The Holiday Train Show at New York's Botanical Garden

An overview of Rockefeller Plaza includes the Empire State Building, Radio Center Music Hall, the Chrysler Building and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
An overview of Rockefeller Plaza includes the Empire State Building, Radio Center Music Hall, the Chrysler Building and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Every year during the winter holiday season, the New York Botanical Garden’s Enid A. Haupt Conservatory is transformed into a miniature urban wonderland featuring models of New York’s iconic landmarks. Some are extant, while others represent historic structures that no longer exist.

The 250-acre New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx was established in 1891 by the New York state legislature. Inspired by botanists, and still partially financed by civic leaders and financiers, the Botanical Garden is renowned for its extensive plant collection, educational programs, plant research and conservation. The annual Holiday Train Show is perhaps its most popular exhibit.

The mood is set for visitors as they are greeted at the conservatory’s entrance by teenage “railway engineer” volunteers dressed in blue and white striped overalls and caps, with red bandanas tied at their necks.

Before entering the main show, visitors can take a preview look at “The World’s Largest Store,” a 3-foot-tall model of an eight-story building. Its sign is spelled out in red, white and green lentils, and it’s crowned with a wreath of tiny pine cones accented with cayenne peppers and tiny red gourds.

Set amid the conservatory’s existing greenery and seasonal potted plants, the model buildings in the exhibit are not meant to replicate New York City, but to form an enchanting magical city.

The primary enchantment for children and many adults is the G-gauge railway system that runs among the buildings at knee level, and upon wooden trestles, high overhead. With as many as 14 trains and trolleys running at any time, there’s not a long wait between train-spottings. During our visit one child’s joyful exclamation rang out — trains, trains, everywhere!

This exhibit qualifies as a garden story, because all of the architectural features on the model buildings consist of plant materials. Paul Busse, the originator and designer of these annual shows since 1992, earned his degree in Landscape Architecture in 1972, but decided that the profession limited his creative spirit.

He established a business in Garden Railway design in 1982, and soon developed a reputation for the wondrous landscapes he built around model trains that were set among structures decorated with plant parts. His reputation took off after he mounted the first Holiday Train Show for the New York Botanical Garden in 1992. New buildings are added each year and every show is different. Now there are more than 140 buildings in the collection, with about 60 displayed every year.

Within the conservatory’s tropical house, a display shows how the model buildings are created. Each building begins with a bare, boxlike form that depicts the essence of the structure. The iconic architectural features are attached, and a base coat of sand applied.

All the remaining details consist of plant materials. Tiny rectangles of bark are used to represent a stone or brick facade. Rows of overlapping pine cone bracts become roof shingles. Eucalyptus, magnolia and oak leaves might also serve as shingles. In this year’s show, the model of a building from 1730 had a realistic thatched roof of wheat straw. Window mullions are painstakingly constructed of tiny straight twigs. Curved twigs can become balcony railings and other architectural features.

With so much to delight the imaginations of both young and old, it’s no wonder that this is one of New York City’s favorite holiday experiences.

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