellow.
Perched over a parking garage on 97th Street, the Lotus Garden is an urban Garden of Eden. It’s home to a number of plants that aren’t commonly seen in the city, in addition to some glorious tulips. Look for purple-speckled fritillaria and delicate light purple violas, which are blooming now.
Also keep an eye out for a cluster of about a dozen funky-looking brown spikes growing out of the soil. Be sure to check back in on them in a few weeks. They may look like something out of a Dr. Seuss story, but they’ll grow into a huge Japanese Jack in the pulpit!
Bonnie Mitelman, a visitor to the 91st Street Garden, observed some of the less showy flowers that are starting to make an appearance, “It’s as if they’re saying ‘We’re here and we’re trying the best we can. We may not be able to blow it out of the water like the tulips, but we’re still part of it.’” She went on to reflect, “It says a lot about where we are now, too. And it’s so important to come to the garden, look at the beauty, and be grateful.” Very fitting for Earth Day—and beyond.
Plan a visit:
West Side Community Garden (89-90th Streets, between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues)
Open 7 days/week from dawn to dusk
Note: Tulip Festival Information Days are on April 23-24, when garden members will be present from 10 am-6 pm to answer questions.
The Lotus Garden (97th Street between West End Avenue and Broadway)
Open to the public on Sunday afternoons between 1-4 pm, from April 10-mid-November
The 91st Street Garden on the Promenade level of Riverside Park
Open 7 days/week from dawn to dusk
Answer to the Smarty Plants quiz from our last column:
Q: What play by an American playwright refers to jonquils?
A: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams