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Laurelwood Arboretum

May 18, 2011

Hear one woman describe her walk through Laurelwood here.

For John and Dorothy Knippenberg, there was no place like home in Wayne Township, New Jersey. And there’s no place like Laurelwood Arboretum, the Knippenberg’s former pride and joy, to see a living history of rhododendrons and azaleas bred specifically for the East Coast by East Coast growers and hobbyists.

It all began in the 1930s when Dorothy and John lived in Wayne and had a fashion for rhododendrons and azaleas. They bought a 30-acre property across the street as a commercial nursery known as Laurelwood Gardens. That land is now known as Laurelwood Arboretum.

As part of her nursery display and sales, Dorothy made sure that on every Mothers Day, red, white and pink azaleas bloomed, says Dr. Al Fitzburgh, former president Tappan Zee Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society and current member of the Princeton and Long Island ARS chapters.

“She shipped them down to Florida to be pushed into bloom, then sold them at the nursery as gift plants. To this day, red, white, pink and mauve rhododendrons bloom on Mothers Day.”

Patches of lawn appear throughout the arboretum, adding to the picturesque and restful view. These areas were planting beds for the nursery. When the nursery closed, the Knippenbergs began deconstructing the nursery and planting the plants around the property, changing it from nursery to arboretum.

Upon John’s death in the mid-1990s, the land was deeded to Wayne Township. Dorothy continued to maintain the gardens there and a grassroots group of plant people formed to support her. In 2003, the group became an official 501c3 called Friends of Laurelwood Arboretum (FOLA).

Dorothy died in 2006 and a public/private partnership between Wayne Township and FOLA formed. Wayne maintains the roads, takes down big trees and foots part of the bill. The arboretum is managed entirely by FOLA, a group of volunteers and seasonal staff with the fervor to match Dorothy’s passion.

Throughout the arboretum, many rhododendrons remain unnamed. Staff is currently using Dorothy’s notes to identify them.

On Home Hill, check out the Guy Nearing rhododendrons on the left corner of Home Hill and Azalea Way.

G. Guy Nearing was known as a genius, botanist, artist, chess master, poet, inventor, folk dancer and an expert in hollies, rhododendrons and lichens. Despite set-backs such as going blind (and later regaining his sight) and losing his nursery in the Great Depression, he invented the first propagating device for rooting cuttings. He had two nurseries in NJ, where he hybridized hardy and dwarf rhododendrons and became an internationally known expert.

“Azalea Way is one of the most wonderful places in mid-May, in full bloom with bulbs,” says Bonnie Joachim, FOLA publicist. There, hybrid azaleas bred by Joseph Gable of Pennsylvania are set to bloom. They are said to be among the hardiest. Some are: Othello, Snow, and sweet-scented Rose Greeley, all planted by the Knippenbergs.

Pennsylvania farmer/nurseryman Joseph Gable made the prospect of breeding and growing rhododendrons and azaleas appear simple for America’s backyard gardener in the mid-1950s. Gable’s passion and search for knowledge about the plants he knew only in books led to correspondence and sharing with the Arnold Arboretum, West Coast breeders, and Guy Nearing. For 40 years he trialed azaleas and rhododendrons for cold hardiness with a sink or swim model. He won horticultural awards, cut back on farming and azaleas, offered tours of “Little Woods” (his rhododendron nursery) and served his wife Mary’s pie. During years of death-defying ills, including loss of vision and hearing, he collaborated with Henry Yates in breeding. he died leaving much to do: breeding the perfect red and the perfect cold hardy yellow. The Potomac Valley Chapter of ARS is dedicated to locating Gable’s crosses.

Orange deciduous Flame Azaleas (Rhododendron calendulaceum) cover part of the slope. “Any time through May and June, there is always something blooming here,” says Joachim. “Dorothy was very good at succession of bloom.”

Dorothy’s Way is a soft footpath that traverses the gentle slope to the right of Brook Road. Arbors mark its beginning and end. The path takes you up close and very personal under and among huge rhododendrons. What a way to see these fantastic blooms! Dorothy’s Way is a 500-foot Memorial Trail to Dorothy Knippenberg who continued to work for 10 years at Laurelwood after her husband died.

South Rock Garden, created and maintained by Master Gardeners with a bridge built by Eagle Scouts, is just ahead. Girl Scouts also volunteer. Last year the arboretum experienced over 13,000 volunteer hours by over 200 volunteers. It’s a way of life at this arboretum – a unique public/private arrangement that’s all about passion for plants and gardens and respect for those who have come before.

Century-old, native Eastern Hemlock thrive here because the Knippenbergs protected them from Wooly Adelgid infestations by regular spraying of these giants, guaranteeing their graceful stature in the view.

On Ridge Road, ericaceous shrubs, tall trees and large-leaf rhododendrons dominate the multitude of garden vignettes. A grove of Dexter rhododendrons grows along the road. Charles Dexter, a Cape Cod hybridizer, created some of the most beautiful big-leaf rhododendrons in the mid-Atlantic, Fitzburgh says.

Charles Owen Dexter, a Massachusetts tile and cotton blanket manufacturer, businessman, perfectionist, violinist, photographer and yachtsman, got a severe case of the rhododendron bug in his 60s when he bought Shawme Farm (his retirement home) and began producing 10,000 hybrid seedlings a year. He lost his eye when he tripped and hit his eye on a desk corner. From then on he wore a glass eye (three out of three East Coast rhododendron hybridizers to be blinded!).

Dexter gave away thousands of excess, untested rhododendrons to the Arnold Arboretum, Pierre S. du Pont at Longwood Gardens, the Arboretum at Swarthmore College and to many others. After his death, these hasty, often unworthy gifts sullied his reputation as a breeder, but it was eventually salvaged by a dedicated group of rhododendron lovers. Shawme Farm is now Heritage Museums & Gardens on Cape Cod with displays of Dexter Rhododendrons.

R. keiskei dwarf yellow rhodies and varieties line the path. More Gable plants? And always the trees… “Except for the upper story trees, all this was created by Dorothy and John,” Joachim says.

An Edith Bogue Southern Magnolia rises into view – the cold-hardiest magnolia with huge, fragrant flowers in July. “Dorothy was a plant nut,” someone says. The Knippenbergs not only sunk their plants into the new arboretum and sold others, they spread their rhodies throughout the community by giving them away. The area is full of them.

John and Dorothy were known for rare things, says Fitzburgh, because in the rhododendron world at the time, the Knippenbergs really liked the unusual. There was no tissue culture then, so propagation was done by cuttings and layering, making their hybrids fairly inaccessible.

In summer, the hillside along Easy Way is covered in white foxglove, but loyal to Dorothy’s wishes, staff and volunteers remove errant pink ones that occasionally appear.

A white Guy Nearing rhododendron appears and soon a collection of Nearing rhodies. “He was a scholar,” says Fitzburgh.

Rhododendron: a genus comprising rhododendrons and azaleas. What is called a rhododendron has fewer stamens, usually six or seven. Azaleas have 11. Also, azaleas have hairy upper leaf surfaces and the leaves are usually smaller, 1 to 2 inches.

Visit Laurelwood Arboretum:
Handicapped? Call ahead for a golf cart ride.

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