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Tropical under bench pic 1 cropped

Under the Benches Grows a Forest Floor

February 24, 2022

Every day at 12:30PM, Wave Hill Gardener Shane Pritchett waters the Tropical House, the greenhouse on the left as you enter the Marco Polo Stufano Conservatory. As part of routine watering, the floor is sprayed down. This large wet surface helps increase humidity meant to mimic tropical forests that receive high amounts of rainfall--this meets plants' water requirements. Through plant placement, we meet light requirements by mimicking the layers of a forest—emergent layer, canopy, understory and forest floor.

I spent a lot of time in the Tropical House this past month, crafting content for our “Warm-Up” winter programming. Seeking inspiration, I looked under the Tropical House’s benches and was fascinated by its “forest floor. ” It is packed with plants literally growing out of the floor. When photographing the “forest floor” I noticed a poetic juxtaposition between the shade-loving tropical plants and complimentary equipment in this unnatural space.

The following photos accompany descriptions that identify some of the plants and equipment visible in the photos. Some plants are volunteers—a fun way to describe self-seeded plants—and some were planted many years ago.

Tropical under bench pic 2

The coolest and shadiest corner is adjacent to the Palm House, the central portion of the Conservatory. Find this corner on your right as you enter the Tropical House. Syngonium podophyllum (arrowhead), Tradescantia spathacea (oyster plant) and Oxalis articulata (pink wood sorrel) grow beneath benches that feature ferns and other shade-preferring tropicals.

Tropical under bench pic 3

Growing around the stairs in the same corner is, from left, a mosaic of Oxalis articulata (pink wood sorrel) and Pilea sp., interspersed with some Pteris cretica (brake fern) fronds. A wheel-handle, just visible at the top of the photo, controls the heater that runs along the wall.

Tropical under bench pic 4

The warmest corner is to the left of the stairs down into the Tropical House. A heat element that runs along the brick wall encircles the greenhouse and originates in this corner. Shane Pritchett likes to hit the heaters with a jet of water, which creates a steamy afternoon for the plants. Syngonium podophyllum (arrowhead) seems to flourish in this warm spot. An orange electrical cord, barely visible on the left, winds along the southern wall, providing power for the fan and mist bench at the back of the Tropical House.

Tropical under bench pic 5

Dracaena masoniana (whale fin snake plant) stands tall, growing out of a mat of Nephrolepis exaltata 'Bostoniensis' (chartreuse Boston fern). Because these plants can easily obstruct pathways they are pruned often.

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Bench legs are sunk into gravel, providing a rocky strip that offers a well-draining environment. This unknown fern species has been growing here for over a decade.

Tropical under bench pic 7

Towards the back of the Tropical House there is a transition from display to the utilitarian. Tucked under a bench are stacked plant stands with an oxidized patina, as well as terra cotta pots and trays that house dormant plants. The warm tones of terra cotta and patina complement the warm brick of the wall.

Tropical under bench pic 8

Alternanthera dentata cv. (Joseph’s coat cultivar), on the far left, is paired here with Syngonium podophyllym ‘Marble’ (variegated arrowhead). Variegated plants brighten up this shady environment.

I encourage you to look at the garden with a different perspective on your next visit to Wave Hill. Inspiration can be found under a bench or between the cracks of a stone wall or amongst the buttress roots of a great tree.

Jess Brey,
Ruth Rea Howell Senior Horticultural Interpreter