story and photos by Libby Cook
During the long winter months, a mild, sunny day can begin to feel like a rare pastime. But the most recent turn of the calendar appeared to present some hope for the slowly approaching warmer and brighter days ahead. As an early March sun shone down on Ithaca, I ventured to the Cornell Botanical Gardens for a self-guided tour of the winter landscapes that will soon begin to blossom.
I first visited the gardens last August with my family. The humid, end-of-summer air clung to us as we admired the colorful flower gardens and sought shade underneath the pine tree-lined trails that lead to the Nearing Summer House. Today, I’ve arrived solo and have to move quickly to keep warm. Though the sunshine seemed like an invitation to get out of the house, the windchill is a frigid 10 degrees. I bundle up and head toward the Mullestein Winter Garden.
The circular winter garden, which was completed and donated in 2001, contains over 700 carefully-selected plants, shrubs and trees that grow best during the fall and winter months. The area is set up like a courtyard to attract visitors year-round. Inside the garden, rugged pine trees and shrubby dogwoods stem firmly from snowy roots. The dark green of their needles and the tones of copper and tan from their spindly branches create a striking contrast against the white ground. Today’s blue skies and golden sun make the colors of the winter garden pop even more. I stay for a moment to take in the scene before exploring other trails near the Nevis Welcome Center.
The Welcome Center is typically a hub for garden guests, but it has remained closed throughout the entirety of the pandemic. The gardens were established in 1935 as the “Cornell Arboretum.” Today’s Botanical Gardens, which were renamed in 2016, cover over 4,300 acres of land, ponds and gorges surrounding the Cornell campus.
I pass the Welcome Center and approach the Comstock Knoll trails that wind up and down the knoll between the gardens and campus. As the sun dips behind the trees that tower over the trail, I hear a faint tapping from above. I look up and spot a red-headed woodpecker poking rhythmically at the softened bark of a pine. I try to pass by quietly to keep from disturbing him. As the trail slopes up, I become surrounded by bushes of cone-shaped ivory flowers that sit in vases of thick, dark green leaves. A nearby sign indicates they are “Japanese Painted Ferns.” They are beautiful against the snow and sun. Gray squirrels dart across the gravel path in front of me as I make my way out of the gardens and into the sun illuminating the busy city.