On a recent spring day, I had the opportunity to visit Planting Fields, located in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Once a remarkable private estate, it is now managed by the State of New York. Its name comes from the Matinecock Indians–the original cultivators of the fertile clearings above Long Island Sound. Although Henry Hudson stopped briefly at Long Island (Coleman’s Point in 1609) on his way to the Hudson River, the island was eventually settled by the Dutch, who named it “Lange Eylandt;” Oyster Bay was an early Dutch farming community.
Through the 19th century, Long Island’s whaling, fishing and farming supplied the expanding markets of New York City. By century’s turn, growing city congestion combined with “Gilded Age” fortunes inspired some wealthy New Yorkers to establish estates in the nearby Long Island countryside. William Robertson Coe was a British immigrant who made good in the insurance industry and then married into the railroads. His hobbies included raising race horses, and collecting rare books– particularly those pertaining to the American West. At Planting Fields, he developed an interest in horticulture, and subsequently collected rhododendrons, azaleas, camellias and hibiscus. New plant varieties and modern horticultural techniques became a great interest of his, which may have contributed to his deeding the property to the state in 1949.
Many of the period’s biggest names in American horticulture made significant contributions. This is evident in both the grand sweep of the surviving landscape, and in smaller details—for instance, as you walk through the greenhouses—designed and constructed both by Lowell/Sargent and the Olmsted Brothers. When Mr. Coe ordered a large shipment of camellias from the Isle of Guernsey in 1916 before realizing they would not survive New York winters, he had Lowell and Sargent build a new greenhouse for them right away. Today, the Camellia House is the home of one the largest collections of its kind under glass, and their blooming period peaks in late February.
The diverse plant collections in the five-acre Synoptic Gardens guarantee that there is always something interesting in bloom. These gardens contain a collection of the best plants to grow in Long Island gardens–with a few exceptions they are arranged in alphabetical order by scientific name. The day I visited, both camellias (outdoors!) and magnolias were impressive. But there were witch hazels, rhododendrons, forsythia, and bulbs galore too.
I highly recommend a visit at this, or any other time of year.