Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Betty Scholtz, 1921 - 2020

Betty Scholtz, 29 April 2011

[Update, 5/7/20: Obituary by Penelope Green in The New York Times]

Betty Scholtz has died. A tree crashing in the spring woods.

Director Emeritus of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Dear Betty.

Tomorrow would have been her 99th birthday. Nine years ago I sat with her at her birthday lunch in the beautiful New Jersey garden of her good friends Graeme Hardie and Silas Mountsier. I wrote about her then for The Cape Argus, a Cape Town newspaper (Betty was South African).

Betty was a mighty woman. In spirit and in stature. Taller than I am (that's five eleven and a bit) and always dressed in tropical brightness, like a butterfly. A stoic and private butterfly, often amused, generous, and interested in other people. And stubborn. She always called me Mah-ree, refusing to believe that someone with a name as Afrikaans as mine could possibly pronounce the name differently. You didn't argue with Betty.

Lekker slaap, Betty. Maybe you are playing cards with Leipoldt again. I like to think so.

In case that is hard to read:

“I ate lion with Leipoldt,” Betty Scholtz told me last summer, as we ate lunch at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

 “What did it taste like?” I asked.

“Gamey,” she said. “He told us the best thing he’d ever eaten was baby doormouse, dipped in honey...” And then she added, “He made me cry.”

Elizabeth Scholtz is the director emeritus of New York City’s Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG). On April 29th, she celebrated her 90th birthday.

The recent addition of a walking stick to her movements irks the independent woman - Miss Scholtz still goes to work every day. She deals with the symptoms of age impatiently and with audible frustration, and is quick to remind one that her oldest friend - literally - Esther “Faity” Tuttle, turns 100 this year. Mrs Tuttle was recently featured in Shape Magazine, wearing a leotard. The bar, Miss Scholtz feels, has been set rather high.

Elizabeth Scholtz was born in Pretoria in 1921. Describing her South African childhood, and considering her current attitude to life, she says that whenever she presented herself to her physician father with an ache or a pain, he made her repeat, three times, “Hell, I am well!” and that after she and her brothers were born, all at home, friends visiting their new mother with “invalid port” would be surprised to find the invalid outside playing tennis, or busy gardening.

Dr Scholtz died suddenly in 1932 of septicemia. “My mother gave us loving care, but not tender loving care. She was a widow, and had to be tough.”

Miss Scholtz’s mother remarried and holidays were later spent at her stepfather’s bush camp on the edge of the Kruger National Park, where Leipoldt would become a guest. Sixteen years old and precociously enrolled at Wits, Miss Scholtz majored in botany and zoology, writing her thesis on the bushveld trees she had grown to love over tented weekends. Her dream to pursue post graduate studies was nixed by her mother, for whom the vagaries of war and the cost of her sons’ education made it impossible. Betty went to work at 20, becoming a medical technician specializing in haematology.  She moved to Cape Town and lived and worked there for nearly 20 “very social” years. Weekends were spent botanizing with doctor friends and their wives in Dutoitskloof and Betty’s Bay.

After a stint at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston in 1957, Miss Scholtz moved to New York in 1960 to take up a post in the Adult Education Department of the BBG. Twelve years later she was appointed director of the garden, becoming the first female director of a major American botanic garden. She served as director until 1980 and retired officially in 1987. She continued to serve as director emeritus and to lead the BBG’s international garden tours - amassing 100 tours in 46 countries. In 1988 a grandiflora rose was named after her. She has received numerous awards to honour her contribution to horticulture, including American horticulture’s highest award, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Medal from the American Horticulture Society and the United Kingdom’s Veitch Memorial Medal from the Royal Horticultural Society. She has been a mentor to what the BBG describes as “generations of North American public garden professionals.” She is a living resource of botanical and horticultural knowledge and a font of anecdotes told in an unchanged and beautifully modulated South African accent, with a ready laugh. A stream of visitors to the BBG makes its way to her book-lined office, which is how I met her, two years ago.

At a lunch in honour of her 90th birthday, given by her friends Silas Mountsier and Graeme Hardie in Mr Mountsier’s leafy spring garden in Nutley, New Jersey, Betty protested at gifts, exclaimed over packets of honey bush tea, and worried about keeping the driver who had brought her out from New York, waiting.  But Mr Hardie, a former Capetonian, who had prepared and served the meal, was still passing around local cheese and green fig preserve brought back from a recent trip to Cape Town. “Green figs!” Miss Scholtz’s eyes lit up. Dressed in mandarin red, her socially charged day was still young. This long lunch would be followed by celebratory drinks at Mrs Tuttle’s, and then a Broadway play. She may have preferred a quieter day, but the strength of her personality and humour, her interest in the lives of others and her commitment to gardens near and far, have created many admirers whose understandable wish is to celebrate a life that seems to burn more brightly than most.

