Debra Prinzing

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Field trip: New York’s High Line Park

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

The High Line is NYC's newest public space.

I spent about 48 hours in New York City last week, staying at my favorite bed and breakfast at West 81st Street and Columbus Avenue on the Upper West side.

I mistakenly scheduled the visit to coincide with St. Patrick’s Day, one of the many days when people in Manhattan go crazy, whether they are Irish or not.

Yet, the weather was “pure spring” – certainly milder than we have had in Seattle lately – and my spirits were lifted just getting off the subway from JFK to the city.

My objective for stopping through NYC on my way to speak in Toronto was to meet some editors face-to-face and to spend time with some very dear friends. I had a half-day “free” and unscheduled, so last Thursday morning I hopped the downtown C Train across the street from Central Park and rode it to West 23rd Street. My destination: the nearly two-year-old public park called The High Line.

You’ve probably read about this amazing public-private endeavor – an elevated park that runs along 10 to 12 blocks on a former 1930s freight track high above Tenth Avenue between Chelsea and the Meat Packing District. I’ve read lots about it, too. But for a landscape design and horticulture observer like me, nothing compares to the first-person tour.

A true sign of spring: Viburnum x bodnantense 'Pink Dawn'

Wonderful witch hazel in bloom.

When I had dinner the night before with my talented NYC go-to-gals, Ellen Spector-Platt and Ellen Zachos, co-creators of the popular NYC gardening blog Gardenbytes, they gave me some tips on where to disembark from the subway (23rd Street Stop) and warned me that not much would be in bloom.

Blooms were not essential, yet I did enjoy spotting crocuses, witch hazel and a couple beautiful flowering ‘Pink Dawn’ viburnum shrubs showing off in the warm, spring sun.

The edgy, industrial setting was just as delightful to my eyes. The rails of this RR-in-the-sky last carried a train of frozen turkeys in 1980.

Over the ensuing decades nature has had her way with the long-abandoned site. According to the High Line web site, its designers selected plants to “echo the wild, self-seeded landscape that grew up on the structure after the trains stopped running.” The landscape was designed by James Corner Field Operations in partnership with Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

A beautiful grove of trees, planted between the rails.

The origins of this reimagined public space can be traced to 1999, when community residents founded Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit public conservancy that today operates under a license agreement with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.

The forward-thinking citizen group fought for preservation and transformation at a time when the historic structure was under threat of demolition. Friends of the High Line now provides approximately 70 percent of its annual operating budget and is responsible for both stewardship of the park and its public programs.

Beginning my tour at the northernmost entrance on West 20th Street, I climbed the steps and arrived to see a new view of the Hudson River and surrounding buildings. Light and airy, the park’s design has retained original crisscrossing steel tracks where groves of trees, shrubs and grasses are planted. The main walkway, which is wheelchair and stroller-friendly, appears to be formed by staggered bands of granite that emulate railroad tracks and also accommodate soft vegetation.

Even parks in major metropolises can be "QUIET"

Look up: it's a park!

Plenty of seating encourages people to rest, admire the scenery or eat a sandwich.

I happened upon a group of schoolchildren on a class tour near the bleacher-style amphitheatre where public performances often take place. A docent held a sign that read QUIET, and I smiled as I overheard her telling the children that the designers wanted to create a place where the noise of the city streets wasn’t so powerful. You know, quiet is one of the strongest sensations I experienced on my visit.

The juxtaposition of a park-in-the-sky with a city’s hustle-and-bustle down below seemed to amplify the silence. And I envy those folks in Manhattan who can visit The High Line whenever they want.

Southern California’s horticultural wonders

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

1. Wisteria sinensis

Wistaria, known as Wisteria chinensis

My week began with a very special botanical field trip to Sierra Madre, a hamlet near Pasadena that each year celebrates its hometown hero on the second Sunday of March.

That hero is a 116-year-old plant. Isn’t that cool?

