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American Society of Landscape Architects


June 2006 Issue

Botanic Evolution
Building on Marian Cruger Coffinís original design, landscape architects help develop a living collection in a historic landscape.

By Todd Forrest

 Botanic Evolution 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 horticulture.

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 River.

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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