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A Garden Grows in New York City

Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page P12

In New York City's Central Park, Christo's Gates may be gone, but in gardens and parks all around the town, flower bulbs are opening.

And a bountiful sight they are for eyes grown dim from Manhattan's concrete cityscape. Throughout the boroughs, notable oases provide honeyed scents, multi-hued flowers and exotic trees (think giant California redwoods and miniature Japanese bonsai). All provide respite, whether for a few minutes or several hours. And they're only a walk or a bus or subway ride away.

The Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, the nation's largest Victorian glasshouse, is a main attraction of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. (Joseph De Sciose)

The six-acre Conservatory Garden (Fifth Avenue and 105th Street in Central Park; free) consists of three adjacent formal gardens, each with its own fountain, one of which commemorates author Frances Hodgson Burnett with a statue of characters from her beloved children's novel, "The Secret Garden."

The main entrance -- framed by a grand wrought-iron gate that once stood outside a Vanderbilt mansion -- looks out upon a neatly manicured lawn surrounded by long lines of crabapple trees on either side. Visit in April or May and you'll catch the pastel pink and white halos that blossom atop these trees. Come in late May and you'll see the purple-blue wisteria buds that grace the elegant ironwork pergola on the terrace just beyond.

Next, head to the South Garden and wend your way through the fragrant, horseshoe-shape flowers at whose center you'll find the lily pond with the Burnett statue -- and thousands of early-spring daffodils. Then, again, if it's spring tulips you're after, stroll through the leafy, shaded arbor pathways that lead to the northern garden. Here, the circular beds provide a spectacular showcase of approximately 20,000 tulips.

Or venture farther north -- to the Bronx and its 250-acre New York Botanical Garden (200th St. and Kazimiroff Boulevard, 718-817-8700, www.nybg.org; $13) , established in 1891. In the spring, hillsides bloom with daffodils, and the plentitude of azaleas and lilacs is irresistible. Even so, my favorite will always be the Rose Garden, perfumed the old-fashioned way with its profusions of rare ruby, pink, coral, white, pink, cream, and miniature varieties.

But no visitor should miss the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. This crystal palace of a Victorian greenhouse, built in 1902, boasts a 90-foot-high dome, a rotunda with a 100-foot diameter and 10 galleries, each of which is controlled to mimic plant and flower habitats from the rain forest (even more humid than a swampy D.C. August) to cactus-loving deserts.

You can take a tram tour of the entire grounds, which will allow you to hop on and off at various stops along the way. But if you're in the mood for a nature walk, try the forest trail through 40 acres of 300-year-old woodland. Look for wild raspberries and listen for the sound of the Bronx River -- and a waterfall -- rushing through below.

Also nestled in the Bronx is Wave Hill (West 252nd St. and Independence Avenue, 718-549-3200, www.wavehill.org; $4, but free at various times, days and months), 28 acres that are so lovely apparently not even Mark Twain -- who leased this one-time private estate from 1901-04 -- ever waxed sarcastic about it. Bring a book or a picnic lunch and settle into a bower shaded by a burnished European copper beech or the fir-like leaves of a Dawn redwood.

It's pleasant just to stroll among the gardens and observe the blue and purple and white butterflies swirling all around. But my favorite pastime is to find a perch beneath the vine-covered pergola and gaze at the Hudson River far below and across the water, to the rocky cliffs of the Palisades. With the breezy, flowery scent of newly mown lawn wafting over you, it's difficult to believe this idyllic site is New York City.

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