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Jim Munson

From left: Dave Bush; trustees Elizabeth Cambria and James Kelly; Christine Berardi of National Grid Foundation; trustees Laura Gerde, Gretchen Oldrin Mones, and Jack DeMasi; and Elizabeth-Wayland Morgan. Photo from Vanderbilt Museum
Century-old estate trail reclaimed, enhanced

William K. Vanderbilt II built a hiking trail in the 1920s on his Eagle’s Nest waterfront estate in Centerport that became overgrown and disappeared into the forest. The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum, located at Eagle’s Nest, has reclaimed the trail, and held a grand opening in November. Major project donors and museum trustees attended the event in the Rose Garden, which is also the trailhead.

Now called the Solar System Hiking Trail, the course includes a scale model of the Solar System, which complements STEM and astronomy-education programs offered by the Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium.

“This is a long-awaited day. We are grateful to Christine Berardi and the National Grid Foundation for 10 years of outstanding, unwavering support and to Vanderbilt trustee Laura Gerde and her husband, Eric Gerde. Their ongoing contributions to our STEM programming include the exhibits in the Planetarium lobby. Their steadfast support makes it possible for the Museum to expand its work as a leader in astronomy and science education,” said Elizabeth Wayland-Morgan, executive director of the Vanderbilt Museum.

Other project donors are Marilyn and Russell Albanese, BAE Systems, Farrell Fritz Attorneys, Northwell Health, People’s United Bank, and PFM Asset Management.

Wayland-Morgan said Dave Bush, the director of the Charles and Helen Reichert Planetarium, “single-handedly created the Solar System trail — I don’t think there’s a program like this anywhere else.” She also thanked Jim Munson, the museum’s operations supervisor. “Jim noticed portions of the original trail and saw its potential. He said let’s do this.” 

Bush said that scale models of the solar system have been created before at museums, science centers, and universities. “But the Vanderbilt’s trail is likely the only one that traverses a one-mile hiking trail with hundreds of feet in elevation changes,” he said. “It is an opportunity for visitors to learn about the bodies in our solar system and its vast scale, and to see and experience parts of the museum property that have never been seen before by the public.”

Francis Halstead adds flowers to a railing in the Vanderbilt Mansion courtyard.

Francis Halstead is one of 11 garden designers and local nurseries taking part in the third annual Gardeners Showcase at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport through September, along with the Vanderbilt’s corps of volunteer gardeners. He is the first participant, however, to plant flowers of his own creation in some of the Vanderbilt Mansion gardens and terraces.

Hybrid Brugmansia or Angel’s Trumpet, in the Vanderbilt Mansion Sundial Garden

Halstead, who started Flowers by Friends in 2012 in Levittown, is a self-trained horticulturalist. “I went to Farmingdale State College for a single semester,” he said, “but most of what I’ve learned has been self-taught. I first became interested in gardening when I worked for a grower in Colorado. I’ve put myself into situations where I could also learn from experts in the field.”

Some of those experts were his colleagues at Hicks Nurseries in Westbury, where he became lead tropical flower grower.

While working in Colorado, Halstead also became interested in exotic plants, including ethnobotanicals, specifically Brugmansia. (Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous plants.) Many of the hybrids he planted in the Sundial Garden are Brugmansia, flowering ornamental plants. They are also called Angel’s Trumpets for their large, fragrant flowers.

“When I saw what the leading Brugmansia growers were producing, I became fascinated,” he said. “I was inspired when I imagined what the hybrids would look like in a flower show. That’s what really drives me. At Flowers by Friends, we design flower shows using new hybrids of rare exotic plants. We want to educate people about their importance.”

In learning about horticulture and building his business, Halstead said he was guided by a philosophical quote from the singer and rapper Kevin Gates: “Anything lost can be found again, except for time wasted. A vision without action is merely a dream.”

Jim Munson, the Vanderbilt’s operations supervisor, who created and oversees the Gardeners Showcase, said, “Francis’s hybrids in the Sundial Garden are in full bloom now. People will not see these flowers anywhere else because, through botany, he has cross-pollinated different flowers to create completely new floral hybrids. His creations are utterly spectacular.”

Halstead also has planted all the flowerpots around the restored saltwater pool and created a display for the fountain in the alcove beneath the staircase to the pool. In addition, he brought in Nelson Demarest, the head garden designer at Hicks Nursery for the last 40 years. Together they created planters for all the balconies in the Mansion courtyard, Munson said.

To produce hybrid flowers, Halstead chooses the flowers he wants to cross-pollinate. “Then, you have to cross them depending on which traits you would want to see in your new seedlings,” he said. “After that, you let the seeds develop, harvest them, name them by the crosses, and plant them.”

Once the plants start to develop, he picks out the ones he no longer wants and grows the others. It takes three years before a Brugmansia cultivar is stable enough to be named. Halstead said few people outside of the plant-growing community know about Brugmansia:

“I sell them through flower shows. That is my real business. Growing plants and creating art with them.”

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. For more information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

Photos by Jim Munson