A first look at the enchanting Alice in Wonderland exhibit at New York Botanical Garden

Don't be late for this very important date.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Things to Do Editor
A white rabbit made of plants.
Photograph: Courtesy of New York Botanical Garden

Sometimes you’ll feel very tall, sometimes very small, and sometimes in awe of it all at this New York Botanical Garden exhibit that celebrates the magic of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. With a variety of botanical and artistic exhibitions throughout the Bronx garden’s 250 acres, “Wonderland: Curious Nature” encourages visitors to get “curiouser and curiouser” around every turn. 

See a massive white (well, actually green) rabbit made entirely of plants; explore an enchanting English garden with delightfully weird flora; climb through a rabbit hole; hang out in a house made of mycelium bricks; and much more at this sprawling exhibition. Wonderland: Curious Nature is now open and runs through October 27, 2024; installations will evolve with each season.

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In addition to dazzling with gorgeous flower displays, the exhibition also tips its hat to the era in which Lewis Carroll wrote about Alice’s adventures. In the 1800s, Victorians were fascinated by nature, and it’s worth trying to see the exhibit as they would have—agape with wonderment. The show is inspired by real-life plantings of the Oxford Botanic Garden, which Carroll was known to visit.

Colorful orange flowers with a mushroom sculpture.
Photograph: Courtesy of New York Botanical Garden

Begin the journey in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory where you'll see a pond with giant tropical water lilies that will grow even larger over the next few months. Over time, some can even stretch to six or seven feet in diameter—and they're strong enough to balance 50-60 pounds of weight! These water lilies were the "horticultural big game of their day," the botanical garden's Marc Hachadourian explains. "People were fascinated by them." Around the pond, soaring palms draw the gaze to the glass house above.

Next, meander through winding paths packed with wondrous plants like pastel-colored larkspur and the otherworldly tower of jewels with its delicate pink flowers and tentacle-like arms. These tall plants in neat arrangements evoke the traditional Victorian garden setting that Alice sought to enter. 

A woman dressed up the Red Queen at NYBG.
Photograph: By Rossilynne Skena Culgan for Time Out | An appearance by the Red Queen

Eventually, the formal garden gives way to a more rugged greenspace packed with softer meadow plantings like Alice would've played in before meeting the White Rabbit. Rocks and stumps harvested from the botanical garden decorate the area around the flowers. At first, you'll notice the stumps seem small, but then (as a nod to the story) they grow bigger and bigger. Eventually, you'll get a chance to climb through a larger-than-life stump and down the metaphorical rabbit hole into a land where plants devour insects and some even serve as a home to colonies of ants.

The garden's curators wanted to give the "impression of growing and shrinking," Hachadourian said.

A mushroom installation.
Photograph: Courtesy of New York Botanical Garden

On the way out of the conservatory, take a peek at two giant kinetic mushroom sculptures that move at random as if they're breathing. At night, they light up with colorful LED hues adding to the magical dreamscape. The sculptures dazzled audiences at the Burning Man festival and have traveled around the globe before landing here in New York City.

Even after exploring the conservatory displays, the exhibition is far from over. Head to the Mertz Library Building to dig into the scientific aspects of mind-altering plants and fungi. Plus, get a chance to experience some pretty trippy art. The library exhibition also explores how Alice's story has grown from a symbol of the countercultural movement to a global phenomenon. It even includes some of the most iconic quotes from the tales, like this one when Alice was asked, "Who are you?" She replied, "I'm never sure what I'm going to be, from one minute to another!"

Art installation showing a tiny landscape.
Photograph: Courtesy of New York Botanical Garden

After the library, it’s time for an adventure to the rose garden (don’t miss Yoko Ono’s oversized chess display while you’re there) and into the far reaches of the on-site forest to see a spectacular mirrored installation. Also step inside a fun-size house made entirely of mycelium bricks; it’s inspired by Alice’s uncanny growth spurt that sends her catapulting through the roof of a garden cottage. The garden’s free tram can help you get from place to place as you navigate the massive exhibition.

A mirrored art installation at the garden.
Photograph: Courtesy of New York Botanical Garden

Before you go, don’t be “late” for a “very important date” with the White Rabbit. This 12-foot creature, entirely made of plants, stands near the visitor center greeting all with his pocket watch on his chest.

You might notice one thing missing at the garden: Alice herself. That’s intentional. Just as Alice was the heroine of her own adventure, curators want you to find yourself in Alice’s transformative journey of curiosity in the garden and beyond.

People enjoying afternoon tea.
Photograph: Courtesy of New York Botanical Garden

Activities, from an opening weekend garden party to a fungi weekend in the fall to 21+ nighttime events, there are so many ways to experience the new exhibition. Also be sure to schedule time for a whimsical tea party.

Though it's now more than 150 years since the first publication of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the delightful story with its heroic protagonist feels just as fresh as ever—especially at New York Botanical Garden with its enchanting scientific and artistic twist on the story. 

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