British Blooms
Shakespeare inspires plantings in New York’s Central Park

Detroit Free Press: 08-25-02


Staked near the shadowed underbrush of a 40-foot white mulberry is an unassuming sign: “Shakespeare Garden.”

Its patina captures the devotion to and divinity of William Shakespeare’s work and sets the stage for Manhattan’s most pastoral place.

Off 79th and Central Park West are four acres drawn from Shakespeare: Violets, roses, yarrow and phlox — only plantings found in his plays and sonnets are welcome. It is an uncommon patch that inspires quiet, making irrelevant signs insisting so.

“Shakespeare Garden is revered like a church in New York,” says Tara Shanahan, a rock ‘n’ roll musician from Sunnyside, Queens, who walks the elliptical garden each week. “It’s a work of art, and each year it’s different. It’s living artwork, my favorite spot.”

It is fitting that in the center of this city of uncommon whorl is a space set aside for reflection. Threading through Shakespeare’s work is the Green World, an idyll set in opposition to the composition and countenance of the court.

With its sensual love, evocation of atmosphere and human foibles, the Green World represents the complex state between society and the sublime.

Unlike Central Park’s Great Lawn, packed on any sunny day, Shakespeare Garden is a near-hidden treasure, typically stumbled upon and then sought out by visitors.

“In such a busy park, it feels quiet and private,” says Regina Alvarez, section supervisor and woodland manager for the Central Park Conservancy, who has overseen the garden for a decade. “The people you see are a lot of regulars or the people who specifically seek it out. A lot of people don’t even know it’s there.”

North of the Ramble, Central Park’s bird-watching paradise, and just west of Belevedere Castle, where binoculars and educational materials are available, is the informal cottage garden — planted in 1916 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Following Victorian tradition, only flora mentioned in his plays and poetry were planted. Scattered throughout are bronze plaques bearing quotes providing their context.

The garden was reconstructed 15 years ago after decades of neglect. Few trees and shrubs from the original design were preserved. Among the exceptions: the white mulberry that shades the lower area of the garden, which came from a graft of a tree sent to Shakespeare by King James I and planted by the bard in 1602 at New Place in Stratford-on-Avon.

Planted on the steep slope of Vista Rock, the large outcropping at the point where Shakespeare, Ramble and Belevedere meet, the garden’s path twists toward the summit, suggesting the pattern of the sundial placed at its crest. Climbing roses twine through hand-hewn fences; rustic benches made of black locust punctuate the way. In medieval tradition, delicate woven fencing surrounding fragile plants was made of recycled growth pruned from shrubs and trees.

Autumn is the best season in which to view such a place. The saucy colors of summer no longer a distraction, the architecture of the plants and their surrounding fully reveals. But every season offers its own pleasures.

In March the hellebores, columbines and Virginia bluebells are in bloom. In April and May it’s daffodils, violets and tulips. The iris and rose appear in late spring. Herbs scent the summer air among abundant ferns, mallows, poppies and black-eyed Susans.

Autumnal color is provided by asters, ornamental grasses and broom sedges. Holly and Eastern hemlocks dominate winter. About 120 varieties of plants, trees, shrubs, perennials and herbs are included.

“My own passion in the park is the wildlife,” Alvarez says. “Shakespeare, with all its flowers, invites all sorts of birds and butterflies, even chrysalis, the pupa stage of butterflies, and dragonflies.

“Even though the flowers may not be so exotic, we jam a lot of plants in there — and colors,” she continues. “It’s not a long walk to the top, but you see a lot along the way.”