Plants & Gardens Blog

In Memory: Elizabeth (Betty) Scholtz

Elizabeth (Betty) Scholtz, director emeritus of Brooklyn Botanic Garden, died at home in Brooklyn on April 22. She was 98. Ms. Scholtz began working for Garden 60 years ago and remained active as director emeritus until very recently, coming into the office nearly every day until late last year. She first joined Brooklyn Botanic Garden as head of the Adult Education department in November 1960. She was eventually appointed director of the Garden in 1972, the first woman to lead a major urban botanic garden in the U.S.

“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,” said Diane Steinberg, board chair of Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “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,” Steinberg added.

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, South Africa. In 1957, Ms. Scholtz received a yearlong fellowship in hematology at Beth Israel Hospital (now Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center), in Boston, Massachusetts. It was there that by chance she met Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s second director, Dr. George Avery, who later offered her a job at Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

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 collaboration in 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 the challenging time of 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.”

“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 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 over 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. 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.” In June 2008, the American Public Gardens Association bestowed its most prestigious honor, the Honorary Life Member Award, to Ms. Scholtz.

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

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