A September Visit to The Corning Museum of Glass

A few years ago, on this last, Indian-summerish week of September, I visited one of my very favourite buildings filled with some of my very favourite things, surrounded by some of my very favourite plants: big ornamental grasses, in all their swishing, early autumn glory.

Ornamental Grasses at Corning Museum of Glass

Yes, I was in the Corning Museum of Glass (CMOG) in Corning, upstate New York, halfway between New York City and Niagara Falls.  Pretty cool architectural curves, huh?

Corning Museum of Glass

The grasses are gorgeous, forming a soft, fountain-like counterpoint to the hard edges of the modernist lines of both building and landscape elements, like the black steel fence along the entrance driveway.

Steel fence & grasses

And my very favourite ‘things’ in the building? Well, of course, those would be glass things. Sculptural glass, like this hanging Fern Green Tower (2000) by Dale Chihuly, a gift from the artist and the signature piece in the museum’s glass-walled lobby…

Lobby-Corning Museum of Glass

Here’s a closer look at Fern Green Tower.

Fern Green Tower by Chihuly

Because of my love for all things green, it was natural that I paid special attention to that verdant hue in some of the museum’s collected works.  So, naturally, I was drawn to this emerald-green chandelier crafted by F. & C. Osler of Birmingham, England around 1870.

Chandelier by F. & C. Osler

But also to this simple green bird by Finnish artist Oiva Toikka, and titled Kiikkuri (c 1974).

Kiikkuri by Oiva Toikka

Did you know that glass can come from trees?  As a garden writer, I was fascinated by these waldglas goblets.  In English, the word translates as “forest glass”, and in fact one of the ingredients in this glass recipe used by rural German glassblowers in the Middle Ages was ash from trees and ferns. I like to think the green colour actually arose from green leaves (even though, yes, I do know about chlorophyll), but it came instead from iron impurities in the sand used in the glass. Still, it does remind me of the forest…..

Waldglas - Forest Glass

What about the green in this stunning mosaic bowl?  It comes from the eastern Mediterranean and dates from the Late 2nd – 1st Century BC. According to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, “Multicolored canes of mosaic glass were created, then stretched to shrink the patterns and either cut across into small, circular pieces or lengthwise into strips. These were placed together to form a flat circle, heated until they fused, and the resulting disk was then sagged over or into a mold to give the object its shape.”  Here’s a good blog post on mosaic bowls.

Roman Mosaic Bowl

And there’s an entire gallery at the CMOG devoted to renowned glassmaker Louis Comfort Tiffany, who certainly loved his greens, including the leaves in the garden scene of this 1905 window for the Gothic Revial mansion Rochroane Castle, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

Tiffany window - Corning Nuseum of Glass

The gift shop is filled with thousands of delectable glass items, including bottles, wine glasses, and hanging ornaments and balls like these ones.

Corning Museum of Glass gift items

And my friends know how much I love glass balls, like these witch’s balls hanging in my living room window.  I shot this photo the morning after our historic December 21, 2013 ice storm – that’s my ice-laden Japanese maple outside the window.

My Witch's balls - December 21 ice storm

Apart from the galleries, the CMOG has a demonstration theatre with a furnace where you can learn about all the steps in the ancient art of glassblowing.

Glassblower- Corning Museum

There’s even a studio where you can reserve a spot to blow your own glass ornament.

Glassblowing Studio

That’s me below in the protective goggles getting a lesson.  (Why didn’t I make a green ornament? Ah, I remember. It was a very rare and distinctive rose glass.)

Glassblowing lesson

And of course there are glass walls everywhere at the museum, some looking out onto those grasses….


And others offering stunning views from the cafeteria.

Corning Museum of Glass cafeteria

At this time of year, green is slowly disappearing outdoors.  Here, the green chlorophyll has gone from the locust trees in the museum’s courtyard, lending them their distinctive yellow fall finery.

Courtyard-Corning Museum of Glass

This amazing museum is still expanding with a big new gallery area, thanks to a massive infusion of cash by glassmaker Corning, Inc.   It’s definitely worth a return trip.

Sparing the ‘Rod, Spoiling the Bees

If seeding goldenrod on a property already bursting with goldenrod species is bringing coals to Newcastle, colour me soot-black.  Because that is what I did several years ago, on the basis of one September plant sighting in a border at the Montreal Botanical Garden.  It was my first introduction to Solidago speciosa and I was charmed.  The following November, I threw a few ounces of seed around our cottage property on Lake Muskoka, a few hours north of Toronto.

