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Roses and bonsai: Brooklyn's Botanic Garden

Brooklyn is no unified chunk of civic identity, to be devoured in a single invasion. Its enclaves of Russians, Armenians, Hasidic Jews, and multiethnic crowds of middle-class professionals seeking affordable architectural wonders make for a stimulating juxtaposition of life styles.

Smack in the midst of this ungraspable macrocosm of humanity, you'll find the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a 50-acre triangle of multiple gardens running east of huge Prospect Park. On a dazzling spring day, you may also discover 250 Kwanzan cherry trees in bloom along the garden's Cherry Walk and Esplanade.

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Blossoming cherry trees are only one of the botanic garden's many attractions , though they are certainly among the most spectacular. The 21 varieties of Japanese cherry trees are usually in full dress by the last week in April, just in time to show off their delicate shades of pink against parallel rows of burgundy-clothed maples.

The botanic gardens opened to the public in 1911 on 40 acres (later expanded to 50) that had been lying waste next door to the Brooklyn Museum.

Thanks to the private dollars and resourceful negotiating of institute trustee Alfred Tredway White, the idle land was leased from the city and gradually turned into the multitude of gardens it is today.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is an amazing collection of preserving, teaching, pleasure-giving institutions. You may do everything in the garden from listening to summer concerts to strolling about in your Easter finery, from buying bonsai (in annual fall and spring plant sales; the latter is May 4 and 5 this year) or nature paintings (June 12 this year, at the fence art sale) to studying wild edibles, epiphytic plants, or roses.

Anyone with a yen for spring flowers will enjoy the botanic garden, but you'll miss half the fun if you do no more than warm a bench and watch the world go by.

The Cranford Rose Garden, adjacent to the Cherry Esplanade, has over 5,000 rose bushes - a mere 900 or so varieties - most of which manage to burst into bloom between June and November. As the Cranford garden is the third-largest public rose garden in the United States - and nation's first public collection - it has enough hybrid teas, climbers, and ramblers to satisfy the most fastidious of rose lovers.

Incongruous though it might seem, the Elizabethan era has found a secure place in Brooklyn. In the midst of the herb garden - where you can study over 200 species of plants - you'll discover a network of space and hedge neatly shaped to duplicate the design of a 16th-century knot garden. A minute or two further along the main path through the botanic garden and you'll come upon the Shakespeare Garden, where sonnets and plays are memorialized by plants familiar to Shakespeare and mentioned in his works.

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Next door to the Shakespeare Garden is another US first, the botanic garden's Fragrance Garden for the Blind, an oval of raised beds surrounding a central lawn area - all with Braille labels and brass handrails for the blind, but arranged to be visually pleasing as well.

The special plantings here appeal to the senses of smell, touch, and taste. Fleshy leaves from the snowy sedum of China and Japan, the prickly agave from the Southwestern United States, silky lamb's ears and chubby asparagus sit with houseleek and Roman wormwood in a section devoted to special textures. Lemon balm, garlic, and peppermint for cooking; nasturtiums, heliotrope and carnations for aromatic flowers; corsican mint, lavender, and rose geranium for scented foliage are here as well.

If you've started your visit with the Rose Garden and Cherry Esplanade, you have probably entered the gardens from Eastern Parkway, and step by step you've now made your way to the administration building, where you may squander your riches on peppermint candy, publications, and flower seeds. Depending on the season, you may wish to dive into the conservatory for dazzling displays of the plants of China or the Fertile Crescent - or wander off in search of blooming azaleas, waterlily ponds, or the iris garden.

You may discover that you have saved the very best until last. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden's greatest rival to its spectacular cherry trees is a trio of serenely differentiated Japanese-style gardens.

Add to these the superb bonsaim collection - perhaps the country's finest - and a multitude of Japanese classes, films, handbooks, and concerts, and the botanic garden becomes an exquisite distillation of Japan. From April 29 to May 1, it will formally celebrate its pleasure in things Japanese by sponsoring a sakura matsurim or cherry blossom festival. It will include recitals of Japanese classical dancing, kotom (similar to a zither) and shakuhachim (a vertical bamboo flute) concerts, as well as a folk dance modeled on the Awa-odorim held annually on the island of Shikoku. In the members' center, there are plans for exhibits of everything from original origami and calligraphy to bonkeim, essentially miniature landscapes constructed on trays or shallow dishes.

