Elgin-America's First Public Botanical Garden

Elgin-America's First Public  Botanical Garden
Imagine a delightful visit to a public conservatory in New York City during the early 1800s and seeing exotic tropical plants in full bloom. This was possible at the Elgin Botanical Garden, America’s very first such public garden. The conservatory and greenhouses featured gardenias, winter blooming camellias, and tropical hibiscus.

The brief but remarkable history of Elgin, located in Manhattan, N.Y. began in 1801 when its founder, Dr. David Hosack (1769-1835), bought twenty acres of land several miles from the city for a botanical garden. He was a well known and widely respected American physician as well as one of the best trained American botanists, and an educator with a deep interest in horticulture. He funded the entire cost of establishing and maintaining the garden after his efforts to receive backing from various organizations and institutions failed.

He began the garden the same year he was named a Professor of Botany at Columbia College (his alma mater), which later became Columbia University. Within four years Elgin featured around 1500 plants—both introduced and native ones. He played an important horticultural role by introducing new, exotic species to the country, such as the Japanese pagoda tree. As an educator, he envisioned the garden as a haven of beauty and a place of learning for botanists and students.

As a physician, he had a special interest in the art of healing and the role of medicinal plants. For Elgin, he also selected plants with useful or economic value. Native plants were another of the garden’s specialties. On each side of the conservatory, there were two hothouses that contained tender plants.

A few relics from Elgin still exist although the garden is long gone. One of those items is a catalog of the garden’s plants that Hosack published for students and visitors to use when visiting Elgin. There are also botanical sketches of certain plants that grew in the conservatory.

Elgin was based on the English botanical gardens at which Hosack studied while he was pursuing a degree at the University of Edinburgh.

The fact that Hosack was spending a tremendous amount of money annually on the operation and upkeep of the garden (around $100,000) was just one of the reasons the garden closed. It was sold to the State of New York for a little over $74,000. The garden was entrusted to the Regents of the University.

However, Hosack appeared to have various other reasons for closing Elgin. Among those was his many other professional duties and pursuits. This accomplished man not only founded the New York Horticultural Society and the New York Historical Society, but was also one of the founders of Bellevue Hospital. In addition, he was also a strong advocate for the poor. This renowned botanist even had a plant named for him—Camellia hosackia, a double flowered camellia.

After Hosack’s departure, Elgin experienced neglect until eventually the only thing remaining was the conservatory. Initially, the university leased the land, but later subdivided this and sold the individual parcels. The site of the Rockefeller Center was one of the plots. The center does feature a tribute to Hosack’s botanical legacy—the rooftop garden, which can be seen from the café at Saks. This roof garden, which is open to the public on rare occasions, was based on Hosack’s design of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

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