Showy goldenrod - a good wildling

When scores of seedlings with bright-red stems and rather large, floppy leaves appeared the following spring, growing less than 30 cm (1 foot) high in their first season, I was a little puzzled as to their intentions. Little did I know that the showy goldenrod was growing tenacious tap roots well down into our sandy-gravelly, acidic soil until they hit the hard granite of the Precambrian Shield on which I garden here at the cottage.  Then it was content and ready to grow tall the next season, though always with large, floppy basal leaves.

Solidago speciosa on Lake Muskoka

Speciosa means “showy” and showy goldenrod lives up to its billing.  Depending on the richness of the soil and its moisture-retentiveness, it ranges in height from 120-150 cm (4 to 5 feet) and its dense inflorescence packed with tiny golden flowers is indeed very beautiful.  As mentioned, the stem (not on all plants, but most) is rich red, adding to the visual appeal.  But, like all its golden-flowered cousins, it is not a plant to encourage if you’re nervous about invasive tendencies for it is not only showy, but a little pushy, too. However, its single-stemmed growth habit means it isn’t quite as difficult to remove as a tangled thicket of Canada goldenrod (S. canadensis) or even the rough-leafed goldenrod (S. rugosa) shown below, whose roots found a devious hiding spot under huge boulders placed to hold the soil at the top of our hillside.

Rough-leafed goldenrod-Solidago rugosa

What is very distinctive about showy goldenrod is its ultra-late flowering season.  Long after the bees have taken all the nectar from the Canada goldenrod, rough-leafed goldenrod, gray goldenrod (S. nemoralis) and stout goldenrod (S. squarrosa) and merging with the end of the season of stiff goldenrod (S. rigida), showy goldenrod comes along like an early autumn candy shop, ready to dispense its pollinator favours until after Canadian thanksgiving in October, barring a hard freeze.

Solidago speciosa with native bees

With the many fall asters coming into bloom, it is now the sweet game in town for the bees.  Bumble bees, other native bees and hoverflies are crazy about it and on a sunny day in late September or early October, the golden plumes are literally crawling with them.  As night temperatures drop, I often find bumble bees sleeping on them in the morning, waiting for enough solar heat to power their wings.  It will be the very last flower they see in their short lives.

Solidago speciosa - closeup

And like all the other goldenrods, of course, it is a great cut flower, and charming in a late September bouquet, especially with other late season perennials like magenta-pink New York ironweed (Vernonia novaboracensis), sweet blackeyed Susan (Rudbeckia tomentosa) and sky-blue aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiensis).

Showy goldenrod with late wildflowers

And, no, goldenrods do not cause allergies – it’s the nefarious ragweed (Ambrosia artemesiifolia) blooming at the same time with its innocuous flowers that is the culprit.

Glorious September Flowers

The first week of September seems to be its very own kind of mellow.  Everything about it:  lazy cicadas droning; bees buzzing, seeking the last nectar of the season; kids heading back to school, all polished and excited; that tang of autumn in the air, even as Indian summer thunderstorms threaten the quiet morning.  And that’s just today.  In my slightly messy front garden not far from downtown Toronto, the September-blooming perennials are at their peak.

My early September garden

The mini-hedge of ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum (Hylotelephium telephium ‘Herbstfreude’) is opening its thousands of tiny pink flowers, attracting many types of nectar-seeking bees, flies and butterflies before turning that lovely russet-red that carries it into autumn.

Bee-friendly Sedum 'Autumn Joy'

There is a nicely-behaved goldenrod, Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’ that weaves its way gracefully through other flowers. (And some uninvited cousins that will have to be ejected.)

Solidago sphacelata 'Golden Fleece'

I love the magenta flower spikes of obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), In richer, moister soil, it might spread aggressively and the flower stems might grow tall and flop. But in this garden, lack of extra irrigation keeps it at a reasonable height and its spread is welcome.

Physostegia virginiana & Sedum 'Autumn Joy'

The bees love it, too, especially carpenter bees whose strong tongues can pierce the corolla to access or “rob” the sweet nectar.  Later, honey bees and bumble bees will use these pre-drilled holes to acquire their own nectar.

Carpenter bee nectar-robbing physostegia

And it looks beautiful with the ‘Golden Fleece’ goldenrod as well.

Physostegia virginiana & Solidago sphacaleta 'Golden Fleece'

The biggest perennial — and most problematic to me, for its eager spreading ways — is Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, shown here against the house behind a big drift of Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’, which has been generously blooming for several weeks.  This robust, naturally-occurring hybrid of Helianthus pauciflorus var. subrhomboideus and Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus,is a wonderful plant for naturalistic gardens, provided you plan ahead for placement.  At 6-feet (2m) plus, it needs to be back of border, not mid-prairie muscling out everything around it.

Helianthus 'Lemon Queen' behind Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'

But the bees are awfully fond of it, too. So I may move it next spring — or I may not…..

Bee on Helianthus 'Lemon Queen'