December 08, 2014

New York in Miniature Links Holiday Visitors With Plant World

Photograph by Talisman Brolin

Visitors examine a model of the original Pennsylvania Station.

The lions guarding the New York Public Library have okra seeds for eyes and wild meadow-grass manes. The Statue of Liberty wears a wheat-stalk necklace. Honeysuckle twigs form the walls of the Empire State Building. The iconic landmarks have been recreated as miniature works of art fashioned from natural materials for the annual holiday show at the New York Botanical Garden.

The display was dreamed up and constructed by Paul Busse, a landscape architect and artist, and his team at Applied Imagination, a company that produces garden exhibits. The fairy-size structures, made from branches, seeds, nuts, leaves, and other natural materials, some foraged from forest floors, are lacquered for preservation.

Each structure is integrated into a display that also features electric trains, waterfalls, and live plants including cacti and dwarf conifers. New this year: a 10-foot-long replica of the garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, the site of the holiday show.

The garden’s collection now has 155 buildings, including a 29-foot-tall Brooklyn Bridge. The Statue of Liberty wears a sad expression, related to her being assembled just after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Other structures are less familiar, such as rows of brownstones as they appeared in the late 19th century.

Gregory Long, the botanical garden’s president, says the exhibit is more than a temporary holiday delight for visitors; it’s also a "way into the whole garden experience."

"Part of our mission is to engage our audience with the plant world," says Mr. Long.

Opened in 1891, the botanical garden now covers 250 acres, including four miles of walking trails and more than a million live plants from around the globe. There is also a family garden where young visitors can learn about healthy eating and nutrition. Many of the 90,000 schoolchildren who visited the garden last year live in urban neighborhoods.

"Those children don’t have very much experience with nature, so this is where they get it," says Mr. Long.

The holiday show, which drew 220,000 visitors last year, costs about $1-million to mount. Victoria and Robert Zoellner, a New York couple, are major donors to the event, which also relies on corporate sponsors, foundations, and ticket sales.

Mr. Busse, the landscape architect, lives in Kentucky. He does copious research for ideas and images of how the recreated New York buildings should appear.

About 15 years ago, Mr. Long took Mr. Busse to see some of the landmarks in person. "He thought his buildings were better," says Mr. Long.