February 20, 2015

A Winter Visit to The New York Botanical Garden

You may have seen on the news that New York City has been in the grip of a polar vortex that has plunged temperatures to record lows with a bone-chilling wind to add to the misery.  So when my good friend Betsy suggested we take a field trip to the New York Botanical Garden I did not leap at the invitation.  Nevertheless, when she elaborated that we would be attending a lecture on Le Jardin Français, and particularly the magnificent French formal gardens of the Château de Vaux le Vicomte, the idea did not seem quite so ludicrous!

So despite frigid temperatures we set off Thursday morning for the Bronx.  Not surprisingly the usually verdant grounds of the Botanical Gardens were completely covered in snow, but unlike Manhattan a few miles to the south, this snow was still white and quite beautiful!

The presentation "Vaux le Vicomte: From Le Nôtre to Today" was going to be given by one of the co-proprietors of the castle, Alexandre de Vogüé, a fifth generation owner and full-time resident of the estate.  I had visited Vaux le Vicomte in 2006 and was very interested to learn more about this historic property from such an authority on the subject.

Situated about 35 miles from Paris, Vaux le Vicomte was the creation of Nicolas Fouquet, the French Minister of Finance early in the reign of Louis XIV.  He assembled a "Dream Team" of designers - the architect Louis Le Vau, the painter Charles Le Brun, and the landscape architect André Le Nôtre - to transform his 1,200 acre property into a masterpiece of interior and exterior design.

While the castle's structure and decoration are monumental and glorious, the focus of this talk was on the gardens and the revolutionary concepts of technology and design employed by Le Nôtre in creating Fouquet's paradise.  Le Nôtre came from a family of gardeners and he augmented his innate knowledge of horticulture with studies in painting, sculpture, perspective, architecture, geometry and mathematics to become one of the very first landscape architects.  Appointed by Louis XIII as the "Draftsman of Plants and Terraces" and in charge of all the royal gardens of France, Le Nôtre had a considerable influence on the development and recognition of gardening as an art.  Here on the grounds of  Vaux le Vicomte, Le Nôtre had free rein and almost limitless funds to create an outdoor environment that was beyond any one's wildest imagination.

In what was to become de rigeur for French formal garden design, the vista is dominated by a longitudinal axis which is intersected by shorter, transverse axis'.  With boxwood "embroidery" and colorful flowers creating ornamental designs, the parterre sections become living carpets.  17th century engineering that is still in use today, diverted a poorly placed river to subterranean reservoirs that fed a canal and numerous water features with miles of gravity-fed pipes.  Optical illusions played beautiful tricks on the beholders' eyes and strategically planted "fences" of trees create a boundary between man-made beauty and the natural woods.

Le Nôtre went on to fame and fortune and his magnificent landscape designs can still be seen at Versailles, Schönbrunn and Hampton Court.  Fouquet, however, did not end his days in glory.  The victim of a plot to prevent his assuming the position of Prime Minister by his rival, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Fouquet was arrested shortly after he entertained the King at a sumptuous fête to celebrate the completion of Vaux le Vicomte.  Fouquet spent 20 years in prison where he died in 1680.

With the end of the Fouquet era, the story of Vaux le Vicomte takes a few twists and turns and our lecturer picked up the story again in 1875 when his great-great grandfather, Alfred Sommier, purchased the property in a distress sale.  He devoted the rest of his life to restoring the overgrown gardens and neglected buildings to their original splendor and his heirs continue the enormous task of maintaining and preserving this historic home for the future.  Vaux le Vicomte opened to the public for tours in 1968 and now offers special events including an Easter Egg Hunt, Concert Evenings and Christmas at the Château.  Faced with new challenges including a blight of the boxwood bush and chestnut tree, the family has been forced to come up with new, creative ideas for fund raising not only for routine maintenance but also overcoming these natural environmental issues that threaten the famous gardens.

After the talk we were invited to visit a special exhibition in the Library called "Flora Illustrata" that featured a display of rare and beautiful botanical publications from the 12th Century to the present.  We were further treated to a special presentation in the rare book room by Vanessa Bezemer Sellers who discussed some of the Library's oldest and rarest examples of French formal garden design.

Now it was time for lunch so Betsy and I grabbed a bite at the Pine Tree Café before treating ourselves to a walk-through of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.  This giant greenhouse, built in 1902, is probably most famous as the home of the Garden's annual Holiday Train Show but during the regular season it offers informative and beautiful displays of tropical plants.  Right now, the featured exhibition "Wild Medicine in the Tropics" is side by side with other exotic exhibits such as the tropical rain forest and the high desert plantings.

It has been a lovely day here at the New York Botanical Garden, and as we braved the icy wind and blowing snow en route to the train station we both commented on how beautiful and how very peaceful the gardens were in the dead of winter.  Truly a little slice of heaven even with Jack Frost nipping at our noses!

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