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