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Remembering Betty Scholtz, director emeritus of Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Scholtz was the first woman to lead a major urban botanic garden in the U.S.

April 30, 2020 Editorial Staff
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Elizabeth (Betty) Scholtz, celebrated horticulturist and beloved director emeritus of Brooklyn Botanic Garden, died at her home in Brooklyn on April 22 at the age of 98.

Ms. Scholtz had been associated with Brooklyn Botanic Garden for 60 years, since her arrival from South Africa to head the Garden’s Adult Education department in November 1960. She was later appointed director of the Garden in 1972, the first woman to lead a major urban botanic garden in the U.S. She was named director emeritus in 1987 and worked at the Garden nearly daily until late 2019.

“Betty was an inspiration for generations of gardeners worldwide. She brought extraordinary leadership and vision to our profession — not just to BBG but to botanic gardens across the globe,” Brooklyn Botanic Garden Board Chair Diane Steinberg said. “She was a role model for us all and an always dependable source of wit and wisdom. She will be deeply missed by everyone here.”

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Betty Scholtz at the Brooklyn Botanic Spring Gala in 2011. Photo: Brooklyn Eagle

Born in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1921, Ms. Scholtz received a BS degree in botany and zoology at the University of Witwatersrand. After earning a certificate in medical technology, she collaborated on several medical research papers while in charge of the laboratory in Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. In 1957, Ms. Scholtz received a yearlong fellowship in hematology at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital (now Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center). It was there that by chance she met Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s second director, Dr. George Avery, who later offered her a job.

After joining Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 1960, Ms. Scholtz served until 1971 as head of Adult Education, where she was largely responsible for the expansion of the program from 1,100 adult students in 1960 to over 4,000 by 1971. In addition, her work with dye plants led to the publication of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden handbook “Dye Plants and Dyeing” in 1964, as well as the documentary film “Nature’s Colors: the Craft of Dyeing with Plants.”

As director from 1972 to 1980, Ms. Scholtz led the Garden through an extremely challenging time during New York City’s bankruptcy. In addition to the 52-acre botanic garden in Brooklyn, she also managed three other BBG properties: the 223-acre Kitchawan Research Station and 400-acre Teatown Lake Reservation, in Ossining, New York, and the 12-acre Clark Garden, in Albertson, New York.

“It was such a pleasure to work with Betty during my tenure at BBG, as she brought such joy to the love of plants and nature,” said Scot Medbury, president emeritus of Brooklyn Botanic Garden and now executive director of the Quarryhill Botanical Garden in Sonoma County, California. “Her keen interest in people, especially younger people aspiring to careers in public gardens, resounded over several generations, and has made a huge difference in American horticulture by inspiring countless garden leaders, myself included.”

Betty Shotlz at the Prospect Park Alliance’s 20th anniversary celebration. Photo: Brooklyn Eagle

“Generations of staff, trustees, and friends of Brooklyn Botanic Garden count themselves as deeply fortunate to have known Betty as a dear friend and mentor,” said Leslie Findlen, Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s interim co-director and senior vice president of institutional advancement. “We are lucky she chose Brooklyn as her adopted home decades ago. Betty approached her lifelong fascination with plants, gardens, and natural environments around the world with the rigor and curiosity of a scientist. She infused that with a sense of humanity and grace that invited anyone and everyone into these marvelous explorations.”

Throughout her tenure at the Garden, Ms. Scholtz lectured often on various horticultural and botanical subjects and authored numerous contributions to popular publications, including the introduction to the 2008 book, “1001 Gardens You Must See Before You Die.” Beginning in 1966, she organized garden tours abroad for Brooklyn Botanic Garden, ultimately leading more than 100 such tours and visiting 46 countries in the process.

During her long horticultural career, Ms. Scholtz served on the boards of the American Public Gardens Association and the Horticultural Society of New York, and on committees for the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the Garden Conservancy, Longwood Gardens, Morris Arboretum, and Old Westbury Gardens. She also received the honorary degrees Doctor of Human Letters from Pace University in New York, and Doctor of Science from Long Island University.

Scholtz’s work with dye plants led to the publication of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden handbook “Dye Plants and Dyeing” in 1964. Photo: Brooklyn Eagle

In 1981 Ms. Scholtz received Swarthmore College’s distinguished Arthur Hoyt Scott Garden and Horticulture Medal for having “devoted her career to inspiring people’s interests in horticulture — from the smallest child to fellow professionals.” In 1984, she received American horticulture’s highest award, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Medal, from the American Horticultural Society. That same year, New York governor Mario Cuomo recognized Ms. Scholtz as a “Woman of Distinction in the Field of Agriculture.” Other awards include the American Horticulture Society’s Professional Citation (1978); the Gold Veitch Memorial Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society (1990); the Garden Club of America’s Medal of Honor (1990); the Hutchinson Medal of the Chicago Horticultural Society (1991); the Gold Medal of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (1994); and the American Public Garden Association’s Award of Merit (1992).

In April 2008, Ms. Scholtz was presented with Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Forsythia Award, given to an individual for outstanding contributions to Brooklyn’s prosperity.

In June 2008, the American Public Gardens Association bestowed its most prestigious honor, the Honorary Life Member Award, to Ms. Scholtz. The Life Member Award recognizes an individual who has provided meritorious service to the association over a long period of time and has displayed an uncommon devotion to the field of public horticulture. The Association has presented the recognition only 25 times in its 80-year history.

In 2009, Ms. Scholtz was recognized for her outstanding contributions to public gardens with a total of four awards from distinguished horticultural institutions: Wave Hill, the Horticultural Society of New York, Teatown Lake Reservation, and Old Westbury Garden.

Ms. Scholtz was predeceased by her brothers Boet and Tielman Scholtz and survived by many nieces, nephews, and cousins in South Africa, Switzerland, Zimbabwe, and Sweden.

Founded in 1910, Brooklyn Botanic Garden is an urban botanic garden that connects people to the world of plants, fostering delight and curiosity while inspiring an appreciation and sense of stewardship of the environment. 

Brooklyn Botanic Garden is temporarily closed but visitors can explore the Garden from home at bbg.org and follow cherry blossom season at bbg.org/cherries.


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