Top Ten Spring Flower Spots In Central Park

Tulips in Conservatory Garden

While Central Park offers a welcome respite all year round from the surrounding cacophony of urban life, it is during the springtime that the park really sparkles.  Starting at the middle of March, sometimes before the snows of winter have even completely disappeared, you can find snowdrops and crocuses poking up between the leaves and tree roots.  These are soon followed by daffodils and tulips as the entire park erupts in a fragrant display of early flowering pastels.  By mid April the Central Park landscape is awash in cherry blossoms and magnolia flowers that signal the completed transformation from dreary winter to spring celebration.  Here is a countdown of my picks for the ten very best places in the park to view this amazing floral display.

10. Lilac Walk

French Lilacs

One of the lesser known delights of Central Park is a pathway that runs along the north side of the Sheep Meadow to the Mineral Springs refreshment stand.  It is the called the Lilac Walk  and it is home to more than twenty varieties of purple, pink and white lilac blossoms from around the world.  The selections includes the Dutch Syringa vulgaris as well as the Southeast European and American varieties. Hybrids from the United States and France have also been planted and all are skillfully and creatively presented by skilled gardeners to the delight of all who walk along this path. There are even varieties from Canada and China.  When these lilacs blossom, their intense fragrance is quite demanding and few who pass this way can ignore the theater of aroma that envelops them.  Created in 1970, the Lilac Walk was conceived and financed by philanthropist Nell Singer.  It is bordered on the south by a fence which features the crawling vines of clematis and morning.  By late spring the fragrance exuded by the purple, pink and white blossoms is almost intoxicating.

9. West side of the Reservoir

In Central Park, the Kwanzan Cherry blooms in early May, shortly after the Yoshino Cherry Trees, which are on the east side of the Reservoir.  An ornamental cherry tree from Japan that is admired for its double-petal flowers and bright pink blossoms, it does not have the delicate appearance of the Yoshino, but it is still extremely attractive in its own strikingly colorful way.  It also contributes a certain dramatic consistency to the scenic narrative of the Reservoir panorama.  The cherry blossoms on the west side blossom almost immediately after the ones on the east side are gone.  This extends the spring blooming season around the  106 acre body of water for another two weeks and gives visitors, especially the runners that use the surrounding track for training, almost an entire month to enjoy the spectacle of the delicately flowering trees.

8. The Pond

Gapstow Bridge

The Pond provides immediate relief from the hustle and bustle of the city just outside. This is due to a veritable wall of trees and shrubs, as well as the inspired landscaping of Olmsted and Vaux, which placed the pond below street level. This entrance was originally designed to handle most of the traffic into the park, and continues to do so until this day.  In spring time it offers an even starker contrast as the park goer walks down the stairs and along the placid waters. Looking across you can see Gapstow Bridge and the surrounding shoreline, which features some of the earliest blooming seasonal arrivals. Crocuses, daffodils, foam flowers, forsythia, and tulips decorate the pathways and within seconds visitors are transported far away from Fifth Ave and Grand Army Plaza.

7. Shakespeare Garden

Nestled between Belvedere Castle and The Swedish Cottage the garden first came into existence in 1913. Known as the Garden of the Heart it was patterned after Victorian era rock gardens. Then, in 1916, to celebrate the tercentennial of Shakespeare’s death, it was rechristened in honor of the Bard and only plants mentioned in his plays were planted there. These include columbine, primrose, wormwood, quince, lark’s heel, rue, eglantine, flax and cowslip, many of which sound as if they would be right at home boiling and bubbling in a cauldron.  The spring blossoming varieties to be found here include crabapple, fritillaria, grape hyacinth (muscari), magnolia, quince, and tulips.  The Shakespeare Garden is the perfect place to while away a timeless May afternoon.

