Bayard Cutting Arboretum wins 2020 ACS Iseli Grant

By Website Editor
The future Iseli Award site. Photo by Kevin Wiecks
The future Iseli Award site. Photo by Kevin Wiecks

This article was written by Bayard Cutting Arboretum employees Kevin Wiecks, Joy Arden, Jessica O’Callahan.

Extensive Conifer Collection

Bayard Cutting Arboretum (BCA) is a 691-acre tract in Great River, NY, along the Connetquot River on the south shore of Long Island. The property, constructed in 1886, was originally owned by Mr. William Bayard Cutting and his family. Mr. Cutting saw potential in the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape, and, utilizing plans developed by the noted landscape architecture firm of Frederick Law Olmsted, began the arboretum in 1887.

BCA is home to many unique specimens, extensive collections of oaks, hollies and rhododendrons, and expansive native woodlands. However, the most notable collections are those including conifers. Mr. Cutting began to plant his conifer collection in the late 1800s, with the support of Dr. Charles Sprague Sargent, then Director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts. Mr. Cutting had an affinity for firs and spruces because of their kempt and conical habits, in contrast to what he saw as the unruly appearance of pines. He appreciated rare specimens that could grow both in his backyard and across the world. Some of his original plantings can be seen today in the heart of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum, the Old Pinetum.


Abies pinsapo (Spanish fir). Photo by Kevin Wiecks
Abies pinsapo (Spanish fir). Photo by Kevin Wiecks

History of Bayard Cutting Arboretum

After Mr. Cutting passed away in 1912, his wife, Olivia Cutting, continued his legacy by advancing the development of the arboretum and sourcing trees from nurseries all over the world. Rare and unusual specimens came from notable sources such as the Arnold Arboretum, New York Botanical Garden, Princeton University, the US National Arboretum, and local sources such as Hick’s Nursery in Westbury, NY.

Bayard Cutting Arboretum was gifted to the Long Island State Park Region in 1936 by Olivia Cutting and her daughter, Olivia James, in memory of William Bayard Cutting, “to provide an oasis of beauty and quiet for the pleasure, rest, and refreshment of those who delight in outdoor beauty; and to bring about a greater appreciation and understanding of the value and importance of informal planting” (BCA Mission Statement). Her generosity and foresight have allowed BCA to remain a peaceful escape that has been dedicated to horticulture since its opening in 1954. This would not be possible without the incredible support and dedication of the arboretum’s Board of Trustees and the Olivia Cutting Trust.

The conifer garden at the Manor House at the BCA. Photo by Heather Coste
The conifer garden at the Manor House at the BCA. Photo by Heather Coste

Bayard Cutting Arboretum has one of the most significant conifer collections in the region. It is not only a place to view mature specimens of diverse taxa, but also a place to experience these trees in a variety of settings, celebrating the natural and informal landscape that was described in the arboretum’s mission. Under the horticultural direction of Nelson Sterner, Executive Director, and Kevin Wiecks, Landscape Curator, the conifer collection currently contains 1,600 specimen conifers, representing 352 taxa.

Native Conifers

Many acres are filled with native conifers. These include, most significantly, Pinus rigida (pitch pine), Pinus strobus (eastern white pine), and Juniperus virginiana (eastern red-cedar). These trees make up the Long Island pine barren forest and help preserve many threatened and endangered species. The River Walk, which follows the Connetquot River, is lined with mature Taxodium distichum (bald cypress). The understory is punctuated by cypress knees, which not only provide a sense of wonder, but also help to prevent erosion in the riparian coastline. Taxodium species have proven to be the perfect conifers in these areas, tolerant of high wind and flooding. The BCA is experimenting with improved cultivars of both bald cypress and pond cypress (Taxodium ascendens).

Taxodium ascendens ‘Morris’ (Debonair™ pond cypress) was recently planted in an allée along a footbridge near the Woodland Garden. The slender habit of this cultivar lends itself to use along paths, and the delicate foliage contrasts beautifully with that of the straight Taxodium ascendens species. Walking through the rolling landscape of Oak Park, you will eventually find a grove of dawn redwoods (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). This hidden forest was planted from saplings donated by the New York Botanical Garden in 1958. Although there are significant conifers throughout the Arboretum's 691 acres, the most significant specimens can be found in the Old Pinetum, New Pinetum, Pinetum Extension, and the newest addition, the Conifer Garden. These collections differ in plant selection, design, and maintenance.


Tsuga canadensis 'Sargentii'. Photo by Kevin Wiecks
Tsuga canadensis 'Sargentii'. Photo by Kevin Wiecks

Conifers from Joe Cesarini and Ed Rezek

The Old Pinetum contains multiple Sargent’s weeping Canadian hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis ‘Sargentii’, pictured above), sourced by Dr. Sargent himself, over 100 years ago. It also boasts one of the largest Algerian firs (Abies numidica) in the United States. In addition, this area contains unique groupings of Chamaecyparis pisifera (sawara false-cypress) and Chamaecyparis thyoides (Atlantic white false-cypress), which have self-propagated to form groves from the individual trees.

