Rediscover Brooklyn Botanic Garden with a scavenger hunt

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My relationship with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden had fallen into a rut.

I go there all the time, but do I really take advantage of all it has to offer? I always take visiting family members to the magnificent Japanese garden, glorious in every season, and I always admire the pathway to the glass-domed Palm House, where numerous special events are held. Every visit, I am truly stunned by the heavenly fragrances that assault me upon entering the garden’s wrought-iron gates.

Yet, my relationship with the garden, probably like yours, had become predictable.

I recently had this revelation when I embarked on the garden’s clever scavenger hunt, "Plants of the World," which can be a self-guided tour with the help of a fun, fact-filled brochure, or taken with a garden guide on Saturdays and Sundays at 3 pm.

I had never toured the entire garden, and didn’t think it was possible in one afternoon, but this guided tour packs a lot of bang for your buck. (Actually, it’s free, but adult admission is $5.) And this is an obvious crowd pleaser for the whole family.

The "Plants of the World" brochure directs you to points around the perimeter of the garden where small signs are waiting to tell you why these plants, herbs and trees are so important to humans.

For us urban dwellers, it’s an eye opener just to see what the plants we use and have heard about even look like. Mexican cotton, an upright bush from Central America, is on display in the raised beds of the Children’s Garden. Good luck trying to find the bolls, the source of fiber for your T-shirts and denim. New to me was the fact that the cotton seeds are used in margarine, soap and linoleum. (One of these things is not like the other )

The beds are also the location of the newly trendy henna shrub, which is the source of the reddish dye used to paint elaborate temporary tattoos. ("Mehndi," the art of body painting, has actually been practiced for centuries in Muslim and Hindu ceremonial art.) The leaves, stems and seeds are crushed and pulverized with water and lemon juice to make the decorative paste.

Other interesting plants waiting to be discovered include:

· the windmill palm in the Plant Family Collection, which is grown outdoors year round at the Botanic Garden. (Perhaps it is insulated by its fiber-covered trunk, which looks like a hairbrush that hasn’t been cleaned in a while!);

· the beloved ginger herb, whose recognizable edible "roots" (they’re really called rhizomes) push themselves above the soil. Ginger in its many forms is enjoyed by the Japanese, Chinese, Russians and Italians among other cultures;

· the papyrus plant in the conservatory’s Aquatic House. (How did the first Egyptian know he could make paper out of those long, slim stalks topped with fine, green ponytail-like sprays?);

· and the sacred lotus in the Lily Pool Terrace, said to be the flower from which Buddha was born. Its colossal green leaves are circled by the orange koi in the pool.

Without the map instructing visitors where to go and what to look for, the garden still has lots of charm (and the garden cafe sells ice cream!), but in the late summer months, long after the cherry blossoms are gone and the rose garden blooms have shriveled, it can blur together as one big green landscape for the novice horticulturalist. "Plants of the World" proves there is a lot to be learned and a lot to discover in August.

Even the ash tree, which one might guess is the source for hardwoods used in making expensive furniture, has other uses: Native Americans used the bark in tea to heal various ailments including snakebites. On this hot August afternoon, I was just grateful for the shade the ash provided.

On the reverse of the map are other must-see sights such as the Herb Garden, a living spice rack, if you will, which frames a clever short topiary in the shape of Celtic knots. Kids will want to see the "Amazing Plants" installation on the lower level of the Conservatory (which has the added benefit of being air conditioned). "Amazing Plants" features a subway car looking into an aquarium with more plants (and fish, too).

I chose to take the self-guided tour, and found the "Plants of the World" treasure map challenging, so ask a good-natured friend to aid you in your hunt. Go with a sense of adventure and you’ll reap the benefits.


"Plants of the World" at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 900 Washington Ave. in Prospect Heights, continues through Aug. 31. Admission is $5, $3 seniors 65 and older, free children under 16. Garden admission is free to all on Tuesdays. For more information, call (718) 623-7200 or visit the Web site at

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