Rediscovering America’s First Botanic Garden

“We are still in Eden. The wall that shuts us out of the garden is our own ignorance and folly.”

Thomas Cole

More than half a million people flock to New York City’s Rockefeller Center each year to admire the Christmas tree and watch ice skaters glide along the famous rink. Others prefer to get into the holiday spirit by watching The Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. I suspect that most of these visitors (and perhaps even you) have no clue that beneath their feet once stood America’s first medicinal botanic garden.

Lasting Landscapes Rockefeller Center Ice Rink
The popular Ice Rink at Rockefeller Center

I became aware of David Hosack and his Elgin Botanic Garden when I heard Victoria Johnson speak at a Hardy Plant Society event last year. She talked about her book American Eden, a biography of Dr. Hosack, who was the personal physician present at the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804.

Lasting Landscapes David Hosack
A portrait of David Hosack

By reading American Eden I learned how Dr. Hosack treated patients in the early 1800’s through innovative plant combinations. He used juice from his orange trees to ward off scurvy and determined that figs were not only delicious, but also could be made into a poultice to soothe infected skin. He realized that Peruvian bark along with heat would cure an infection, a more effective alternative to the bleeding technique that was so popular at the time.

Hosack established his 20-acre Botanical Garden in 1801 and named it Elgin after the town in Scotland where he grew up. He cultivated unusual plants from around the world and utilized his garden as a living classroom where he taught the next generation of botanists and doctors as a professor at Columbia University. He even built a large conservatory where tropical and tender perennials were sheltered from adverse weather conditions.

A rendering of the Elgin Garden Conservatory


Hosack poured personal funds into the growth of the garden until at its prime, the garden featured over 2000 plant species. Realizing he could not afford to sustain it, Hosack sold it to New York State in 1811 with hopes it would be maintained and further developed. Unfortunately, the garden fell into neglect and was eventually consumed by New York’s urban expansion.

Although the Elgin Botanic Garden no longer exists, I hope you’ll pause to remember it during your next visit to Rockefeller Center. Take time to dine at The Elgin, a casual eatery situated on what would have been the southwest corner of Hosack’s Botanic Garden, which honors the garden and its founder. The Elgin brings the garden to life again with numerous plaques and botanical prints of plants that would have been growing on the site in Hosack’s day. Then seek out the small sign in the channel garden on Rockefeller Center’s concourse and pay your personal respects to an important man who devoted his life to New York, people’s health, his nation and nature.

The façade of The Elgin restaurant
Botanical prints line a wall at The Elgin
A swanky interior invites you to eat, drink and be merry.
The channel garden at Rockefeller Center
Hosack plaque NYC
The hard to find plaque that pays tribute to David Hosack

Note that in August of 2021 a reader learned that the hard to find plaque has been temporarily moved for some garden renovation work.  An identical plaque is located outside the Elgin restaurant. Hopefully, the original plaque will be replaced soon.  In the meantime, visit the channel gardens and The Elgin to pay homage to an amazing man and an integral part of our history.



Dare to Be Wild

I love the spring for so many reasons.  For the magic of the garden exploding in color and form, for the birds nesting and tending to their young, and especially for the warmth of the sun after a long, cold winter.

But there are a few things about spring that bother me besides spring cleaning and tax season. I trust you won’t be offended when I share my opinions on the wildness of things. If you are one who trims shrubs into balls or lollipops or perfect Versailles-like hedges – I applaud you for your attempts to control the landscape. For me, perhaps because I have limited time to work in my own garden in the spring or because I’m moved by the naturalistic plantings of Piet Oudolf and others, I feel the need to let the wildness happen.

I love seeing the wrangled branches of my forsythia reach out to greet me as I drive up my driveway.  I much prefer it this way as opposed to some unnatural shape that looks out of place.

Wild Forsythia

I adore the Columbine which have happily seeded themselves around and are showing up in new forms and colors each year.


I congratulate one of the foxgloves, a treasured gift from my parents’ garden, for planting itself alongside my water feature.

A single foxglove self-planted
Foxgloves galore

Please don’t think I have relinquished all control of my garden. I still attempt to keep the weeds at bay, without as much success as I would like. I move plants that are being crowded out by others and water new plants as they settle in to a new spot in the garden. I assist Mother Nature as best I can. We collaborate.

I think my fellow Hardy Plant Society member, Syd Carpenter, said it best when quoted in a Pennsylvania Horticultural Society magazine from the winter of 2017. “As a gardener you are a collaborator, an enabler with nature, the sun, the earth. The notion of control is laughable. Gardening is a question of cooperation, acceptance, and submission – you bow to the process. Sometimes you are disappointed; sometimes you are rewarded. And you hope that over time the rewards outnumber the disappointments.”

So the next time you are putting your spring to-do list together, think about leaving off some tasks like hedge trimming or the weeding out of seedlings. Let them be and instead focus on cleaning those windows so you can enjoy the view that the natural and wild landscape offers! And when you have finished cleaning your windows, please come to my house to help me out with mine!