Planting Fields Arboretum Revisited
Fred E. Knapp, Locust Valley, New York
FIG. 23. Some of the handsome trees in the Planting Fields
Arboretum. Gottscho Photo
Many members may fondly remember Planting Fields Arboretum, in Oyster Bay, Long Island, 'New York, site of the 1965 ARS Annual Meeting. For those others who have a collection of quarterly bulletins, a series of very fine photographs of Arboretum features is included in the 1965 issues (primarily January) along with a description of the collection and its history and purposes by Director Gordon E. Jones. It would be inappropriate to repeat Mr. Jones' complete article, but there are many ARS members who have joined since 1965 and do not have a collection of old quarterlies. A briefer commentary should interest these and bring us all up to date on the progress of this matchless horticultural institution as modern society closes in on our plant world.
Planting Fields was the private estate of William R. Coe. Mr. Coe spent 45 years collecting fine and rare trees and shrubs, of which the rhododendron family was one of his particular favorites. His earliest purchase of rhododendrons was a large shipment of catawbiense hybrids from the Anthony Waterer nursery in England in 1916. Many of these are now extremely large specimens and make a magnificent show each year. Tender large flowered hybrids were added over the years, and a surprising number of these have flourished under the tall oaks and pines of the Rhododendron Park. In later years. Mr. Coe obtained Dexter hybrids from the Parker estate (now owned by Dorothy Schlaikjer of the N. Y. Chapter) and gave some of them family names such as Mrs. W. R. Coe, Mr. W. R. Coe, etc.
In 1949, Mr. Coe presented Planting Fields to the people of the State of New York, and at his death in 1955 control was assumed by the State University system. Under the terms of the gift, the property was to be used as a public arboretum and horticultural training center, maintained by the State. Assistance in developing its potential as an educational center in horticulture and in improving and extending the plant collection was also provided by the establishment of the Planting Fields Foundation, funded from Mr. Coe's estate.
Among the many Long Islanders enjoying Planting Fields (250,000 people a year is the most current rate of attendance), members of the New York Chapter of ARS are some of the most frequent and fortunate. Many meetings and cut truss shows have been held there. Many wonderful hours have been spent in the azalea walk, rhododendron park, the developing species garden, and the fascinating Synoptic Garden displaying a variety of shrubs and plants most successful in the Long Island area. The great house with its wide lawns and immense specimen trees provides not only a horticultural experience but one of a beauty and quality of life which none can hope to match in our time or our apparent future. Even the rich today cannot be rich in developed land and plant material as they could in our grandfathers' times. It is not well to envy, yet it is not well to have nothing to envy. In losing, through soaring taxes and labor costs, the opportunity for the wealthy to develop property as they once did, the majority of us have lost the opportunity to feel what horticultural beauty, what specimen plants in their proper setting, what nature with man's intelligence and labor added can do for the quality of man's life. One can never own beauty, but can become immersed in it without clutching a title deed. So it has been for the appreciative Visitor to Planting Fields.
As all of us do when things are going well, the regular users of Planting Fields complacently have believed that nothing could disturb such a comfortable day-dream. Not so! New York State in 1970 entered a budget emergency situation. Cost cutting, shifting of responsibilities, readjustment of priorities, political realities and accounting procedures combined to produce a sudden shift of the administration of Planting Fields out of the especially budget sensitive State University system into the Parks Department. The latter was unfortunately unaware of the shift until it occurred, and was therefore unprepared and unfunded. As a result, Planting Fields Arboretum was closed to the public in July of 1971. It will remain so until at least next April. To reopen at that time requires reinstatement of adequate funds in the coming budget. That budget is as difficult for the State as was the one which resulted in closing. There is no guarantee that we can return to our daydream so soon.
Many interested parties from different segments of the Long Island community, including most garden clubs and plant societies, have banded together to form a society called "Friends of Planting Fields". The society is now in existence, with the immediate purposes of raising emergency funds for winter greenhouse operations and of organizing the community for political action to assure a budget big enough to maintain Planting Fields and reopen it next spring. If this can be accomplished, the "Friends" will go on to help develop the educational and horticultural potential of the Arboretum in every way possible, always remaining alert to the kind of emergency that has brought the group into existence.
On Long Island, we are no longer complacent. We hope we can return our Arboretum to its proper function and preserve it thus. If you, the reader, and your horticultural friends, have such a treasure in your midst supported by public funds, do not be complacent. Form your defenses now, get to know how funds are obtained and how they are inserted into the budget, what political figures are involved, and which ones might help. If possible, form an auxiliary organization allied to the institution you would protect. A great deal of help can be offered by such a group in increasing the resources of the chosen institution, a great deal of enjoyment can be had by the workers, and most important, the community can be alert and ready to defend its treasures. So long as there is a clear understanding and a sense of service rather than proprietorship on the part of such groups, they should always be welcomed by the institutional staff involved.
The New York Chapter is of course participating in the "Friends of Planting Fields" and its efforts. We hope to see the Arboretum reopened and continuing to grow, and some day perhaps to see another National ARS Meeting on the site, made more beautiful than ever by the passing years. We hope, too, that others will learn from our present emergency and try to prevent the loss of horticultural beauty wherever it may be threatened by the problems of modern government finance, population pressure or commercial encroachment so typical today.