Promenade, 91st Street, Riverside Drive

Hearts & Flowers

Some of my favorite grade school memories are from Valentine’s Day.  We decorated boxes with red paper hearts, pink ribbons and flowers. In the days leading up to the celebration we watched as classmates slipped envelopes inside and anticipated the sweetness the messages would reveal.  The celebration of Valentine’s Day has spread around the world.  The day has something for every sense; chocolates for taste, flowers for scent and beauty, romantic words and cuddles of affection, an infusion of delights engaging our emotions.

While an anti-valentine movement objects to a single day for professing intimate love, I sweep away such concern by advocating celebration of all we love, our friends, family and earthly joys.  I remain a hopeful romantic. How does Valentine’s Day link us to gardens?  The Persian poet Rumi said it perfectly in the 13th century,  “My heart rushes into the garden tasting all the delights.”  We wander through perfumed air, touching our nose to the blossoms, select a perfectly ripe fruit and gaze on beautiful flowers, while listening to the music of water, bird songs and leaves rustling in the air.

Romantic gardens appeal to our imaginations with winding paths leading to a well-placed bench, shaded by an ivy-covered arbor.  Surrounded by ferns, roses and flowering stalks waving in the cooling breeze, the idyllic space calls us to daydream and linger.  Under flowering trees or moonlight, moments shared in a garden magnify our emotions.  People fall in love in gardens, (especially in the movies).

The Promenade at 91st street in Riverside Park in West Manhattan starred along with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in the final scene of the 1989 film, You’ve Got Mail.  Under a perfect blue sky, with the Hudson River sparkling through the trees, it established a beautiful romantic setting. The iris, peonies, poppies and sweet william are performing in the background as the true feelings of the characters are revealed.  A tree lined walk of honey locust trees provides an enchanted path to the happy ever after.

Not as well known as Central Park, yet also designed by Fredrick L. Olmsted, this garden began in 1866. Olmsted designed a four-mile stretch along the river in an English garden style.  The garden was modified in the 1930’s by Robert Moses who reclaimed the beauty of the area by covering rail lines and cleaning up the effects of the industrial revolution.  The stench of the slaughterhouses, the black smog of coal-powered trains coating the area were screened away by covering the rail line and by adding trees and landscaping.  Romantic garden spaces were designed as an escape from the harsh effects of daily life.  Gardens still offer this sanctuary today.


We have two hearts, one we live with and one we love with. If we linger in our gardens science tells us our biological heart benefits as our stress level is reduced and our heart rate lowers. For our loving heart, represented by those red paper cutouts, science tells us time spent in nature causes a spirit of generosity to grow, generating more caring for community and close relationships.

Recent research on cognitive brain function at the University of Michigan credits the “soft fascinations” of the natural world for improved memory and attention span. Improved attention span and a state of emotional openness allow the extraordinary beauty of the natural world to come into focus. This is the moment heart shaped leaves, ruffled flower petals, and subtle shades of color appear where once there was only a blur.

Whatever your position on Valentine’s Day consider the words of Robert Progue Harrison in his book Gardens, An Essay on the Human Condition, “For millennia and throughout world cultures, our predecessors conceived of human happiness in its perfected state as a garden existence.”  Hearts and flowers offer happiness in our gardens, a celebration of love you can enjoy all year long.  Chocolate is optional.

Originally published in Roots & Shoots, Maricopa County Master Gardener Newsletter

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