In the Garden: High Above Cayuga’s Waters—Cornell Plantations


by Charles Kidder

Charles Kidder at Cornell Plantations
Charles Kidder at Cornell Plantations

Cornell Plantations is the umbrella term for several gardens and natural areas belonging to Cornell University. Perhaps only the most rabid plant geeks would make an all-day drive just to see gardens, worthy though they may be, so allow me to don the travel writer hat and tempt you to the Finger Lakes area of western New York.

These eleven long, narrow lakes stretch southward across a ninety-mile swath between Rochester and Syracuse. They are all natural lakes, carved out by glaciers in the relatively recent past. And to me, natural lakes always look more “right” than man-made impoundments. Most of the Finger Lakes are of moderate size, although Seneca and Cayuga Lakes are both about 35 miles long and three miles wide. Seneca is the deepest at over 600 feet, and therefore rarely freezes over. The open waters help to modify the local climate and provide favorable growing conditions for grapes.

The lakes sit at the northern edge of the Appalachian Plateau, a geographical feature that stretches south into Alabama. As anyone who has driven through this plateau in West Virginia would know, the terrain is hardly flat. It’s a plateau only in the sense that the underlying rocks are not folded like they are in most of western Virginia, but sit in almost horizontal layers. Nevertheless, time has allowed rivers and streams to dissect the plateau into rolling hills and long valleys. In this part of western New York, some of these “hills” are over 2,000 feet in elevation, essentially qualifying them as mountains. Much of the terrain is cleared for farms and vineyards, affording long vistas of corn and cows.

In addition to scooping out the valleys that the Finger Lakes occupy, glaciers played another role in creating the area scenery by carving out numerous glens and gorges. Through these run streams that form numerous pools, rapids and waterfalls. A few miles north of Ithaca lies Taughannock Falls, one of the highest single drops in the East at over two hundred feet. You can view it easily from a parking lot at the top of its gorge, or from the base at the end of a pleasant three quarter-mile hike.

I’ve alluded to grape growing in the Finger Lakes, and there are over one hundred wineries in the area. Many offer tours and have restaurants on the premises. I pulled into one for lunch last year, and was taking in the pleasant weather and a gorgeous view of Cayuga Lake near Kidders Landing, where a presumed distant relation once operated a ferry. I heard another traveler remark to her friends, “Now, remind me why I live in Texas?!” The response: “Because that’s where you earn a living.” Ah, well…

The area has numerous charming small towns, many with fine examples of Greek revival architecture. Virginia planters came here in the early nineteenth century and established farms such as Rose Hill near Geneva, which is open to visitors. The Johnson Museum of Art on Cornell’s campus is worthwhile not only for its collections, but also for the vista of the lake and the hills from the top level. But I think I’ve given you enough reason to head to the Finger Lakes, so let’s explore Cornell Plantations.

The Botanical Garden covers 25 acres and includes 12 themed gardens. The Plantations’ headquarters and gift shop are housed in the former Forest Home Elementary School, with the Herb Garden finding a good home on the old playground. With great splashes of color from annuals and perennials, it’s surrounded by raised beds built of the local sedimentary stone, a variety of conifers spilling gracefully over the edges.

Near the headquarters building are a couple of impressive specimen trees. One is a bigleaf magnolia, a southern tree, but doing fine here and sporting its two-foot-long leaves. Just around the corner is one of the largest Cornelian Cherries I’ve ever seen, with trunks one foot in diameter. In late summer it’s covered with many bright red fruits, but despite the name, it’s actually a dogwood from Asia.

On Rhododendron Hill, I saw an extensive collection of azaleas and rhododendrons, as well as many conifers that are attractive if you’re too late for the blooms. There were also a couple of deciduous trees with beautiful bark: the Stewartia pseudocamellia displays heavily mottling, somewhat reminiscent of our crape myrtles; the Acer tegmentosum—a maple—has green bark overlain with white stripes, like a giant garter snake.

The 150-acre Arboretum portion of the plantations is a short drive away from the Botanical Garden. One of its most picturesque trees is a gnarled old willow along the Woodland Walk, looking like some scary tree out of a children’s book. Numerous trails meander among trees and shrubs and beside streams and ponds. If you tire of carefully examining all the plants, there are benches where you can just plop down and enjoy the views.

And none of these Cornell gardens require an admission fee, in part owing to the fact that Cornell is a public land-grant institution. Or, to be more precise, Cornell is an unusual hybrid. The Agriculture and Veterinary Schools are public institutions, while the liberal arts college is private.

When is a good time to head to Cornell and the Finger Lakes? Summers are generally much more comfortable than here, and a short growing season leads to a big explosion of color—even if a lot of it comes from ditch lilies! Fall is spectacular, with color peaking around Columbus Day. There are some times to avoid, though. Big weekends at Cornell are likely to be very busy. Also, the race circuit at Watkins Glen hosts two big events, when motels in the entire area fill up and prices triple. IndyCar races are usually the first weekend of July, and NASCAR comes to town in early August.