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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, 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.

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


  • Arlene Miller May 18, 2020

    I used to be employed at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and I’m so sorry to hear of Ms. Scholtz’s passing. You can be sure that she’s tending to heaven’s gardens and welcoming visitors along the way.
    My fondest memories of Ms. Scholtz are when she would share her chocolates with me and when we would walk through the gardens at the beginning of a busy day. She was always so sweet and caring. I will miss her.

  • M May 8, 2020

    What an amazing person—I am so grateful to learn more about her. BBG was my spiritual home when I lived in Brooklyn—thank you, Betty Scholtz, for your vision and stewardship! The Time obituary mentioned that the Garden cultivated a rose in her honor—I would so dearly love to plant an Elizabeth Scholtz rose in my own garden, in remembrance. Is this an option?

  • Sharon Hessney May 8, 2020

    Let’s celebrate Elizabeth by admiring the yellow ‘Elizabeth’ magnolias that are now in bloom!

  • Mary Harney May 8, 2020

    My thoughts are about my life with Betty Scholtz as her secretary for 26 years. Betty was my boss, my teacher, and my friend who opened a whole new world and life to me.  I was fortunate to have traveled with her to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Morocco, France, England and Ireland. Betty taught me about the world and its people and plants. When Betty gave lectures on her travels of gardens of the world, I was her driver. 

    We always called it an adventure, as we would get lost sometimes—but oh much fun we had. Betty made this world brighter by her knowledge of plants and people, her quick wit and laughter. Rest in Peace. Godspeed my dearest Betty.

  • Rebecca W King May 7, 2020

    I worked as the Interim Director of Continuing Education at BBG the summer of 2006 and Betty made sure to welcome me warmly on my first day, sent me off with good wishes when I left, and always remembered my name when I came back to visit! Knowing her, even during my short time with BBG, was an incredible honor and treat - her humor, warmth, expertise, energy, and generosity personified all that is wonderful and good about BBG. A loss for BBG and the horticultural world at large: she was one of the greats!

  • Greg Ingram May 6, 2020

    She was and is a great asset to BBG!

  • Judy & Nino Pantano May 6, 2020

    Elizabeth (Betty) Scholtz was the wonderful guiding light at Brooklyn Botanic Garden for many years, and it was always a delight to see her. One evening, much to our pleasant surprise, we met Betty at The Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center to see Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” Betty was a fan of the late Metropolitan Opera tenor Johan Botha and attended a dinner for him. They had at least two things in common - they were both from South Africa and loved opera.

    Several years ago, the opera “Dr. Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Mexican composer Daniel Catan and story by Nathaniel Hawthorne was a first-ever at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I noted Betty’s enthusiastic attendance at the outdoor spectacle in my review for The Brooklyn Eagle. This program combined Betty’s passions of gardening and opera. We will miss her irresistible charm, warm friendship and intellectual idealistic qualities that are so rare today.

    Judy & Nino Pantano

  • EM May 6, 2020

    While I did not know Betty personally, she was an important figure at BBG and will be sadly missed by all of the BBG staff and
    volunteers.  May she rest in peace.

  • Dan H May 5, 2020

    I am so sad to hear of Ms. Scholtz passing. More than merely her connection to BBG, she may have been the last of the “Great Dames” of her generation, who made NYC the kind of “kind” city for which it is (or at least had been) famous. She was the kind of person who made you the entire center of her attention, she was genuinely *interested* in you and your life; conversations with her just seamlessly and naturally bucked you up, and gave you a sort of “spiritual elixir” to face the challenges of the future… no, that is not hyperbole. In her presence, you could not but feel uplifted. Yoko and I are truly sorry to learn of her passing. :-(

  • ms. tineke wilders May 5, 2020

    It was spring of 1981 that I met Elizabeth, while as a Dutch/Canadian freelance Garden Writer/Broadcaster I was on a privately sponsored Botanical Garden Tour, sending reports & photos to my weekly column in the Toronto Globe & Mail, visiting 25 Botanical Gardens across the USA. Elizabeth hosted me for the day, offering me a tour of the spectacular Brooklyn Botanical Garden. I remember her as a gracious, very knowledgeable plant women, even speaking Afrikaans with each other, which is very similar to my mother language Dutch. Rest in Peace Elizabeth and thank you for sharing your love of the plant world with so many people over all those years!

  • Marion Stein May 5, 2020

    I will always remember Betty’s warm greeting to me every time we met. A sincere regret is that I never took the opportunity to travel with her on one of her extraordinary journeys. I was blessed to have known her for over 50 years as a longtime member of the Auxilliary and a member of the Garden and volunteer cohort in several different departments at BBG. She was a role model for so many of us. I will miss her.

  • Erin Anne (Cassidy) Van Yahres May 2, 2020

    Miss Betty Scholtz was a wonderful teacher & mentor to my brothers & sisters (six siblings) at BBG during the 60’s and 70’s at the Children’s Garden. She nurtured so many children & allowed them to flourish in the fields of science & the arts, while encouraging children to participate in conducting meetings to shape the business of leadership for young adults in the BBG. She was an outstanding female leader in the field of Horticulture. Until we meet again.

  • Mieke Armstrong May 1, 2020

    Upon entering Betty’s office, which I was going to share with her in 1961, she said “welcome” in South African, similar to Dutch (my language). She made me feel SO WELCOME. It was the beginning of 61 years of true friendship.

  • Myra Silver May 1, 2020

    I remember Betty Scholtz very well since I was a member of BBG until I moved to Tennessee. Even then, I visited her at the Garden when I came to NY. My sister, my children, and I went on several trips with her (in the US) and they were memorable. She was an inspiration to all of us.

  • GC April 30, 2020

    Enjoyed with sad memories of my dear friend Betty. May her soul rest in eternal peace.

  • Martin Scholtz April 30, 2020

    Ahh, that is my wonderful Aunt Betty!  She was so at home at BBG, who nurtured her to the end! Thank you for providing her with a means to impact on the horticultural world, in the way that she did!

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