A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever: Wayne’s Laurelwood Arboretum

A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever: Wayne’s Laurelwood Arboretum

By Dawn M Chiossi


     When John Keats penned that ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever,’ he could have foreseen Wayne’s Laurelwood Arboretum. Once a commercial rhododendron and azalea nursery, it was the inspiration of avid horticulturalists John and Dorothy Knippenberg. This impressive 30-acre property is surrounded by blossoms and blooms of all sorts.  


    In 2006, Laurelwood became a public park for all to enjoy, courtesy of the partnership between the non-profit Friends of Laurelwood Arboretum and Wayne Township. 


    More than just a garden, Laurelwood can absolutely be called Wayne’s botanical jewel. The property features woodland trails and gardens, wildlife, two ponds, bridges, streams, and unique plants and trees. There are hundreds of varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas. With a message of “everything will be better because of you,” rhododendrons convey a cheery, inclusive message for all. Connecting people with nature, Laurelwood Arboretum is a place where visitors can think, wonder, and gain perspective. 


     Right from the onset, there’s something extra special about Laurelwood, something that lies deep within its roots: The arboretum exists due to the generous wish from its founders, the Knippenberg’s. The couple was so known for their extensive generosity to the community, that they insisted Laurelwood eventually be opened to the public as a nature preserve.


     Located at 725 Pines Lake Drive West in Wayne, situated between Colfax Road and Pines Lake Drive, visiting Laurelwood Arboretum is a wonderful way to spend the day. Economical, unique and enjoyable, it is the perfect summer excursion. The arboretum is open to the public every day from 8:00 a.m. to sunset (except in cases of emergency).


     From tours to classes, to events, exhibits, and activities, Laurelwood offers so much.      


     Founded in 2003, The Friends of the Laurelwood Arboretum is made up of approximately 450 members and more than 200 passionate volunteers. Each member dedicates thousands of hours of their time to make the world beautiful.


   Friends of The Laurelwood Arboretum President, Linda E. Ransom, quips, “I volunteered at Laurelwood Arboretum in the summer of 2014, and I never left.”


    There’s something utterly beautiful and fanciful about the arboretum itself. When imagination takes over, visitors can just imagine their winding pathways leading to a haven for elves and fairies. (There’s even a Fairy Day event for children)


    For the more practical, the arboretum is ideal for those who enjoy nature, hiking, running or birdwatching.  It is the ideal environment for people to simply take a leisurely walk, and drink in the beauty around them.


     Free tours for the public are available on the third Sunday of every month, at 12:30 p.m. from April to October (excluding July and August). Cart Tours are additionally available for those who need them, and as always people can explore on their own. Private Tours are also available by special request. 


     Welcoming everyone from artists, to nature lovers, to everyone in between; there is no place more inviting or inspiring than this bower of nature. Whether visitors want to linger on a bench or gazebo (a favorite spot for weddings and wedding photos) or explore in more active pursuits; Laurelwood is a place for inspiration, relaxation, and reflection. 


     Ransom excitedly terms the arboretum as a ‘botanically diverse park.’ A retired lawyer, she is delighted by it. “After sitting behind a desk for 35 years, I couldn’t wait to spend time outdoors,” she says. “I also was interested in learning about plants and gardening methods to apply to my own property, and I came to the right place. Our executive director and horticultural manager are incredibly knowledgeable and patient, teaching all of the garden volunteers the horticultural secrets of Laurelwood Arboretum.”


    For Ransom, one of the best things about the arboretum is the connection and camaraderie it offers. “After starting to volunteer, I became friends with many of the others which naturally holds a special appeal to me.” 


     It is a feeling that she seeks to bring to all who visit. “The mission of the Friends is to preserve the arboretum as an oasis for the enjoyment of nature and to provide opportunities for environmental awareness through educational programs, community involvement, and outreach activities,” she enthuses.


     Even four-legged furry friends are welcome. “We are one of the few parks that allow visitors to bring their dogs, provided they leave nothing behind,” Ransom tells.    


     The history of the Laurelwood Arboretum is a fascinating one. It started with the dream of the Knippenberg’s.  When they fell in love with the property across their home in Pines Lake, the Wayne residents purchased it in parcels from the Pines Lake Company back in the 1940s and 1950s. Naming the place Laurelwood Gardens, they set out to make it an active, full nursery. 


     Inspired by their long-abiding love of rhododendrons and azaleas (technically also considered rhododendrons), the Knippenberg’s knew instinctively that their nursery needed to specialize in these regal, bell-shaped blossoms. They realized that after a long East Coast winter, they were a most welcome sign of spring, and set to work.


     Maintaining a test garden, the couple diligently assembled masses of varieties of rhododendrons. With ultimate care and patience, Dorothy Knippenberg began hybridizing them in 1955. Striving to create enhanced and colorful plants with bigger blooms, soon Laurelwood became widely renowned and admired in the horticultural world for its registered hybrids. Equally known and respected for their expertise, the couple was sent rhododendron cultivars from all over the country.


     The results were amazing. The Knippenberg’s raised approximately 6,000 seedlings on Laurelwood’s hillside. Over the years, they have raised or hybridized approximately 50 new rhododendrons.


