Escape Plants

Escape Plants

This harsh winter isn’t over, but plenty of us are over it.

For months now, we’ve dealt with red, dry cheeks and lips; with green gunk brought up by colds and coughs; with frigid brown slush that gets into our boot treads and car mats and living spaces no matter how vigilantly we think we’ve guarded against it.

But there are two places in New Haven where winter isn’t just over; it’s never. Places where red is for vibrant flowers, and green is for verdant leaves and vines, and brown is for rich, nourishing soil.

These places are the Marsh Botanical Garden and the Greenhouses at Edgerton Park, and each site has the power to thaw our frozen hearts.

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The first word to come to mind after entering the Marsh Botanical Garden complex (227 Mansfield St, New Haven; 203-432-6320), near its lush, many-splendored “Tropical Collection,” was musty. The first verbalization following that was ahhhh, as my lungs and skin embraced the sensations produced by the warm, humid air inside.

As you might expect to see at a facility often utilized for university-level study and research, the plants here are identified and catalogued with impressive rigor. In the “Desert House”—which seems to be where Eli the cat likes to hang out—a dense, rocky display of small cacti and other succulents contains at least a hundred small but quite readable signs, each featuring some combination of a nearby specimen’s genus, species, common-language name and geographic origination as well as the source or method by which Marsh acquired it.

Underlying the thorough accounting and organized positioning of the plants, there appears to be a serious attempt to help things feel natural. In the Desert House, succulents look as if they’re rooted directly in rocky soil, without pots. In more crowded areas, plants grow into and over others, competing for sunlight as they would in an open ecosystem.

In addition to the aforementioned reds and greens and browns are white and purple petunias, a black-ringed giant horsetail plant, brilliant orange canna lilies, scalding-hot pink geraniums and yellow alders. The translucent glass panes of the walls and roof let the sky in, lending, in clear or partly cloudy moments, a familiar bright blue to Marsh’s various dramatic scenes, and making it feel as if you really are outside in summertime, but in wintertime.

Dramatic scenes also abound over at the Greenhouses at Edgerton Park (75 Cliff St, New Haven; 203-777-1886). One of them meets your eyes before you even enter the grounds, in the form of a stunning stone wall built high along the road.

Through a break in the wall and down a short path, there are three visible greenhouses—two with keypad locks on the doors, used by private plot renters, and one with an easy-to-spot “G.R.O.W.E.R.S.” sign (after the altruistic business that helps maintain the greenhouses). Enter the latter house to find an extremely neat setup of decorative flowers, house plants and edible herbs, plus some exotics including a jade tree, for sale.

Past the sale room is what greenhouse attendant Imani Brown calls the “head house,” a utility room used for special projects and trainings. The room also has the lone cash register, where patrons pay for new greenery. Nearby, Squeakers the cat—apparently felines are greenhouse mainstays—eats his dinner.

Head house leads to a narrow room with herbs and lettuces, which soon defers to the star of the show: the Crosby Conservatory, with tropical and desert (called “drylands” here) rooms of its own. The tropical room has a great variety of plants, fantastic to look at and bask in, though it’s not often clear what the names of the plants are. But the feeling that there’s a full canopy overhead, as would be the case in a bonafide tropical rainforest, is pretty darn cool.

Speaking of which, walking through an open door to the drylands room, things immediately cool down and dry off, an impressive feat of targeted climate control. Next to what appears to be a cluster of kumquats, a lone orange hangs from a tree. Nearby, exotic-looking cacti offer points of interest—literally thousands of them.

Funny, whimsical elements populate the two rooms—fake snakes hanging from trees and cacti; a sharp-toothed toy crocodile snarling by water’s edge; a stone totem with tongue lolling. The least naturalistic of all is the handful of gold-foiled chocolate coins hanging from a “chocolate tree.”

But let’s not overthink it. In here, it’s summertime, and the living’s easy.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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