I’m lucky and fortunate. In my early career I connected with many (mostly older and wiser) of the finest people of the plant world in the northeast. Many of those talented people and friends are gone now but I treasure the time we had; it helped me find “me” and a career.
Years later, it is clear that “breaks” and life changing opportunities are rare and fleeting; one must go after them if they are to happen, for they might just go “poof.” One of those opportunities arose that way indirectly: During college, in a plant identification class at Rutgers University, professor Bruce “Doc” Hamilton, in passing, mentioned a nursery in northern NJ that had a sizeable specimen of the Giant Sequoia (the one from the west coast) It was the only one he knew of in the area and the farthest north.
My interest in plants was developing and the curiosity bug was there. I asked Doc Hamilton “who these people were”, he said the Smiths in Morris Plains, NJ but he didn’t have any details. Now, this was pre internet era, pre social media …so one had to do something we don’t do today: call information to get their number …(and it was a Smith!) After some trial and error I got the correct number. Upon calling, Hazel Smith answered and gave me directions (no google maps or gps then!) I took a drive up to their Watnong Nursery in my Ford Pinto; it was a little difficult getting there; there was no direct route and they were off a busy road where you had to go fast to cross traffic, going 65 in both directions – the Pinto didn’t like going fast! (actually, it didn’t like going at all, being a Pinto!!!)
On to first visit of Watnong Nursery, Morris Plains, NJ sometime in 1978. Made it! Right away I liked this place. There was an old rustic house covered in Ivy and a long drive leading back to?
Hazel and Don were in the yard …instantly it was clear these were nice people. They were both very soft spoken. Hazel was petite with eyes that focused on you, in a caring way. Don was tall & lanky like me, a bit stooped over from age when I first met him with distinctive, craggy features. I don’t remember many details of that first day but do remember being in awe seeing countless plants that were new to me and liking most of them. Their place wasn’t huge, maybe 2 or 3 acres……but was mesmerizing in a fanciful way. They asked how I found them and about me being in college, we talked horticulture and plants right off the bat. They were thrilled it seemed. I was thrilled …this was plant heaven. Many trips were soon made to the Smiths.
NOTE: SOMEWHERE I HAVE AN OLD PIC OF THE SMITHS, IT WILL BE POSTED HERE WHEN I FIND IT.
It was a joy going to see Don and Hazel. All of their plants were nicely arranged in a natural way with twists and turns. They were pioneers in many plant fields, one was a strong emphasis on things in the rhodo family and dwarf conifers. Their rhodos had some influence on my rhodo passion that was just “germinating.” I recall seeing fuzzy yak rhodos for the first time, very rare then, still uncommon now. They had many other special rhodos in old fashioned, cold frame type pits in the ground and some under partial shade from a lathe wood structure …that’s where I first eyed a special rhodo …more on that coming.
There were so many plants here that were never taught about or seen at typical nurseries. It was eye opening. Don had a love for mountain laurel and was buying superior forms and offering them for sale long before anyone else. There was a hilltop full of them. At some point I asked don how to keep laurels bushy, he said snip off the lower flower buds. I still remember that conversation and tidbit 35 years later.
Don’t recall if I bought anything on my first visit but do recall soon buying rhodos and in particular a Rhodo called Moonstone, not hardy, but a lovely little plant. Remember Don saying “I was brave,” in that it’s tender. That bit of advice stuck with me and made an influence. Always tell the truth about plants. Which sadly I learned, is not often the case at most places.
After a few visits, Hazel sent me a postcard saying how nice it was to have made a new, younger plant friend. That meant something to me. I ended up working at Watnong Nursery and loved every moment of it. Had the Smiths not popped into my life, had I not inquired about them in college, who knows where my journey would be at. Life brings opportunities, sometimes we see them, sometimes we don’t or it’s too late and the ship has just passed. I’ve missed many opportunities by not acting but lucked out on some. Oh, that postcard Hazel sent me, it’s in my personal memorabilia collection to this day. I still recall the day it came. You can sense Hazels sweetness. Here it is to share with you.
