A Walk through the Trees with Edith Wallace
by Mary Jasch
With beautiful trees comes serenity. Quiet, no wind. The perfect day to feel the trees. This day, Edith Wallace and I walk the grounds of Skylands, New Jersey State Botanical Garden in the Ramapo Mountains to enjoy the trees. Planted thoughtfully apart, each with room to grow, the trees at Skylands bring their best.
Edith is a gentlewoman with a soul rooted in Nature. She is, as she says, a “complete biologist.” With degrees in zoology, she taught anatomy and physiology to nursing students at William Paterson University for 29 years. Later she took classes everywhere she could – horticulture, field botany, systematic botany, meadow biology and plant ID at botanical gardens. After Hurricane Sandy, she learned how we should plant along the shore.
Edith and I ramble around Skylands Manor admiring the trees. In snow, they demand to be appreciated. Here in 1927, Clarence Lewis planted a Winter Garden of many-colored evergreens for a live, seasonal solo show. Furry boughs cover 90 year-old straight boles that rise like green towers and jewel-like golden spruces discovered and bred at Skylands. Naked deciduous trees are tough competition, like gracious old beeches, weeping and upright, the strong bark of mature black cherry and American basswood, others with bark that looks like fisherman sweaters and limbs so graceful, reaching hallelujah!
Down through the allee of dormant sweetbay magnolia, tall with thick branches and trunks, a very favorite. I must be here when they and the basswood bloom! Down through the azalea garden and into the lilac collection mostly planted by Lewis in the ‘20s. It is primarily here in the lilac garden where Edith has spent over 100 hours a year for 15 years as a volunteer coordinator with Frank Dyer. She instructs four Lilac Workshops a season where people learn to weed, deadhead and prune. She props them up, makes sure they are labeled, each with a tag and its number or cultivar name, if they know it. The collection encompasses about 200 plants of 10 species and more than 50 cultivars.
“This is a rather amazing place, Skylands,” explains Edith of these 90 year-old flowering shrubs. “Lewis was a lilac enthusiast and he communicated with people in Europe and he did have lists. They aren’t really good lists because we don’t know exactly where he put the plants but they give us an idea what was put in. At that time, a lot of the lilacs were grafted so we’ll have one plant red on one side and blue on the other so it gets difficult. Many of them are still going and we’ve taken some out and planted others in their places. I will spend time in the spring putting the tags back on that came off.”
Last year Edith was awarded the 2013 NJBG Skylands Association’s Volunteer of the Year Award’ “which was meaningful. It’s so nice to hear these things before your funeral when you can’t hear them.” But that’s not all. Edith also won the 2013 NJ Conservation Foundation, Women and Wildlife Award for “inspiring people, young and old, to make the wild places of New Jersey part of their everyday experiences.”
A Master Gardener, Edith took the Rutgers Co-operative Extension Award of Excellence 2012 Volunteer of the Year because, among other things, she wrote 13 Fact Sheets, volunteered on the Master Gardeners Help Line and helped organize their Library while volunteering over 4,000 hours in 15 years. “The right person said, ‘Gee, Edith should get this award’ and wrote it up. It’s called making your own luck and putting yourself in the right place by actually doing something worthwhile,” she says.
Her first was NJ Audubon Society’s Harold Feinberg Conservation Award for identifying plants on birding trips and supplying her expertise to the Bergen County Audubon Society, which is interested in butterflies and conservation. “I’m an expert on what butterflies eat and you have to feed the caterpillars if you want butterflies and what plants you should have there. Now Audubon is doing butterfly and bird walks so I do that.”
Dr. Edith Wallace sure knows how to give back from a heart filled with pleasure in doing so. She wrote “Guide to Woody Plants of the Celery Farm” and brochures for NJBG. She leads Sunday garden tours and special programs such as Tree Identification. She is consumed with biology.
And just how did she become so?
“The application to be a Master Gardener said ‘When did you start gardening?’ My answer was ‘as soon as they let me out of the house on my own.’ I had a little spot in the backyard – a bigger spot than my sister and I was allowed to do anything there that I wanted. I would go in the woods and transplant things and that was really my first native wildflower garden. Times have changed. There weren’t the prohibitions against it. I found that often when I was taking classes and you’re supposed to collect plants, press them and identify them, and I’m afraid and then I go by a week later and the mower boy’s been there.
“I started out saying Liriodendron tulipifera, Tsuga canadensis, Rhus toxicodendron – and now they’ve gone and changed its name to Toxicodendron radicans. I was taught these when I was three years old by my father. Nobody told him that a three year old could learn these things. The point of what I’m saying is if you want to get a child interested in conservation and the out-of-doors, you’ve got to start them really young.”
These days Edith lives a life of enjoying all things Nature and horticulture. Her advice:
“It’s called life after retirement. Some people are so afraid. I met a man on one of the walks and his wife just died and he was so bored. I said, ‘Well what did you like to do as a child?’ I liked to take walks in the woods as a child and I still am. This poor man! If you can do in your career, or when you retire, what you liked to do as a child, you should be having a lot of fun! And I liked to walk in the woods with my friends and play in the garden and I’m still doing those things! And now I have time to do those things. I’m always willing to learn new things.”
You can join Edith Wallace at the next program she leads at NJBG or the next presentation she gives to a club. Or maybe you’ll run into her at a class she has yet to take on the Kingdom of Life.
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published March 30, 2014