Of the Japanese gardens, the Hill and Pond Garden was the first to be constructed, its establishment again the result of Alfred Tredway White's munificence. In 1914-15, landscape architect Takeo Shiota assembled a team of assistants to construct the carefully planned juxtaposition of stone, water, bridge, pine, and cascade. Each element is symbolic, and intended to extract the essence of beauty, nature, and life - and harmoniously combine them with one another.

There are no accidents here. The shape of the miniature lake is intended to mimic the contours of the Chinese character for the heart or mind, stepping stones recall tottering steps, a tiny turtle-shaped island and some nearby pines symbolize longevity. On a slope behind the pond is a small Shinto shrine dedicated to Inari, the goddess of rice, whose shrines are usually guarded by two stone foxes. In the lake below, as a watery gate to the jinjam or shrine, stands a toriim - two upright pillars supporting a curved horizontal beam above a straight crosspiece just below.

This particular toriim has a distinguished antecedent, its design being modeled on the much larger original at Miyajima near Hiroshima, which also rises out of the water with particular grandeur. Miyajima is considered to be one of Japan's three most beautiful sights.

Though the Ryoanji Temple Stone Garden and Roji Garden are temporarily closed while major construction is underway, you might as well know now what you're missing and make plans for a future visit.

The Ryoanji Temple Stone Garden is in spirit a millenium away from the Hill and Pond Garden. This garden is simplicity itself. There is no water. There are no trees, no plants or flowers, no blossoming Kwanzan cherry trees or weeping willows - only 15 large rocks and a rectangular bed of fine, crushed stone, bordered on three sides by a modest tile-roof wall. On the fourth side is a replica of a portion of a Japanese temple building. This garden is a precisely proportioned mirror image of the rock garden of one of Japan's most famous gardens - the Ryoanji kare sansuim or dry landscape. The original in Kyoto may date back to 1500, but it existed in obscurity until the 1930s, when it achieved sudden notoriety as a distillation of Zen Buddhist philosophy. Though its temple succumbed to fire twice - once in 1500 and again in the 1790s - the rock garden serenely survived, as it has to the present day.

Brooklyn's version makes some concessions to practicality. Though Kyoto's garden wall is made of oil and mud, Brooklyn's is constructed of sturdier stuff, and though the 15 rocks were actually brought from Japan, the carefully raked gravel consists of American ''turkey grits'' gravel.

Next door to Brooklyn's Ryoanji Garden is one more Japanese-style garden, a rojim, the garden path leading to the teahouse so central to Japan's tea ceremony. The botanic garden's rojim - with its stone lantern, stone pavement and tsukubaim or low stone basin for washing one's hands - perhaps reflects the notions in vogue in the late 16th century, when the rojim, formerly merely an entrance to a teahouse, began to develop into a garden.

When you emerge from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden - delighted and diverted - into mainstream Brooklyn, take advantage of your location by visiting the Brooklyn Museum next door. Nearby Prospect Park - where parts of the movie ''Sophie's Choice'' were filmed - is Brooklyn's answer to Central Park, designed by the same team of Olmstead and Vaux, and requires the same precautions (go in daylight, with a companion, and don't take a lot of cash). Historic Park Slope's collection of Italianate, Second Empire, Romanesque, Renaissance - you name it - styles of row houses will be more than enough to keep up your interest.

Needless to say, when visiting any big city - and Brooklyn, if it were a separate city, would be the nation's third-largest - the traveler ought not to simply wander blithely about. The subway, in particular, is avoided by some New Yorkers, who recommend going to Brooklyn by taxi or car (though this is fairly expensive).

It is altogether a special neighborhood to live in, study in, or just watch the cherry trees bloom. Next time you're in Manhattan, take a leap into the unknown. Go to Brooklyn. Practical details

The Brooklyn Botanic Gardens is open Tuesday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; holidays (including Monday holidays) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. May through August. Hours for September hrough April are Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; weekends and holidays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free, but there is a nominal charge for the Hill and Pond Garden on weekends and holidays.

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