Planting Fields at Oyster Bay

It’s firmly spring now but just a mere four or five weeks ago it seemed like winter would never move on. What was to be done? Visit more conservatory greenhouses, of course! Especially if they hold two of the finest indoor collections of camellias and Vireya Rhododendrons in the United States at the height of their bloom. Before I get on to those gems in other blogs, let me introduce the crown that holds them: Planting Fields Arboretum. This vast botanical park is located in the town of Oyster Bay on Long Island Sound, and covers just over four hundred acres in the village of Upper Brookville. The property was originally assembled by Helen MacGregor Byrne – wife of a prominent New York City lawyer James Byrne – who purchased six farms between 1904 and 1912, which she collectively referred to as Upper Planting Fields Farm. The Byrnes hired the landscape architect James Leal Greenleaf (1857-1933), who was later to landscape the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to create hedges, perennial borders, and espaliered fruit trees between 1904 and 1910. The Rose Arbor, the Circular Pool and the Green Garden Court date from this period. Most of the rest of the large property, however, was left untouched and quickly became "just a jungle of scrub, locusts, and other trees” according to its next owner.

That critic and new owner was William Robertson Coe (1869-1955), who acquired the estate in 1913. The British-born Coe became a successful insurance and railroad executive in America and his second wife, Mary "Mai" Huttleston Coe (1875-1924), was the youngest daughter of the millionaire industrialist Henry H. Rogers, a principal of Standard Oil. After the property's first mansion burned to the ground in 1918, the couple hired the firm of Walker & Gillette to design a replacement. The sixty-seven room Tudor-revival Coe Hall, inspired by images of English country houses such as Moyns Park, Athelhampton, and St. Catherine's Court, was completed in 1921.

William and Mai Coe's interest in rare species of trees and plant collections were to make the estate a botanical wonder. Already in 1915, the Boston landscaping firm of Guy Lowell and A. Robeson Sargent (son-in-law and son of the first director of the Arnold Arboretum, Charles Sprague Sargent) started work on the grounds with the transplant of two gigantic beeches from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, Mai Coe's childhood home. These great trees, with root balls thirty feet across, were ferried across Long Island Sound in the dead of winter. Only one of the two trees survived the stressful journey, however, but that second "Fairhaven Beech" lived until 2006, when it too finally died. A new generation of the original tree’s seedlings are now being nurtured, though. (Another magnificent English Beech, along with a number of other large trees, was also unfortunately toppled by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.) Rhododendrons were bought en masse in England from the nurseryman, Glomar Waterer. These were to be followed by Japanese crabapples and cherries and many forest and specimen trees, such as lindens, Scotch and red pines, and oaks.

Through Waterer also came the offer for purchase in 1916 of an unusually fine collection of camellias from Guernsey. The Camellia House was specially constructed by "Bobo" Sargent in the autumn of 1917 to hold the one hundred and fourteen full-grown plants shipped across the Atlantic in tubs the following spring. Most of the plants were cultivars of Camellia japonica but the collection also included six Camellia reticulata which had never been grown in the United States. When Sargent died unexpectedly in 1918, the Coes hired the Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts, to continue work on the estate, a change that brought the signature naturalistic Olmsted look to the north side of the property. The Olmsteds completed additions to the Camellia Greenhouse in 1922 and the Main Greenhouse in 1929, as well as establishing the Beech Copse, Main Lawn, West Lawn and Heather Garden.

The chronically ill Mai Coe, was not to enjoy the wonders of the botanical estate she and her husband established for long. She died in 1924, aged only forty-nine, and is buried nearby. Coe remarried again in 1926, this time quietly to a Texas divorcée named Caroline Graham Slaughter. Although Coe didn’t pass away until 1955, the estate was already deeded by him to the State University of New York in 1949, to be used as a horticultural study campus. Caroline Coe remained at the mansion until her death in 1960. In 1970 the property was transferred to the State Parks Department and opened to the public. Today the Planting Fields Arboretum is run by a foundation and Coe Hall is a museum.

On to the grounds!

Coe Hall. The original house burned to the ground in 1918 and was
replaced by this Tudor Revival mansion built between 1918-1921.

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The swimming pool, now used as a fountain, and the pool house.

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Left, the raised beds around the old swimming pool;
right, a garden folly for children called the Play House. Well… Maybe adults too.

The Camellia Greenhouse. Today it houses almost three hundred plants.

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The Main Greenhouse and perennial beds.

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Witch hazels, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’

Acer griseum, the paperbark maple.

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Snowdrops, winter aconites and the fetid hellebore,
Heleborus foetida.

The unfortunate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

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One of Planting Fields’ most interesting feature is the alphabetically ordered Synoptic Garden.
It contains over a thousand shrubs and small trees from
Abelia to Zenobia.

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Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’.

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Cornus serica ‘Winter Flame’; Right, Cornus serica ’Silver and Gold.’

Cornus alba ‘Kesselringii’.


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Cornus mas

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Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’; Right, Edgeworthia payrifera.


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Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aphrodite’; Right, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Angelly’.

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Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’; Right, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Livia’.

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Left, the Japanese plum yew,
Cephalotaxus harringtonia ‘Korean Gold’; Right, the small anise-tree, Illicium parviflorum ‘Florida Sunshine’.

The Perny holly,
Ilex pernyi.

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Virurnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’; Right, Viburnum dilatum ‘Eire’.

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That’s about it. Only four letters to go and it’s back to the parking lot where… Wow! Last car left. I guess everyone else has already sped off to find some hot coffee to take today’s chill off. I love times like this, though, when you can have whole botanical gardens to yourself. Ha ha.