Invited by Paula Panich, who enticed me with promises that I would see “one of the seven horticultural wonders of the world” (seriously, who could resist that offer!?), I drove 60 miles east to Sierra Madre and joined Paula’s entourage.

The Sierra Madre Wistaria Festival, a full-blown, main-street celebration, was under way to celebrate what the Guinness Book of World Records has named the world’s largest blooming plant – a Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis).

A cloud of pale, purple blooms create a one-acre floral canopy

Said wisteria, which the locals more accurately call Wistaria*, was planted in 1894 by Alice Brugman. She rode by horse and buggy to the R.H. Wilson Pioneer Nursery in nearby Monrovia to purchase the vine in a one gallon pot, spending 75-cents.

It now covers nearly one acre, weighs over 250 tons, and produces more than 1.5 million blossoms during a glorious, five-week run each spring. The festival occurs for one day only, when the property’s owners (aka the “flower stewards”) open up their gardens for thousands of visitors.

We were in attendance a little early in the vine’s bloom cycle, as you can see. But still, it was a sight to behold!

 The vine covers two private residential gardens and is supported by a sturdy matrix of metal arbors. We walked underneath the canopy formed by lightly-scented, pale purple clusters that looked gorgeous against the intense-blue sky.

A festive day indeed! 


As pretty as Victorian wallpaper, the vines and blossoms trace the sky

*Wisteria or Wistaria?

According to a brochure distributed at the festival, experts at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden have always used the correct spelling with “a” rather than “e.”

“The plant was named to honor Caspar Wistar (1761-1818), an American physician and University of Pennsylvania teacher. Among his accomplishments, he wrote the first text book on anatomy. When the name of the genus Wisteria was recorded, it was incorrectly spelled. So, one could say that all along, Sierra Madre has correctly spelled Wistaria.”

 Now you know.

2. Eschscholtzia californica 

Spring is here! The poppies are in bloom!

This being perhaps my last spring as a full-time resident of Southern California, I was eager to squeeze in a visit to the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. My goal was to see the valley’s meadows and rolling hills awash in vibrant orange – a celebration of the California Poppy, the State Flower since 1903.

While poppies grow in many areas, along the edges of highways and in surprising pockets both urban and rural, the only remaining large fields are in the western Antelope Valley. This area is part of northern Los Angeles Co., about 90 minutes northeast of my home in Thousand Oaks.

My parents were en route to visit this weekend (from the Phoenix area) and so I convinced them to take the detour north off of Hwy. 14 to meet me for a Friday morning Poppy Adventure.

Anita and Fred Prinzing, my wildflower-hunting companions (Mom and Dad)

We arrived at the 1,800-acre reserve located about 15 miles west of the town of Lancaster. As with my wisteria visit, we were definitely too early for the peak poppy bloom.

Despite plenty of spring precipitation, the temperatures here had not warmed up enough to prompt massive blooms. There were beautiful patches of orange poppies, intermixed with other lovely wildflowers – including blue lupines. We took joy in what we saw and promised ourselves to return in the future.

I wish I could go back in two week’s time – that’s when the display will be the showiest!

3. Yucca brevifolia 

Magnificent Joshua Tree - in bloom

On our way out of the Antelope Valley, we discovered an obscure state park called the Ripley Desert Woodland. This 560-acre “virgin forest” is populated with Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) and California junipers (Juniperus californica). According to the brochure we picked up:

“This is how the western part of the Mojave Desert must have appeared to early explorers as they came through the area” in the late 18th and early 19th century. . . .”

The park is named for Arthur Ripley, a farmer who willed the acreage to California when he died in 1988. He farmed a large amount of land in Antelope Valley, but he also was concerned enough about the Joshua/juniper woodlands to preserve a pristine area.

I was quite moved by this wild place. Walking through this desert woodland was pretty awe-inspiring. To find it, drive on Lancaster Road, heading west, about 5 miles beyond the Poppy Reserve.