“Why did Leipoldt make you cry? “ I asked last summer, thinking of the pink doormice sliding down the knowledgeable throat of the poet, writer, raconteur, gourmand, cook, and medical doctor.

“I beat him at bridge,” she said, “and I don’t think he liked that very much.”


Friday, April 24, 2020

The camera turns

An accidental selfie. I hate selfies. And if you'd told me just a few weeks ago that I'd be making homespun videos in our kitchen this week I'd have laughed, and rolled my eyes.

But lockdown is waking up all kinds of slumbering beasts in all of us.

It began with an Instagram invitation to share a wild foods story and then I decided I didn't hate it as much as I expected to. So I may even graduate to teaching from home. I just need to practise some more and sort out some kinks.

What new things have you been trying?


Friday, April 17, 2020


Cherries are pretty. But crabapples are luscious.

Crabapples also smell wonderful. Like storms coming. Like hail on the ground. Like snow on the Alps.

It was hard to smell them through my mask.

These are at Green-Wood Cemetery, which has opened its usually locked pedestrian side gates in a humane gesture to the neighborhoods surrounding it.


Saturday, April 11, 2020

Native spring

The trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) are beginning to open in the woods on Staten Island. Ephemeral, native, best appreciated up close.


Friday, April 10, 2020

Looking out, looking in

The callery pear tree across the street is in peak bloom and its notoriously weak branches bend down heavily with white blossom. We avoid parking under it, in case: crack! But it is a frothy pleasure for the housebound.

The overwintering bedroom citrus trees stare out at it with envy, but shiver a little, too. Theirs has been a comfortable winter, and most will only venture out onto the terrace when evening temperatures stay above 50'F.  They are tough enough to handle some chilly nights, but it's really the shock that I try to avoid, the sudden difference between indoor and out.

The bay tree in the foreground has been trouble-free all winter.  Not a pest, not a peep. And fresh bay leaves are such a treat. I do think it will outgrow its pot fast, though. The finger lime (Citrus australasica) on the sill is doing exceptionally well and is covered in tiny, perfectly round buds. Long, skinny fruit to come, filled with sour cells.

The Meyer lemon to the left? It made wonderful fruit that I harvested in January. Preserved lemons, lemon syrup, lemon cocktails, and bitters from the fragrant flowers. And then...something went wrong. Very wrong.

I suspect root rot, which is serious and hard to recover from. It's caused by overwatering. And I am the only culprit. I may have given more water than necessary when the fruit was fat and ripe. I removed the tree from its pot in late January after its leaves kept dropping and yellowing, and its roots just fell apart, many of them just disintegrating. I sterilized the pot with boiling water, gave it fresh soil, one watering, and then kept it as dry as possible. We'll see. It is no worse, so perhaps it has a chance.

The Thai limes are well, although I have been battling scale on one tree (the picture above was taken in late November). After exceptional fruit production (over 100 fruits - the best marmalade, ever) early this year I root pruned and branch pruned both trees. They are more than a third shorter and less wide. Gulp. Why? They have to stay in their current pots to remain portable, and they also have to live outdoors on the small terrace with limited wiggle room for humans. They were top heavy and lush. Post-pruning they have put out no new growth and minimal flowers (this time last year they were dripping with blossoms). But their famous leaves are very healthy. I am curious to see what they will do outside, in a few weeks' time.

As I write this post a wild, mean wind is whipping around the corner of the building, blasting and blackening my two terrace roses' new shoots. Magnolia and cherry petals scatter across backyards. But this evening new neighbors came out to bang pots at 7pm.

And tomorrow they say the sun will shine.


Thursday, April 9, 2020

Clap and cheer?

Sometimes pots and pans bang from the windows. Sometimes they don't. Our neighborhood has caught on late to the 7pm, two-minute clap and cheer for healthcare and other essential workers.

Let's try again, tomorrow.

Seven pee em, wherever you are. Bring your pot (although I'd really like a cowbell. Like, a proper one. I may look into that...). And a wooden spoon. Or just clap.

You can shout things, too.