Marsh Botanical Garden

Plants and Raves

The flora bordering the corner of Prospect Street and Hillside Place does its job a little too well. But determined guests on this Friday evening in early May don’t seem to mind taking a few wrong turns before finding Yale’s Marsh Botanical Garden’s quarterly open house and happy hour.

Awaiting them is a burgeoning, bustling scene. Long folding tables are packed with cheeses, crackers, salsa and mini caprese salad kebabs; a cake screened with the cover of the book Patterns In Plant Development by Ian Sussex (a friend to the garden staff) to celebrate his 86th birthday; and a makeshift bar of metal wash bin coolers full of wine, beer, juice and soda. In the main greenhouse—one of six total—jam band Washboard Slim and the Blue Lights delivers a mix of blues, bluegrass and folk tunes (happy growing music for happy plants).

Just around the corner, in a secluded section of greenhouse 1, a young couple breaks into a swing and blues dance, somewhere between the desert collection and the carnivorous plants. Four guys in preppy khakis and striped shirts sip beers in tropical greenhouses 2 and 3, amid papaya, banana, mango, lemon, orange, cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate and coffee trees and plants, and an impressive array of orchids.

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Under the watchful gaze of his mother, a toddler waddles over to the contemplation garden for a glimpse of the fish in the koi pond. The pond’s microclimate, south-facing with lots of sunlight and protection from the wind, makes a hospitable environment for camellias and leycesteria, finicky Southern bells that normally wouldn’t take to our harsh winters. (Our New England varieties are of a more stoic disposition.)

Up the hillside a native plant bog garden is fed by a natural spring, and under the giant white oak—centuries old, possibly as old as Yale itself—a young family takes turns on the wooden swing. Further down the hill, around the greenhouses, undergraduates in summer dresses pose for each other, taking photos among the wildflower displays and the garden beds stocked with perennial and annual plantings like gladiolus and calla lilies.

The evening’s festivities are a modern-day celebration on a century-old site. The Marsh Botanical Garden was formed in 1900 on the grounds of the former residence of Othniel Charles Marsh, who willed his estate to Yale with instructions for it to serve as home of the first forestry school in the United States and a botanical garden. (Marsh’s uncle, George Peabody, founded Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History.)

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The grounds flourished in the 1920s, when Beatrix Farrand took the first salaried “Consulting Landscape Gardening” position at Yale, noteworthy not only because she was a much sought-after designer at the time and the position was essentially created for her, but also because it was the first time Yale put a woman in a role of relative power at the University. She oversaw a staff that peaked at 60 members, and over 22 years she designed landscapes for more than 16 areas across the campus, primarily in the Residential College courtyards.

The Marsh greenhouses were instrumental to Farrand’s efforts. She started a nursery there in the fall of 1923 with 1,500 plants and, in a then-novel approach, used the space to ‘line them out,’ meaning she allowed the plants to mature for one to two years in a controlled environment before transplanting them to their assigned spot within her grander garden designs.

Though you can still see remnants of Farrand’s vision in many of the outdoor gardens—such as the systematic collection plantings of rhododendron, azalea, pieris, mountain laurel and blueberry—her vision fell by the wayside after she retired in 1945 at age 73.

It would be over 40 years before Marsh found a new and unexpected champion in 1986. Mary Helen M. Goldsmith, Professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology (MCDB) at Yale, saw Marsh’s potential not only as an aesthetic endeavor but also as an extension of the classroom. Goldsmith took students in her plant biology courses to Marsh to examine plants up-close, and served as the Director of the Garden for 16 years.

Research and instruction remain core components of the mission at Marsh today under directorship of Tim Nelson, also a professor in MCDB. Eric Larson, Manager at Marsh since 2003, handles the day-to-day care of the garden with a staff of three people, including his right-hand man, David Garringer, who curates the greenhouse plant collections.

For horticulture enthusiasts, Larson writes a weekly newsletter highlighting the “Plant of the Week.” It’s informative and tongue-in-cheek, with timely cultural references such as a February edition comparing the orange, yellow, red and purple highlights of a blossoming witch-hazel plant to the haute couture on display at the Oscars, only more sensational and less garish. With quippy insights like that, it’s no wonder his emails have more than 2,000 subscribers from New Haven to New Zealand.

Locally, Larson fosters community outreach through the quarterly open houses as well as some newer initiatives. With the help of volunteer docents, the garden is offering occasional weekend public hours and tours in addition to its normal Tuesday through Friday hours. Saturday, May 18, saw the first set; future ones will be posted to the Garden website. Marsh also recently hosted a coffee tasting compliments of One World Roasters, replete with a special tour stop at the coffee plants to discuss their growing stages. There are also plans to hold a monthly event in concert with Intercambio New Haven; in early May, three solo guitarists performed at Marsh to kick off the series.

Events like these are fitting for a setting that’s constantly evolving and full of surprises. Today, more than 6,000 plants live in the Marsh Botanical Garden’s greenhouses (nearly 1/3 of an acre under glass) and across the grounds—some hardy and rugged, others exotic and delicate, together aptly reflecting the nature of Marsh itself.

Marsh Botanical Garden
227 Mansfield Street, New Haven (map)
Open to the public Tues-Fri 9am-5pm.
(203) 432-6320

Written and photographed by Jane Rushmore.

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