     They were rewarded for their hard work, patience, and devotion to these robust and royal-looking plants when eight cultivars of their named creations were registered by both the American Rhododendron Society and the Royal Horticultural Society, respectively. These beauties include “Blush Button,” “Caroline Gem,” “Hardy Giant,” “Big Willy,” “Burgundy Cherry,” “Laurel Pink,” “Laurel Snow Bunting,” and “Wayne Pink.”


     Then in 1973, Dorothy Knippenberg was awarded the Bronze Medal from the New York Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society.


    As they say, the most flattering honor a person can receive is the respect and admiration from those in their chosen field. In 1992, Dorothy Knippenberg experienced this when fellow hybridizer, Nathaniel Hess, named and registered a rhododendron in her honor: Come mid-May, people will see the “Dorothy Knippenberg” bloom. This beautiful cluster of white with reddish-orange dorsal spotting offers a brilliant pop of color. Featuring a fragrant scent, the prized rhododendron features heavy, openly funnel-shaped flowers.


     For the woman who gave so much of her time and affection to rhododendrons, it was a heartwarming honor, indeed.


     Even when Laurelwood became part of the Wayne Township’s Park system (and after John Knippenberg’s death), Dorothy was a fixture at the arboretum. Ever dynamic, she continued to do what she loved, working in the gardens and supervising. 


     Although Dorothy Knippenberg passed away in 2006, both the Friends of The Laurelwood Arboretum and Wayne Township are dedicated to her vision of making the Arboretum a place of beauty for all.


  Now, there’s much to see, enjoy, and explore at the Laurelwood Arboretum. Visitors can literally drop by several times and see something different each time.


     In fact, Ransom shares that they have approximately an estimated 15,000 people visit per year.


     For the flower enthusiast, Laurelwood Arboretum boasts many extensive gorgeous blooms. From early spring (beginning in March) to early fall, there’s a bounty of them. Visitors will see every kind of flower they can imagine, guaranteed to make people smile. 


     Loving the serenity and tranquility of the park, Ransom asserts, “I love the thousands of flowers that bloom all summer long. I would have to say that my favorite plant is the clerodendrum trichotomum. In late summer it blooms with these beautiful fuschia flowers with a midnight blue iridescent seed in the middle. It is gorgeous!” (also called ‘the Peanut Butter Bush.’ Rub the leaves, and it smells exactly like peanut butter on your hands.) “I also love our white foxgloves,” Ransom shares. “Dorothy Knippenberg wanted only white, which shows up so well among the foliage. So we volunteers “pull the pinks” which pop up from time to time.”


     At Laurelwood Arboretum there are several special gardens: The Native Plant Demonstration Garden, The Sensory Garden, Lilac Walk, Azalea Way, South Rock Garden, Summer Garden, and their renowned Hybrid Rhododendrons Collection. 


     The Sensory Garden, in particular, is a must-see space. Because the delights of nature should be barrier-free to everyone, this kind of garden is perfect for people with physical, visual or emotional challenges. As well as being visually appealing, sensory gardens do more. Designed with the purpose of stimulating all of the five senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste), people can explore and enjoy various flowers and plants. Laurelwood Arboretum’s Sensory Garden is one of a handful of public parks that can accommodate people with challenges. Located near the Vale Road parking lot, the garden’s wide pathways can make room for wheelchairs and walkers. It is an inclusive place for all. 


     When visitors are searching for either educational gatherings or a quiet, meditative space, the arboretum’s “Learning Circle” is ideal. 


    Don’t forget to visit “Dorothy’s Way,” where of course, the property is outlined with Dorothy Knippenberg’s prized rhododendrons.


     In this oasis, there’s so much variety to enjoy. “Throughout the year we offer art displays and concerts at the Knippenberg Center for Education, and a variety of educational programs for children and adults,” Ransom tells.


     At the center and adjoining greenhouse, both children and adults can enjoy the research library. For those who have a green thumb, or just want to try nurturing plants, the hands-on events of the greenhouse is a great idea.


      From April through October, the center is open Tuesday through Sunday. The hours will be from 12:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. 


     Whether it’s the enormous plant sale on the Saturday, before Mother’s Day in May, or their Rhododendron Festival, there are plenty of activities to tempt as well. From watercolor classes, to art exhibits, to children’s Bees And Butterflies Day, fundraisers, and much more. 


     Cultivating flowers, and cultivating relationships at Laurelwood Arboretum, Ransom celebrates them both with equal enthusiasm. “I think my favorite thing to do in the arboretum is working with the other volunteers in the gardens. Every Tuesday and Friday, many volunteers show up to do very glamorous things like weed, prune and plant. It is the highlight of my week!”


     More than a garden, Laurelwood Arboretum began with John and Dorothy Knippenberg’s dream, passion and desire to share it with others. The Friends of the Laurelwood Arboretum, echo and embrace that philosophy wholeheartedly. As Ransom says, “Everyone is welcome here.”


    For further information or details please contact the Laurelwood Arboretum at info@laurelwoodarboretum.org or call 973-831-5675.

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