Patrick Cullina is the VP of Horticulture and Facilities at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and New York's go-to guy for cherry trees (there are over 200 trees and 42 species at BBG alone!). Anita Jacobs is responsible for all of the programs that go along with the garden, speaking of which...
The two-day Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival (New York's Rite of Spring) enters its 26th year at the Garden this weekend. Just after the festival, Hanami: Celebrating the Cherry Blossom Season will be taking place from (April 7th to May 6th). Hanami is the Japanese name for cherry-blossom viewing, so come to the garden before the blossoms disappear!
Tell us about Sakura Matsuri and the preparations that go on for it throughout the year.
PC: The horticulture staff is hard at work in the late winter and early spring to prepare all of the gardens at BBG for the many visitors we receive each spring. So while the big show might be the cherry blossoms, we are pruning and planting in our other gardens and conservatories as well. There is a lot to see here. Our facilities department does an incredible amount of work also.
AJ: Sakura is such a fun festival to put together. I get a kick out the being able to program very traditional Japanese folk dances on the same stage as edgy J-pop from Tokyo. Everywhere you look during the festival you can see pink-haired girls posing next to women with wooden geta shoes and vintage kimonos. This year we have nearly two dozen new performances and presentations. I'm really thrilled to introduce our first-ever manga library, put on by the folks who do the AnimeNEXT convention. Manga and anime are the gateway to Japanese culture for a lot of people around the world, and already we've seen a few blogs where folks chatted first about what Cos-Play costumes they were going to wear to the festival and then later made plans to check out a traditional tea ceremony or presentation about the Art of Geisha. Essentially, I spend about eight months programming and planning for Sakura and then just sit back and let the cherry blossoms do the rest!
When do the trees look their best?
PC: Different cherries bloom at different times and the timing is all up to Mother Nature. Generally, the cherry blossoms here are best perceived as a progression. The show usually begins in early April with the Okame and (weeping) Higan cherries. As they are approaching peak bloom, the Yoshino cherries and others like them hit their stride. A wide number of Japanese flowering cherries—with variety names like Ukon and Shirotae—then follow, and the show winds up with the Kanzan cherries at the end of April/beginning of May. When you factor in, as the Japanese do, the cherries’ bud stage and the point where petals fall like snow, then you have a show that lasts five weeks or so. This cherry viewing period is known as Hanami.
What's it like working in a garden in an urban area?
PC: I love it. We get enthusiastic visitors from the many different surrounding the Garden, from across New York, and from around the world. The City itself lends both vitality and emphasis to the Garden, and the Garden returns the favor by serving to ease the encroachments that can come with urban life. For example, if you’re standing in the Japanese Garden, you can hear traffic on Washington Avenue if you try, but you’re more likely to have your attention grabbed by the garden’s beauty. In the Native Flora Garden, which borders Flatbush Avenue, you are more likely to hear bird songs than cars.
AJ: When my friends complain about battling rush hour crowds in the city I end up rubbing salt in their wounds by mentioning that I often have to yield to a red-tailed hawk or a line of baby ducklings…I am a real nature addict, so being able throw open the door and be surrounded by dozens of blooming magnolia trees is a dream.
What plant would you recommend for the average New York apartment? Do you have any tips for apartment dwellers who want to take better care of their plants?
PC: That depends on how much light you can find in the average New York apartment, but why not try an orchid? They bloom for a long time and can be grown indoors easily.
Do you get to take any plants home with you for extra TLC?
PC: While dedicated gardeners here care for the plants as if they were their own, everything stays put. I do, however, regularly purchase things during our huge annual plant sale each May, and there are also great plant dividends that come with a certain level of BBG membership.
AJ: I am always begging (for the most part unsuccessfully, I might add) for cuttings of things. Every year in early May my husband and I bust open our bank account buying a ridiculous number of plants from BBG's Plant Sale.
How did you come to work at Brooklyn Botanic Garden?
PC: An invitation to apply for the position from Judy Zuk, an incredible leader in the garden world who was president at the time, along with a significant amount of good luck.
AJ: My old colleague Jack Walsh from Celebrate Brooklyn saw me walking down the street and practically got in a car accident swerving over to tell me about the job! It's really a great fit for me. I used to be a producer for public radio, and I'm a real sucker for live music, but with this job I can also dabble in dance programming, visual arts, theater, and film. I grew up among avid gardeners so it seems like home to me when I hear the gardeners chatting casually about cymbidium or phalaenopsis.
What's your favorite spot in the garden? And what's a less-noticed part of the garden you think garden visitors should definitely see?
PC: It really depends on the season…things change furiously here. During spring, for example, you go from magnolias to cherries to lilacs to tree peonies to bluebells to roses—all in a matter of weeks. It’s impossible to choose.
I would say, however, that too many people miss the magical qualities of the Native Flora Garden—particularly in the fall. And take a peek over the Children’s Garden fence some day—little kids in the middle of Brooklyn are farming vegetables.
AJ: One of my favorite spots in the Garden is the Native Flora garden. It's a little off the beaten path, I guess, so it's always very quiet and peaceful and you can see a lot of spectacular migrating birds there. I have a friend who used to always bring new dates to the "Hedge Wheel," but in my book there's nothing like seeing all the kids in the Children's Garden digging around in the dirt and having a blast vegetable gardening.
What's the most unusual plant at BBG now? What's your favorite plant?
PC: There are many, many unusual plants at BBG. What’s more unusual, frankincense or the dove tree? Ladyslipper orchids or South African bulbs? My favorite thing about the Garden is the incredible diversity of its collections…you can always been surprised—and inspired—by something here.
Some questions about NYC
Favorite subway line:
PC: I live close to the 2/3, but I have really come to appreciate the Q…4 stops from the heart of Brooklyn to Union Square, and you get to ride over the Manhattan Bridge.
AJ: Definitely the Q.
Favorite spot of nature other than the BBG:
PC: There are many, but here’s a vote for the coast of Maine.
AJ: I would have to agree with Patrick and go with the coast of Maine...but WAY up the coast to Washington County.
Favorite city building/monument/intersection
PC: The Brooklyn Bridge, if that counts as a monument. I’m a big architecture fan; it would be hard to pick a single building in such a historically and aesthetically diverse city. You could pick ten great buildings on my Brooklyn block alone.
AJ: American Museum of Natural History
Better headlines: Daily News or NY Post?
PC: Depends on the day, but I try to focus on the back pages—particularly when the Yankees are struggling.
AJ: I get a kick out of both! My old buddy used to come up with some of the funny sports headlines for the Daily News so sometimes he would phone me with a preview.
Best cheap eat in the city:
PC: Cheap is relative, so how about reasonable? I think the Good Fork in Red Hook is great—and they’re Garden fans too.
AJ: Cheap Oaxacan food anywhere!
Photo of trees via New York Daily Photo.