6. Azalea Walk

Azalea Walk

There is another little known gem hidden in the Central Park landscape that comes to life each spring.  It is a short walkway just south of the Eaglevale Arch that features a delicate display of azaleas and rhododendrons. White, pink, orange and rose colored azaleas adorn this wood-chipped path, as it winds its way further south ending near Strawberry Fields.  Recently restored, this woodland area is lined with benches that are nestled amongst the azaleas making it a wonderful place to spend a quiet moment of reflection.  Azalea varieties range from the smooth azalea with white flowers, the Delaware Valley White, the Pinkster flowers, to the Swamp Azalea, also with white flowers. The Carolina Rhododendron adds pale rose flowers to the mix, as does the aptly-named Rosebay Rhododendron.  Other spring time blooms include daffodils, leucojums, scilla, and shadbush.

5. East Side of the Reservoir

Cherry Tree

The Yoshino Cherry is the most common ornamental flowering cherry in Central Park and it can be found lining the east side of the Reservoir for several hundred yards.  It is one of the first signs of spring in the park, with the flowers appearing in mid- to late-April well before any of the other flowering trees and shrubs nearby.  There is always a magical span of a few days during which you can find the surrounding ground blanketed with pale pink flowers as each spring breeze brings another shower of feathery petals.  Some of the older specimens of Yoshino Cherries along the east side of the Reservoir may be the original trees presented as a gift to the United States by Japan in 1912.  This is truly one of the most beautiful spots in the park on a balmy May afternoon.

4. Conservatory Water

 

The area around the pond is home of some of the park’s loveliest foliage. These include Lebanon Cedars, willows, pine and beech trees. It also features the park’s largest display of spring blossoming Cherry Trees, besides the stands on either side of the reservoir.  Other April blossoms include crabapples, daffodils, grape hyacinth (muscari), shadbush, and tulips.  The surrounding benches are the perfect place for either a brief respite from your park sight-seeing tour or a more contemplative visit, relaxing while you watch the tiny white sails of model boats tacking against the breeze.  Nearby you can also find two of the Park’s most popular statues, especially with children. At the northern end is the sculpture of Alice, of Wonderland fame, with all her favorite tea party playmates, and at the western edge a statue of master story teller Hans Christian Andersen.  Conservatory Water is also the staging area for a dedicated group of bird watchers that have been tracking the life of Pale Male and his mate Lola, a pair of Hawks, that have made there home on a ledge on a nearby building.

3. Strawberry Fields

Quince

Strawberry Fields opened on October 9, 1985, John’s 45th birthday. Every October 9th since then has seen an all day vigil of people of all ages from around the world; fans of his music and believers in his vision.  The park was a favorite place for Lennon to take strolls with his family, with whom he lived in the Dakota Apartments, just across the street at 72nd and Central Park West.  The gentle slope directly behind the memorial is called Rose Hill for the rambling roses in the clefts of the bedrock. The eastern slope is a woodland popular with bird-watchers. In its center is the woodland wildflower meadow filled with Ostrich and Christmas Ferns and Virginia Bluebells.   In springtime it is populated with quince, scilla, shadbush and offers a beautifully secluded place to walk, just a few yards from the noisy city outside.

2. Wisteria Pergola

The Wisteria Pergola overlooks the north end of the Central Park Mall just short of 72nd Street and the Terrace Bridge. Olmsted and Vaux, the Park’s designers, were surely inspired when they placed this long latticed patio, 130 feet long by 25 feet  wide, at this location in the Mall.  The long crossbeams and many wooden supports are laced with wisteria vines and in the spring they bloom gloriously with delicate pale lavender flowers, which almost overwhelm the senses with their intoxicating aroma.  Just a few yards to the east is the SummerStage concert area a performance venue used throughout the summer months.  In the thirties it was the site of the Central Park Casino, the hottest nightclub in Central Park and the clubhouse of then Mayor Jimmy Walker.  Though the view of the Mall is now obscured by the Bandshell it is still an enchanting place to stop for a rest or some peaceful contemplation.

