Building on Marian Cruger Coffinís original design, landscape architects help develop a living collection in a historic landscape.
By Todd Forrest
Robert Benson Photography
On October 30, 2004, the Benenson Ornamental Conifers at The New York Botanical Garden opened to the public with great fanfare. On a misty
autumn Saturday, garden visitors were treated to a series of expert-led tours,
talks, and demonstrations celebrating the opening of this diverse and beautiful
collection of conifers for gardens.
The opening festivities were the culmination of a five-year process that transformed a senescent landscape and conifer collection into the
Botanical Gardenís newest curated living collection. Over the course of the
project, it became clear that we, the Botanical Garden staff, were developing a
model process for the continued rehabilitation of the gardens and collections
across our 250-acre National Historic Landmark landscape. It was also evident
that we were creating a new way of looking at our plant collections that will
help us better serve the gardenís tripartite mission of science, education, and
While our previous projects, which included extensive
restorations of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory and the Peggy Rockefeller Rose
Garden, prepared us to some extent for our work with the conifers, the
restoration of a historic landscape and the significant expansion of its
collection of woody plants presented some new challenges. The Benenson
Ornamental Conifers collection is built upon the historic Montgomery Conifer
Collection, which opened in 1949 and featured approximately 200 conifers
amassed by Colonel R. H. Montgomery over more than 20 years of collecting.
Landscape architect Marian Cruger Coffin created the original design for the
collection by siting Montgomeryís conifers across a 15-acre landscape of
exposed rock outcrops and mature shade trees along the banks of the Bronx
Between 1949 and the late 1990s, the landscape and plants
deteriorated. The rock outcrops that lent so much character to the site were
obscured by weed trees. Many of the original Montgomery specimens had declined
or reverted, and some had been removed. The roads would not accommodate the
Botanical Gardenís trams, which had become an important way for many visitors
to see our gardens, displays, and living collections. By 1999 it was clear that
this historic landscape and collection needed significant work. Fortunately,
Botanical Garden board member James Benenson Jr. recognized the importance of
the conifers and the surrounding landscape and lent his enthusiastic support to
their restoration and revitalization.
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