In this installment of a somewhat regular feature, NYSUFC Board Member, author, blogger and Taking Root editor Jean Zimmerman takes a personal view of going on a garden tour with a savvy guide.

Purple and gold season is how Cornell Botanic Gardens’s docent Dana describes the end of summer and the first days of fall.

She professes herself to find it a bit boring. I look out the window when we’re driving in the car and that’s all I see, purple and gold, purple and gold.

Dana shows us the native aster blooming in a border of the Cultivated Plant Collection. The goldenrod.

Her exuberant, erudite and irreverent approach to the botanical world and her enthusiasm in sharing it with people are all on display first day of autumn in the Finger Lakes.

A Buddhist might call it the Eternal Now — this burnished morning, already warm yet crisscrossed with cool breezes. We walk together through the specialty gardens, the perennial beds, the tropical plants and grasses and herbs. These flowers, these trees are all that exist.

Dana raises horses, has about the longest braid I’ve ever seen down her back, and is one of the most quick-witted garden guides I’ve ever come across.

She shares some wisdom on making a mistake: You never say you’re wrong. Just, “actually”… to which a gentleman in the crowd adds enthusiastically, “Truth challenged!”

Now that we’ve got that straightened out.

We see a display of gourds, part of the Garden’s Seeds of Survival and Celebration installation. She explains their significance, You know that thing in the celestial heavens that we call the Big Dipper? In North Africa it’s called the Drinking Gourd. So the message to enslaved people in America was, ‘follow the drinking gourd.’

She shows us millet.

On a pathway she shows us pots that were originally planted out for the opening of the Nevin Welcome Center in 2010 and now need to be moved inside every cold season and outdoors again in the spring. Be careful what you do because if you do it exceptionally well they’re going to ask you to do it over and over.

The tropical Princess flower, she tells us, is her favorite. She’s very soft, and has silver glitter on the leaves and flower.

The, a relative of the tomato.

 But it’s seriously saying, Don’t bite me. No grazing, please. It has a fruit that can be brewed into a very potent alcohol.

Dana does a special symbiosis tour once a month in which she talks about the relationship between plants. She calls it secrets of the garden.

Lest you think this tour is all about flowers and fruits, it is not. There is art.

And plenty of trees. She shows us the tulip poplar.

It is neither tulip nor poplar. But it is the tallest tree native to this region. Liriodendron tulipifera, she tells us, has musical instrument-shaped leaves and tulip-shaped flowers. This particular specimen is equipped with lightning rods that don’t happen to be attached to its ground rod.

It’s probably eighty to one hundred years old.

Dana explains the difference between and annual and a perennial plant. It’s pretty basic, she says. She explains the meaning of the word cultivar.

She shows us an aluminum tag.

Students come In and randomize these tags. It’s not funny!

These just keep spreading.

I’m touching everything. I can’t help it. I want to learn about everything here. I’m reminded of the lines from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass:

The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

We see a mammoth zelkova.

Dana shows us an Eastern white pine.

It’s the tallest conifer native to this region, she tells the group. It was tremendously important to the Indigenous people here. The Five Tribes were warring, and they met beneath a white pine. And a leader said they’d be more successful if they worked together than if they fought. That was Hiawatha. We lifted their agreement for our constitution. We stole it. The Five Nations came together as the Haudenosaunee. Their symbol shows a white pine with all the weapons buried at the base and at the top an eagle overseeing the whole thing.


She shows us the needles that grow in fascicles.

There are five needles in each fascicle of an Eastern white pine. That’s how you can always identify the species.

Also, Dana says, you can brew the needles to make a tea that has more vitamin C than a lemon by squishing them and boiling them. It’s pale gold and slightly sweet, a treat you can make for your friends.

We stop by a Cornelian cherry dogwood.

Cornus mas, she says, giving us the scientific name. Mas means male in Greek. The Greeks used the wood to build their weapons of war. Since it was the wood used to make the boy stuff it was termed mas – male.

This tree probably predated the adjoining building.

Oh, just a boring begonia.

Dana brings us to the herb garden. An herb simply means the plant’s not woody, she explains. In the herb garden you’ll find things that are significant to humanity that are not food-based. She tells us that in the garden we’ll find a bed of herbs related to literature: You can find rue, shake its little hand.

We enter. Bruise a few leaves, inhale the scent of sage.

She says, I want you to scratch and sniff. First, touch this plant.

Then, run fast over to this other flower and inhale.

Peppermint patty! And she is absolutely correct, as always. The first plant is mint, the second has the distinctive aroma of chocolate.

She relates the origin of the term nosegay. I didn’t know I’d ever wondered about that, but now I find myself getting curiouser and curiouser, as Lewis Carroll’s Alice would have it.

A nosegay was a bunch of herbs you’d carry against the stench of the world back in the Victorian era, it turns out. And you’d need a tussie mussie to hold it. Horse-drawn carriages actually have mounts to put these tussie mussies in.

Conveniently, Dana has a tussie mussie on hand to show us.

I peel off from the group, meet an energetic hound named Texie who seems to be inordinately stimulated by the herb garden’s scents.

I spot a Thai super-hot pepper.


Grain amaranth.


Lean in. Perfection in pink. I feel hypnotized by its fuschia.

I see the rue, shake its little hand.

Little purple flower. So boring!

Just when I think life could not get any better, I come to a tree.

I hear a kid say, It’s still living and they cut right through it! Within its massive trunk hangs a gong. The kid says to his mother, brother and grandmother, Let me show you the best thing!

We all observe the fish he points to in a small nearby pool.

They look happy there, says grandma. The kid’s brother rings the gong. Now we can have a mindful moment, says the kid. Such a super sound! says the mom.

I offer to take their picture. They offer to take mine, and I pose looking even more supercilious than usual, and quite a bit content.

I tear myself away from the happy family to see the Bird’s Eye Pepper, which has grown in Africa for centuries. One last picture before my phone runs out of juice!

No, one more! Hibiscus.

Inside the Welcome Center, I inspect a display of tree rings. Even my toe is lucky.

A lucky day all around. Fortune smiles on those of us who happen to be on Dana’s tour of Cornell Gardens this perfect first day of Fall.