History in Bloom: The New Jersey Botanical Garden

Visiting the Garden State’s botanical showcase.

New Jersey Botanical Garden
With more than 96 acres, the New Jersey Botanical Garden has 13 specialty gardens and is home to 5,000 species of trees, shrubs and flowers.
Photo by Frank Veronsky.

It’s been almost 100 years since Clarence McKenzie Lewis, an investment banker and celebrated horticulturalist, set out to create a botanical showcase on New Jersey’s northern border. His vision endures today as the New Jersey Botanical Garden.

The 96-acre spread has something for everyone who loves the outdoors: acres of pristine gardens, a historic manor house, hiking trails, and the adjacent Ringwood State Park for picnics, biking and more hiking. May is an especially beautiful time to visit, but there’s something new blooming virtually every week in spring and summer.

The story of the gardens starts in 1801, when the land was cleared for farming. Jump to 1891, when the tract was sold to gentleman-farmer Francis Stetson, who commissioned a substantial residence and extensive farm buildings, eventually expanding the estate—which he named Skylands—to more than 1,000 acres. Lewis, a Jersey native, purchased the estate after Stetson’s death in 1922.

Lewis, a trustee of the New York Botanical Garden, commissioned John Russell Pope, architect of the Jefferson Memorial and the National Gallery of Art, to design a stately Tudor Gothic home on the grounds. The granite exterior of the 45-room mansion, Skylands Manor, was quarried from the eastern part of the property. Lewis also hired landscape designers Ferruccio Vitale, known for his work on the National Mall and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and Alfred Geiffert, who designed the grounds of Princeton University and Rockefeller Center. Together, Lewis, Geiffert and Vitale created the magical country-estate landscape that exists today.

Lewis collected plant specimens throughout the United States, England and Europe. His gardens appeal to all the senses, stressing symmetry, color, texture, form and fragrance.

After Lewis died in 1959, the estate was purchased by the state, in 1966, and designated as the New Jersey Botanical Garden in 1984.

Today’s elegantly landscaped grounds feature more than 5,000 species of trees, shrubs and flowers. There are 13 specialty garden: May bloomers include the Peony Garden and Crab Apple Allée, a half-mile stretch of bountiful pink blossoms. The Wildflower Garden, with its wooded trails and stepping-stone bridges, also tends to bloom by early May. The fragrant Lilac Garden has more than 100 varieties of the lushly flowering plants.

Be sure to stroll the area around Skylands Manor. The house is open to the public one Sunday each month, and inside you’ll see antique paneling, majestic fireplaces and intricate stained glass. Enjoy the exterior features any time: the decorative ironwork, the fabulous weathered-stone façade and the sags and ripples in the 100-year-old slate roof.

Make a complete day of your journey with a visit to Ringwood State Park, the 5,000-acre expanse a mile down the road. Bring a picnic and enjoy the biking paths or hike one of the 14 marked nature trails.

The New Jersey Botanical Garden is located at 2 Morris Road, Ringwood, and is open 8 am to 8 pm daily. Admission is free; parking is $5 during high season (weekends in the summer). Guided tours (approximately 45 minutes) are conducted at 2 pm every Sunday, May through October. For information: njbg.org or 973-962-9534. Ringwood State Park is open 8 am to 8 pm daily. Admission is free and parking is plentiful. There are ample picnic tables; it is a carry in/carry out facility. Skyland Manor House Tours are available on select Sundays. Admission is $7. Check the website for dates and times.

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