The generosity of the Smiths was grand. They donated a large plant collections to the National Arboretum in Wash. DC.and to the Frelinghuysen Arboretum in NJ. Don and Hazel were instrumental in popularizing and botanizing two of my favorite plants, Sandymyrtle and Box Huckleberry. There were countless others. They were very active in the Rock Garden Society.
Don and Hazel died within a year or 2 of each other in 1983, Don passing away first. Hazel kept the nursery going for a short time, before she too passed. Attending Don’s funeral was humbling and the first loss of someone I cared deeply about. The loss we all go thru seeing that death is part of life. Shortly afterward Hazel spoke to me and wanted me have a few special plants of my choosing. It was an honor and I chose just one, something Don loved and my eyes always gazed at when I was there: a Rhododendron Bureavii ‘Lem form’ about 3 feet tall. The plant I referenced above in their lathe house. Don had acquired it from noted rhodo guru Halfdam Lem from the west coast, perhaps in the seventies? I recall Don saying it was one of the first to be on the east coast. It’s important to realize, the east coast is not a good spot for a Rhodo Bureavii- too much heat, which can rot the roots. The Lem form was thought to be more heat tolerant. It was doing ok at the Watnong nursery …just ok. I asked Hazel if I could have it as the plant she mentioned, she said of course. I ever so carefully dug it, getting as wide a root ball as possible, then transported it back to my parents yard which was fast filling up with plants of all sorts. For 3 or so years that Bureavii now lived at my parents yard in Rahway, NJ, a hotter climate than the Smiths …which worried me. It was doing ok but not “as” ok. You must keep this alive I kept saying. I was already picking up on rhodo culture …connecting the dots so to speak …maybe more so than most …the instinct was there. After a year I replanted it in total sand and gravel …that stabilized it. I had planted it in composty rich soil, but was already realizing that wasn’t the right soil. (See my article on soil) Having met the Walbrechts, I knew I was moving to Maine soon, where Bureavii would thrive due to cool summers, but keeping this plant alive til then, was utmost priority. We will get back to this story in a bit.
Sometimes at the end of the day I’d go in and talk with Don and Hazel, who always made me tea. That image is still with me, their small dark kitchen and the table I can sense being at. Shortly before Hazel died she talked about enjoying hearing the birds singing, she just said it was so “nice”. We’d talk and reflect. Quietness was fine. No internet, no texts, no email beeps on a cell phone to get in the way of real communication.
Both of their “pre plant careers” were in the educational field and from what I heard they excelled. Don and Hazel were genuinely caring, giving, people. They taught without teaching, they inspired without speaking. Even in death they wanted to help, leaving their bodies to advance medical research.
Not forgotten, that Giant Sequoia, the reason I first went to the Smiths. Yes it was there and very impressive and it’s still there. In fact, it was later named Giant Sequoia Hazel Smith. The picture below is courtesy of Sam Jones. It is the actual same Sequoia (now huge) taken in 2014 at the Watnong Gardens, now a park. That is Helen Donn, she and her husband bought the Smith property on their death and lovingly maintained the gardens.
That rhodo Don gave me in death, the first Rhodo Bureavii to reach the east coast. Well, it survived the hot years in Rahway NJ making it to Maine just in time when I moved here in 1987. In keeping tradition, it was the FIRST rhodo I planted here as a tribute and flourished for over twenty years atop a hillside out back named “little Nepal.” You could look up into it and mesmerize over its coppery colored, fuzzy leaves. Two years ago the deer (horrible rodents with antlers) devoured it, not killing it but now it’s a mere relic of what it was. There’s hope it can come back. When you visit WildWalkWays here, there is a trail that leads to Dons Rhodo Bureavii. Make the trek here then the trek to our to little Nepal to the Rhodo bureavii. Look up at it ….Don and Hazel would smile.
THIS IS THE ORIGINAL PLANT OF RHODO BUREAVII LEM FORM FROM THE SMITHS, NOW AT LEAST 45 YEARS OLD AT OUR WILDWALKWAYS