Autumn at Wave Hill

Just over the George Washington Bridge and up the Henry Hudson Parkway a few exits is one of the most beautiful public gardens around. Wave Hill has long been a favorite, particularly in the autumn, because of its location. Often I talk about how I love to look at water. Oceans, lakes, rivers, streams… it doesn’t matter to me. Wave Hill sits, with its 28 acres, overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades of New Jersey. “The scale of the gardens evokes the sense of a private estate, while the artistry of the design encourages exploration of the grounds” (Wave Hill). And while exploring these grounds you will be amazed at the massive collection of plant material they have and how well done their design is. All this sits just minutes from Manhattan within a residential neighborhood.

As you meander around the grounds of Wave Hill you are treated to several styles of gardening. The Marco Polo Conservatory is stuffed with tropicals, cactus and succulents. The Paisley Bed is a whimsical garden design that changes every year. Presently it is a knot garden with shades of silver, yellow and blue. The T.H. Everett Alpine House has diminutive rock garden plants inside. Durable little buggers well suited for life on top of windswept mountains.  The Aquatic Garden was my personal favorite this visit. Tropical and hardy water plants and grasses helped frame this formal garden creating a soothing space to relax and enjoy. Framing the outside were pleached hedges of European Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus.  And while the architecture of their buildings and gardens is brilliant, it’s the plants that frame the grounds that captivate my attention.

A gorgeous mass of groundcover that screamed “look at me” was a variegated Lily of the Valley, Convallaria majalis ‘Striata’. A beautiful striped version that swept, ‘en mass’, some deciduous beauties. This beautiful perennial brought memories, if only for a moment, of Rohdea japonica ‘Variegata’, a personal favorite. Perhaps it was the broad strap-like leaves or the thin variegated margins, believe me variegated Lily of the Valley is infinitely easier to find than variegated Rohdea.

Turkey Oak, Quercus cerris, is a larger deciduous oak of the White Oak group. Native to southern Europe, you don’t see many Turkey Oaks in your every day travels. Wave Hill’s specimen had moved well beyond the slender habit of its youth thus becoming the broad pyramid form they are known for. Small, dark green leaves represent 3-8 pairs of entire or toothed lobes.

A plant that caught my attention, from a distance farther than a sizable foot race, was a Baneberry, Actaea alba syn. Actaea pachypoda (Doll’s Eyes). Baneberry or Bugbane is a genus of flowering plants native to eastern North America. Closely related to Cimicifuga, a perennial I have grown to admire thanks to my friend and colleague Eileen Ferrer, this particular Bugbane has awesome white fruit only to look at. The berries are said to be harmless to birds, however Baneberry fruit is highly toxic to people. Oddly enough, the fruit were once sewn in as eyes to rag dolls long ago.

Traveling off the “beaten path” I saw single specimen plants on individual pallets wrapped in a most peculiar burlap style. Cercis canadensis ‘Vanilla Twist’ is a new weeping Redbud that is so rare, the Internet doesn’t even have much on it. Characterized by light green leaves and white flowers, it is these characteristics that help distinguish ‘Vanilla Twist’ from all others. Clearly Wave Hill is connected to “the pipeline” of the new, the rare and the proven… solidifying itself as one of the best public gardens ever!

Finally “an iconoclastic biological specimen” (Michael Dirr), whose notoriety has escaped many, if not most, mainstream gardeners is the Igiri Tree, Idesia polycarpa. A somewhat rounded tree with large, 5-10 inch long, deep green leaves. Bright red panicles, 8 inches long, look like small cherries dripping from the female trees in our colder months. A grove of these was planted in 1989 to honor Francis H. Cabot, Jr., the founding chairman of Wave Hill’s Friends of Horticulture Committee. A stunning tribute whose display left me in awe!

The Herbert and Hyonja Abrons Woodland was a great little trek for our family, particularly our daughter. A ½ mile trail ambles down their woodland slope. Our destination here was the Woodland Gazebo which is just feet away from the sounds of the Metro-North Railroad and Hudson River. The Kerlin Overlook was my personal favorite as I could enjoy “unencumbered views of the Hudson River from this sunny plateau” (Wave Hill). When you visit Wave Hill you’ll see why many consider it to be “one of the greatest living works of art” (Wave Hill).