1. Conservatory Garden

Magnolia Blossoms

One of the hidden wonders of Central Park is the Conservatory Garden at Fifth Avenue and 105th St. A secluded oasis, just a few steps down from one of the City’s busiest thoroughfares; the garden offers a fragrant respite from the gasp and clatter of the urban afternoon. The Conservatory Garden is filled with a myriad of plant life, from carefully cultivated heirloom roses to the most common of indigenous flowers, while portions of the grounds are delineated by hedges of English yew, barberry, Korean holly and the serendipitously named “Manhattan.” The Garden itself is divided into three distinct sections, each representing its own specific style. These are the north (or French Garden), the Central (or Italian Garden) and the south (or English Garden).
The southern garden features the English style and as such is much less formal than the other two. It is planted to be enjoyed the year round and almost every week there are new blooms to admire, but it is in the springtime that it really shines. At the center is a bronze sculpture, the Burnett Fountain, depicting a young boy and girl. Based on characters from The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett the fountain was designed and constructed in 1936 by Bessie Potter Vonnoh. It is surrounded by a reflecting pool upon which float hundreds of water lilies and in which swim dozens of extremely sophisticated goldfish (don’t forget the address). The surrounding spring blooms include brunnera, cornelian cherrys, crabapples, daffodils, forsythia, grape hyacinth, korean spice, magnolias, pansies, quince, summer snowflakes, tulips, virginia bluebells and witchhazel. It is this amazing diversity of flowers, along with the secluded tranquility of the grounds themselves that makes Conservatory Garden the very best place in Central Park to enjoy the blossoming splendor of springtime.

Reservoir Track Dedicated To Alberto Arroyo, The Mayor of Central Park

Alberto Arroyo

Alberto Arroyo

The New York City Parks Department and Central Park Conservancy dedicated a plaque to familiar runner and community fixture, Alberto Arroyo, yesterday.   Arroyo spent decades at the Central Park reservoir jogging track. A friend to locals and tourists alike, Arroyo was nicknamed ‘The Mayor of Central Park.’ He showed up in all weather, rain or shine. He stayed put when crime ravaged the city. He notified park officials when something needed to be fixed.

I can think of countless times I passed by him, for a short run, or training for a marathon, circling the water for the tenth time.  He would always nod and smile encouragingly and while we seldom spoke, we acknowledged each other almost everyday for almost twenty years.  I can remember after 9/11, when I  walked up to the park, hoping a run would bring some sense of normalcy to my life.  The park still stank with the acrid smoke of the fires downtown.  I couldn’t seem to get going,  just stood and stared out over the water at the dark cloud to the south.   At that moment I felt a hand on my shoulder, a reassuring touch, without turning I think I knew it was Alberto.  When I did turn I just stared at him, completely at a loss.  He just smiled, pushed me out onto the track and walked along side me.  We didn’t speak, just made a long, slow circuit of the Reservoir.  His spirit will be missed by anyone that has ever received that smile and nod that enabled them to make one more trip around the water.

The bronze plaque is fixed to the South Gatehouse, visible to all runners new and old.

Raccoon Throwdown

I was struck tonight by one of my Quest For Fire – man against the elements urges (delusions) and bundled myself into nine or ten layers of clothing for a dork walk around the Reservoir. (For the uninitiated dork walking is an alternative form of exercise made necessary by have used up all of that annoying cartilage in my your left knee. So, instead, to get your aerobic (not to mention endorphic) rocks off and enjoy the greater outdoors, you strap all manner of weights to your hands and arms and then flail about energetically (or dorkily) while you stride purposefully around the park.

And there is a proper way to dork walk. You cannot, for instance, practice this time honored art of locomotion demurely, gracefully or elegantly – and you certainly cannot do it with any sort of dignity. When you dork walk you’ve got to own it, you’ve got to move, get your arms pumping up and down like a drum majorette with a bladder problem. You must move confidently (while never crossing the line into anything actually fascist) – sort of like the music video for “Safety Dance”, only without all the serfs. This results in an energetic workout, a way for parents to scare their children into behaving and something for tourists to write home about.)