The New Pinetum was planted in 1946, with small groupings of individual species. The most notable are golden larch (Pseudolarix amabilis, pictured below), Nikko fir (Abies homolepis), and Wilson’s spruce (Picea wilsonii). It is also home to a beautifully aged graceful dwarf Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis'), grafted by Joe Cesarini, Long Island nurseryman and conifer developer, and gifted to the BCA in 1974.


Pseudolarix amabilis. Photo by Bill Wykoff
Pseudolarix amabilis. Photo by Bill Wykoff

The Pinetum Extension, established in 1971, is home to two mature China firs: Cunninghamia lanceolata and the blue version, Cunninghamia lanceolata 'Glauca', which set the scale and tone for everything around them. Recent additions include a mature specimen of Abies pinsapo ‘Glauca’ (blue Spanish fir) and multiple Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) that play off the conifers.

The Conifer Garden was created in 2016 by Lynden Miller and Ronda Brands, renowned public garden designers. This garden uses a unique selection of conifers sourced from specialty nurseries throughout the country. The winding paths of the Conifer Garden ultimately lead visitors to a very special collection, The Ed Rezek Dwarf Conifer Garden. This garden showcases the dwarf conifers bred by this Long Island native and co-founder of the American Conifer Society. It consists mostly of Chamaecyparis obtusa (Hinoki cypress), for which he was famous. The collection was gifted to the BCA by Ed’s widow, Maureen Rezek. Thirty-eight plants were transplanted from the Rezek’s home in Malvern, NY. Maureen entrusted the BCA with the creation of a garden to memorialize Ed’s legacy.

Ed Rezek Dwarf Conifer Garden. Photo by Kevin Wiecks.
Ed Rezek Dwarf Conifer Garden. Photo by Kevin Wiecks.

As a historic arboretum, the most significant difference between our conifer collections and many others is age. Letters from our archives show a well-thought-out plan with consultation from the greatest minds in our industry, in order to shape the future of Bayard Cutting. In 1929, Olivia James wrote to Dr. Sargent asking “what size the trees are apt to be when fully grown?” She was referring to small trees that were gifted to BCA from the Arnold Arboretum that had originated from specimens brought back from China by E.H. Wilson. Sargent replied: “As the Chinese conifers have only been in cultivation for a few years, it is impossible even to form an idea of the size they will grow in this country.” (BCA Archive). The staff is still learning and experimenting in the footsteps of their predecessors. The age of the collections is not only noted in the maturity of trees, but in design, the changing environment, and plant selection of newer breeds

As a recipient of the 2020 Jean Iseli Memorial Grant, Bayard Cutting Arboretum is entering the next phase of its horticultural development. The new conifer collection is projected to debut in 2021. It is intended to showcase very slow-growing conifers, in contrast to more mature, species specimens nearby. The new garden will be planted in two adjoining beds in the Old Pinetum, breathing new life into an area that is showing its age.

The entire staff has been involved in this project, but the real architect of this garden is the grove of Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Plumosa’ that graced the site. Every decision considered these tall, elderly conifers. After much deliberation, the staff removed the smaller 'Plumosa' from the bed to create space for new cultivars. The removal also allows sunlight to reach the interior of the garden and to create a better habitat for sun-loving conifers. They also raised the canopy of the remaining trees to reveal their large, lovely, reddish-barked trunks. This exposed an area with potential for a shaded woodland, as well as additional space for new conifers. A shady woodland and sun-loving conifers? The staff consulted with Ronda Brands for this unique problem: 'How do we thematically connect this aesthetic incongruity?' The Chamaecyparis of course! They are the unifying characters of this entire space.

Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis'. Photo by Heather Coste
Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis'. Photo by Heather Coste

In addition to keeping most of these tall Chamaecyparis trees, the BCA kept a large Abies grandis (grand fir), and a mature Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’ (weeping eastern white pine). They widened the existing beds on either side of the grass pathway, which directs people toward a Tilia × europaea (common linden) and encourages them to walk beyond the Tilia and further explore the Old Pinetum. The slow-growing conifers will be planted on either side of the grass pathway, in the original bed that borders what Ronda has deemed the “Chamaecyparis Cathedral”.

The next step in the garden installation will be mapping the new specimens and adding them to the arboretum's database. Details and locations of the new, slow-growing conifers will be accessible on the arboretum's interactive Tree Explorer. This technology provides visitors and staff a deeper look into the arboretum’s evolving collections.

The arboretum would like to recognize the American Conifer Society, the Iseli Memorial Grant, and Iseli Nursery, as well as the hard work and passion of Jessica O’Callahan, Bayard Cutting Arboretum’s horticultural intern. Visit the BCA website for more information.

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