HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

Art, Plants and a Historic House: Hamilton NJ

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Seward Johnson's Sculpture "Down to Earth" Grounds for Sculpture

Seward Johnson’s Sculpture “Down to Earth” Grounds for Sculpture – Hamilton, NJ

Grounds for Sculpture and Sayen House and Gardens

One of my most favorite trees (and contrary to popular belief they are not ALL my favorites) is the Katsura Tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). Typically I focus on native plants and their role in our ecosystem and place in plant communities. I like to explore faunal associations and examine their potential for ornamental use. This tree, native to Japan, captures all of my attention because of its fragrance. Katsuras don’t emit their perfume when flowering like most trees do. Katsura give off the most wonderfully sweet fragrance just before their leaves start to change into their apricot splendor of autumn. The scent is distinctive enough that you will smell it before you even see a Katsura and just know one is around, somewhere.

Fall is my favorite season. We are so lucky here in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic that we get to experience the changing of the seasons through riotous colors thrown together painting hillsides, roadways and mountaintops. As I look out my window Red Oak (Quercus rubra) leaves are just starting to show the crimson they are known for and the cat-faced shaped leaves of Tulip Trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) are turning golden. The only thing that makes this show better is the addition of fragrance and that’s where Katsura comes in.

I, accidentally, timed my visit to Grounds for Sculpture just perfectly for a stunning sensory experience. The place is loaded with Katsura trees and they were all alerting their presence on the breeze. Sculptures you can get up close to and touch, ornamental gardens and Katsura perfume in the air. I was in heaven. A little early for fall color, but if there was fall color, there wouldn’t have been any perfume on the wind. Some compare the scent to cotton candy, others liken it to brown sugar or a cake baking. In fact, according to Michael Dosmann, curator of living collections at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, “Germans call this tree ‘kuchenbaum,’ which translates to ‘cake tree’.”


Not sure if it was being distracted deeply inhaling while exploring the grounds or because it was my first visit, but frequently I wasn’t sure if I was looking at a sculpture or real people. As I ventured through the many plant tunnels and hallways directing me towards views and art, I would encounter people and would have to wait a heartbeat or two to see if they moved to know for sure if they were another very lifelike sculpture of Johnson’s or other folks like me, taking in art and plants on a gorgeous fall day.

Sculpture... or is it?

Sculpture… or is it?

It is interesting visiting an art-focused venue to look at the plants. Some trees here have numbers and are labeled. I asked the person at the Info counter about these to see if there was a ‘Tree Tour’ or brochure they could give me. The woman informed me that back in the day they had a brochure, but they don’t have it available any more. Of course I was disappointed but judging by her reaction I was the only person to ask about this in, oh, forever. After all, with all this great art – who cares about the plants!

The plants were part of the sculptures everywhere:

Carefully shaped boxwoods compliment a contemporary sculpture.

Carefully shaped boxwoods compliment a contemporary sculpture.

Which is the sculpture?

Which is the sculpture?

This weeping Norway Spruce nearly exactly mimics the shape of this sculpture.

This weeping Norway Spruce nearly exactly mimics the shape of this sculpture.

A carpet of Lotus draws your eye to this intimate view.

A carpet of Lotus draws your eye to this intimate view.

Plants were used to direct you to outdoor galleries, sculptures and designed views.

In some cases, the nature was the art.

Dancers by Alexander Rutsch

Dancers by Alexander Rutsch

Notice how the colors and shape of this sculpture mimic those of the Japanese Maple.

Sculpture and Japanese Maple

Sculpture and Japanese Maple

Some days Mother Nature keeps you guessing about the artist’s inspiration. I love how the clouds are shaped just like this sculpture.

Clouds mimic this sculpture or is it the other way around?

Clouds mimic this sculpture or is it the other way around?

There’s so much more to see, and through July 2015 Grounds for Sculpture is featuring a Retrospective of founder Seward Johnson featuring Forever Marilyn and the hopelessly romantic Unconditional Surrender and many other lifelike sculptures for which the founder is so well known. I am sure the spring there is magnificent and with the diversity of plants found on this 42 acre campus the displays are sure to be stunning.

While You Are In The Area

A few minutes drive away is the Sayen House and Gardens, a free public garden operated by the town of Hamilton NJ. The peak time for visiting this garden is spring when their collection of more than 1500 azaleas and rhododendrons bloom on the 30 acre parcel.  This is not my fist visit here and I can attest to the beauty of this display. But I also enjoyed my recent visit. It was quiet and Autumn was just starting to show its face in these gardens.

Fall Blooming Flowers

Fall Fruits

Pathways lead you to various rooms with a view.

One of the Views

Someone in one of my classes asked me what evolutionary purpose the Kastura scent serves. After all, most plants have a fragrance to attract pollinators to blooms to create seeds. Science still hasn’t come up with a reason for this fragrance, but this does lead to the bigger discussion of the role of plants in nature and the even bigger discussion of the responsibilities of Public Gardens and Arboreta in not perpetuating the invasive plants that are degrading our precious natural areas. I certainly saw plantings at Grounds for Sculpture that concerned me. Though the plants were sculptural and framed artwork in stunning ways, I just knew some of them were escaping the grounds to impact the preserved woodlands nearby. Admittedly Katsura is not native, it has also not shown invasive tendencies (so far, I know..I know), it is not a natural part of our ecology here in the US. But all of us have our vices, right? Katsura is mine.

One thought on “Art, Plants and a Historic House: Hamilton NJ

  1. Pingback: The Tyler Formal Gardens | HORT travels

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