Anyway – tonight’s DW took me around the Reservoir, freezing – yes, but also a crystal clear night sky that featured not one star, but actual constellations. Now whenever I perambulate around the park I always take along my trusty digital camera, ever ready for a candid shot of the wildlife – squirrels, ducks, turtles, Bon Jovi fans, and this night was no different. So imagine my excitement when, upon turning the southwest corner, I spotted a raccoon staring at me from the other side of the Reservoir fence. Just sitting there calmly, checking me out, no doubt marveling at my robust arm thrusts and steadfast stride.

Stopping, I quickly had camera in hand and crept up to where he was staring at me from the other side of the bars. I had just about framed the shot, from about two feet away, when an extraordinary thing occurred. Now to preface this I must point out that five or six years ago the really ugly chain link fence that had ringed the Reservoir for years had been replaced by the current replica of the original, a beautiful wrought iron fence. So, just about to take the picture I was stunned to see that the raccoon had walked through the bars – pretty much like any idiot (well, almost any idiot) would have seen he was imminently capable of doing. At that moment, crouched on the snowy running track, scant inches from the raccoon, it wasn’t my life that flashed before my eyes, it was every bit of paranoid advice I’d ever gotten from my mom – and right between public toilet seats and swimming after lunch was – you got it – raccoons have rabies!

At that moment, with the raccoon just about upon me, mano a coon-o if you will, the only option left between fight or flight was definitely the latter and, quite without me actually telling them, my feet had already started moving. Quickly. Now this might have worked, except that under the powder of snow on the track was a solid layer of black ice. All that was missing from my ridiculous impersonation of a Scoobie exit was the bongo sound effects. Feet churned in a circular motion without the slightest bit of traction, followed by a loud “whump” as I belly flopped across the track. A few moments later, after the initial shock of all oxygen leaving my body at the same moment (in case you’ve forgotten it really, really sucks) I looked up to see the raccoon, now virtually nose to nose with me. My general disdain for anthropomorphism aside, I swear he looked wryly, almost smugly, amused. This was, of course, immediately followed by bored as he waddled past me to the other side of the path and disappeared.

I did however, get the shot. I swear he’s laughing.

Raccoon sticking out its tongue

Park in the Dark

One of my favorite things to do in Manhattan, and I know I risk seeming a complete geek by relating this, is to run around the Central Park Reservoir at sunset in the wintertime, the geeky part being I love listening to Garrison Keillor on NPR while I do it (although Peter Gabriel and Tom Petty come a close second). There is something about watching the crystal clear depths of the night sky as it darkens around the skyline (New York City dressing for for the evening) juxtaposed with the (admittedly) corny intimacy of an imaginary radio broadcast that somehow brings together everything I love about my life in one brilliant, breath-fogging, layer soaked moment. My other favorite thing being the last set at an intimate jazz club, a favorite piano player and a lot of old friends in ugly hats (jazz thing) sharing the sublimity. I like to think that the nerdy-ness of the first is balanced by the tragic-coolness of the second.

In any case this practice is especially magical the next two weeks, not to mention a very inexpensive holiday treat.  For the next two weeks The Prairie Home Companion will be broadcasting from the Town Hall theater on 43rd St. here in Manhattan.  Tonights performance included  Michael Feinstein, Metropolitan Opera Tenor Raúl Melo, and the soulful jazz vocalist Inga Swearingen.  So, imagine, running around the reservoir, gazing down across the water towards the skyline below and listening to a hysterically funny sketch about opera.  No really.  First time for me since the Marx Brothers.  Anyway – two more weeks of holiday fun, and a great place to listen.  Not that I’m advocating running around the park alone after dark.  Bring friends.  And say hello, I’ll be the guy trudging and chortling.