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Winter Greenhouse Pleasures

by Mary Jasch

Want some inspiration and warmth? Head to a place where the sun always shines and the scent of colorful blossoms greets you among tropical trees and gentle fountains. Here are a few titillating reasons to visit the greenhouse at the Institute for Ecosystems Studies in Millbrook, New York.

An immediate sense of cheer and fragrance surrounds the visitor as spirits lighten with the sun and greenery. Old friends long missed grow well here - Ficus nitida, jasmines, white birds, banana - some large and growing out of the earth with aerial roots that have formed into branches. Greenhouse manager Dave Balkeley says they let the outermost branch of a Ficus take root and grow strong so staff could swing around the corner easily, Tarzan style.
“The plants just live here and look pretty," he says. “I just babysit."¯ - Dave Balkeley

More Ficus - this time rubber - roots into the substrate. Spores of Polypodium aureum dot the sky. An artist's Paradise. A ball of a fuzzy-headed fern (Nephrolepsis exaltata 'Laura's Lace') beguiles, and a pigmy date palm so huge its delicate fronds cover the roof has clusters of tiny purple fruits dangling like ornaments bedazzle.

A dear old friend in a water garden - the fragrant white spider lily (Hymenocallis cariberea), once seen in Antigua growing wild on a cliff along the sea, puts a spell on me. It complements a black taro (Colocasia esculenta).

Giant staghorn ferns hang everywhere here - a silver one with light tan shields (Platycerium willinkii var. lemoni), a skinny-leafed dark green P. vassei that takes up 10 feet of window, and a 27-year-old incredible specimen that dominates the greenhouse.

The staghorns were planted long ago in 2 by 6-inch sphagnum-filled baskets and then mounted on marine plywood. Some grew so large they pulled away and fell off, and are now chained to the plywood.

The greenhouse is a mix of specimens, smaller bloomers and otherwise interesting plants placed around to look pretty. Paths wind around curved sections that sometimes feature a plant family such as orchids. Great drips of purple Dendrobium superbiens send fragrance across the house. They are accented by boxes of little yellow Dea aggregatum and the rusty/white/lavender blooms of Vanda tricolor. A deliciously-scented white and deep purple Dendrobium yukidaruma 'Kine' and an epiphyte with roots so luxurious a person can drape them around like a boa are fun.

Along the Economic Botany Trail, an Easter egg-like hunt for economically-valuable plants among the other tropicals, one finds allspice with fragrant leaves, a citron cultivar called Buddist Hand with bright orange fruit, and a delightful whole table of citrus with fragrance to live for. Baby bananas (Musa acuminata 'Novah') emerge behind a dying flower, plus loquat, mango, papaya, avocado trees.

There are silvery cactus, a cycad (Cycas taitungensis) grown from seed 28 years ago, and a favorite plant, Jasminum polyanthum, in fragrant bloom.

In the next greenhouse single plant types fill benches - orchids, coleus, ferns, cacti, succulents, begonias, hoya, scented geraniums. Benches near water gardens with falls and fountains provide nice resting spots; one faces a shrubby purple-blossomed Clerodendron quadriloculare 'Shooting Star.'

The last greenhouse harbors potted specimens that spend summers outside and perennials, wildflowers, annuals, topiaried herbs and shrubs for the Gifford Garden including cascading mock orange (Murraya exaltica), eucalyptus trees, and topiaries.

Dave Balkeley started the greenhouse with one bench of tropicals and a fountain 29 years ago. Since then the collection of plants from temperate regions of the world has grown into this greenhouse used mostly for fundraising events and public education.

Balkeley's been babysitting without chemicals now for 13 years. His prior practice of spraying once a month and fumigating has changed to Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Gone are the 30 gallons of pesticides sprayed every winter and the 60 gallons sprayed every summer.

“The mealybugs would die but you never got the eggs. Now we don't have to spray or have down time or have hazardous chemicals in the environment. I actually feel better too."

Lots of friendly critters live in the greenhouse: lacewings hatched from 20,000 eggs every two weeks, the black lady beetle - aka scale destroyer, lady bugs, praying mantis. “If it walks they eat it - even each other," says Balkeley of the praying mantises. "The bugs are doing a better job than I ever could. The bugs take care of the bugs."

Come visit and get warm in the sun.
Institute for Ecosystem Studies
Route 44, Millbrook, New York
845-677-5359 or

Open every day except holidays. Greenhouse closes at 3:30. Stop in at the Gifford House and pick up a pass. No charge. Also known as Mary Flagler Cary Arboretum.

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published March 19, 2005

Photos to enlarge


Spider Lily


Ficus nitida, Staghorn Fern

Silver Staghorn Fern

Silver Cactus

Buddhist's Hand


White Bird of Paradise

Summer Flowers!

Polypodium Spores

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