How Central Park got its Shakespeare Garden

It’s hidden in Central Park near West 81st Street: a four-acre oasis of winding hillside paths and wooden benches resplendent with colorful, fragrant plants and flowers.

But this lovely green space of quiet and peace near Belvedere Castle isn’t just any garden in the park.

It’s the Shakespeare Garden—filled with a dazzling display of the trees, plants, and flowers that William Shakespeare referenced in his poems of plays. It’s also designed to evoke the English countryside of the 1600s.

Like many of Central Park’s magnificent landscapes, the Shakespeare Garden never appeared in the original plans for the park laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the 1850s.

How the garden made it into the park near West 81st Street has to do with the Shakespeare garden fad of the early 20th century in England and America, sparked by Shakespeare’s 300th birthday in 1916.

What eventually became the Shakespeare Garden started out as the “Garden of the Heart,” created in 1913 as a garden for kids to learn about nature by Dr. Edmond Bronk Southwick.

 Southwick (below right) was the park entomologist—and also an avid Shakespeare fan, according to Garden Collage.

He either took it upon himself or was nudged by city officials (sources vary) to turn this very popular children’s garden into a landscape of “beautiful plants and flowers mentioned in the works of the playwright, as well as those featured in Shakespeare’s own private garden in Stratford-upon-Avon,” states CentralPark.com.

(Above right, the garden in 1916, with a waterfall that’s no longer there.)

On April 23, 1916—as part of the city’s Shakespeare Tercentenary Week—Southwick’s children’s garden was formally renamed the Shakespeare Garden, the Sun reported.

In its early years, the city’s Shakespeare Society and Southwick himself maintained the array of plants, including columbine, primrose, wormwood, quince, lark’s heel, rue, eglantine, flax, and cowslip, according to CentralParkNYC.org.

But the Society broke up in 1929, and the Shakespeare Garden went into a long decline, eventually restored and saved by the Central Park Conservatory and volunteers.

The Shakespeare Garden has undergone some changes. Plaques containing quotes from the Bard’s works can now be found beside some of the plants.

Also, a mulberry tree that supposedly grew from a mulberry cutting from Shakespeare’s actual garden was felled by a 2006 storm and had to be removed.

Today it remains a magical, slightly secretive spot in the park with spectacular flowers that would likely get a nod of approval from the writer behind the English language’s most romantic poetry and plays—and anyone seeking serenity and beauty. (And a place to curl up with a book!)

Central Park’s garden is not the only Shakespeare Garden in the city. The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has one, too.

[Fifth and sixth images: New York Times, 1916]

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7 Responses to “How Central Park got its Shakespeare Garden”

  1. beth Says:

    how wonderful, I had no idea

  2. The "Attacked by a Metal Banjo" Edition Says:

    […] The history of Central Park’s Shakespeare Garden. (Ephemeral New York) […]

  3. mcrmom614 Says:

    We just visited this spot last month, without really knowing it was there. In fact, a couple got engaged there right before I walked past them.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I think it’s probably a big engagement spot; it’s beautiful and feels so private!

  5. Bob Says:

    This story, combined with last week’s story about the Schieffelin family, reminded me of your story about another 19th century Schieffelin who was also inspired by Shakespeare but instead of plants it was to bring foreign, invasive bird species to Central Park:

    https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/how-starlings-got-their-start-in-central-park/

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Bob for that link—I had completely forgotten that the man who brought starlings to the park was a Schieffelin!

  6. [Blog Glück] September 2019 – Seitenglueck Says:

    […] der Kunstwerke in der Stadt, die an die Anschläge erinnern.  Außerdem fand ich den Beitrag zum Shakespeare Garden im Central Park interessant und die Überbleibsel von Craigs […]

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