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Skylands: New Jersey State Botanical Garden

Submitted by on December 28, 2009 – 2:08 amNo Comment
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New Jersey Botanical GardenNew Jersey may be called the “Garden State”, but that’s for its truck gardens, not the decorative kind. Yet, there’s the magnificence of Skylands, also known as the New Jersey State Botanical Garden, tucked up into the northwest corner of the state.

For example, the Winter Garden (pictured at left), planted in 1927-28, has New Jersey’s largest Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi). The east side is dominated by a weeping beech next to an upright beech that is a century old. The Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata) is one of the most distinctive and handsome conifers at Skylands, and was planted sometime between 1891 and 1920. The densely conical, almost columnar appearance of the tree, and its bold dark green needles, attract great attention to this specimen. In its native Japan, the tree attains a height of 120 feet, but the specimen at Skylands is considered large for the Northeast. Other interesting trees at their best in winter include an Algerian fir (Abies numidica), which was grown from seed in 1931. The tree attains a height of 70 feet in its native Algeria, where it grows among Atlas cedars. The tree bears seven-inch purple cones which stand erect above the glossy green flat needles. The Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica), also a native of North Africa, is distinguished by its graceful appearance, erect cones and clusters of one-inch long needles borne on spur shoots.

Wildflower Garden at SkylandsOther gardens sparkle in different seasons: Annual Garden, Perennial Border, Crab Apple Allée, Hosta/Rhododendron Garden, Moraine Garden, Wildflower Garden (pictured at right), Lilac Garden, Peony Garden, Summer Garden, Azalea Garden (pictured below right), Magnolia Walk and Octagonal Garden.

Then there’s the house itself (pictured below left). Guided tours of the ground floor of Skylands Manor are available on selected Sundays, when you can explore the Manor’s history and architecture guided by NJBG docents. The tours last about 45 minutes to an hour (there’s an additional charge).Skylands Manor

The New Jersey State Botanical Garden is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. year ’round at no charge, closing only in “extreme” weather conditions (such as heavy snowfall). Admission to the Botanical Garden is always free, but there is a $5 per car parking fee on summer weekends and holidays (weekday parking is free). The garden is a part of Ringwood State Park. Skylands appears on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places. It forms the heartland of a property that Francis Lynde Stetson (1846-1920) assembled from pioneer farmsteads here in the Ramapo Mountains. Stetson named his country estate “Skylands Farms” and maintained a stylish mansion of native granite, a working farm with more than thirty outbuildings, gardens and a vast lawn that also served as a nine-hole golf course. A prominent New York lawyer, incorporator of railroads and the U.S. Steel Corporation, he entertained such friends as Grover Cleveland, Andrew Carnegie, Ethel Barrymore and J.P. Morgan here at Skylands. He was a trustee of the New York Botanical Garden and chose Samuel Parsons, Jr., a protégé of Frederick Law Olmsted, to lay out his estate. Parsons, founder of the American Society of Landscape Architects and New York City parks commissioner, designed the grounds, drainage systems and roads. He later used photos of his Skylands work, including Swan Pond, to illustrate his book, The Art of Landscape Architecture, Its Development and Its Application to Modern Landscape Gardening, a definitive text (1915).

Skylands was sold in 1922 to Clarence McKenzie Lewis (1877-1959), an investment banker and also a trustee of the New York Botanical Garden. When Lewis purchased the property, he set out to make it a botanical showplace. The Stetson house was torn down. Lewis’ home, Skylands Manor, a 44-room English Jacobean mansion of native granite, was designed John Russell Pope. Lewis engaged Vitale and Geiffert to design the gardens around his new summer home. Feruccio Vitale (1875-1933), who specialized in private estates, included among his clients John Wanamaker. Alfred Geiffert (1890-1957) designed Rockefeller Center, the grounds of Princeton University, and the National Gallery of Art. Azalea Garden at Skylands

Most of the trees now framing the house were planted at that time, including the magnificent copper beeches. Lewis stressed symmetry, color, texture, form and fragrance in his gardens. He wanted to appeal to the senses. For thirty years, Lewis collected plants from all over the world and from New Jersey roadsides. The result is one of the finest collections of plants in the state. Lewis had over 60 gardeners working in peak seasons.

In 1966, New Jersey purchased the 1,117 acres of Skylands from Shelton College, which had used it as a campus. In March 1984, Governor Thomas Kean designated the central 96 acres surrounding the manor house as the State’s official botanical garden.

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