Gertrude Smith Wister played a major role during the formative years of Tyler Arboretum. Her influence can be seen in our plant collections – the Rhododendron Garden, the Pinetum and in the publications that she penned. Before marrying John Wister in 1960, Tyler Arboretum’s first director, Gertrude Smith, was already a well-established leader in the public garden world.
Gertrude Smith was the only woman in her class in the College of Agriculture (majoring in horticulture) at the University of Wisconsin and at the age of 22, she graduated in 1927 with honors. Gertrude Wister recalls that she “can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in gardening.” After college, she ran her own garden planning and maintenance business in her native Montclair, NJ. She came to the Swarthmore area in the 1940s where she began working for both the Scott Horticultural Foundation and Tyler Arboretum. By 1955, she was assistant director of both organizations. In 1960, she was appointed to the Board of Trustees and from 1975 to 1977, she served as the acting director of Tyler Arboretum.
Bulbs were of special interest. In researching for this article, I came across this in the Tyler Arboretum Bulletin #75 (October, 1976) written by Donald W. Iffland (Tyler Board Member) about Gertrude Wister: “The first time I saw the Arboretum was in the late 30s before Mrs.Tyler died. He (Dr. Wister) drove me along Painter Road, and we saw the Cedar of Lebanon. The place was badly overgrown but had a dreamy charm.” Mrs. Wister, recalling that experience adds, “The second time I saw the Arboretum was just after Mrs. Tyler’s death (1944). Gas was rationed, so we took the train to Media and walked from there. It was very early spring. I remember the snowdrops and winter aconite in bloom, nearly hidden under the briars and honeysuckle.” In 1964, Gertrude would author the book Hardy Garden Bulbs. It is a true reflection of her love of the plants in the voice of an experienced plantswoman. In chapter one – A First Lesson in Bulbs – she gave sage advice that still holds true today.
“There is a tremendous amount to be learned from books, and no gardener can do without them, but your plants, too, will teach you. I have always thought that to be a good gardener, first of all you must have a green heart, and next you must have a green mind. These combined with a little muscle are needed to produce a green thumb and a beautiful garden.”
It is interesting to note that roughly 20,000 daffodils and another 20,000 spring bulbs were planted at Tyler between 1947 and 1955. Dr. John Wister estimates that 300 varieties of daffodils were planted, and they bloomed primarily from March to mid-May. Hardy Garden Bulbs was not the only publication that Mrs. Wister worked on. Gertrude Wister edited the American Daffodil Society Yearbook (1962 to 1964). Other publications to which she contributed were Horticulture, House and Gardens and Green Scene.
Mrs. Wister believed in creating a place for the community. “She (Gertrude) hopes that one day the barn will be used solely for activities, not for the storage of machinery, and that there will be a terraced area in the back of the barn near the Cedar of Lebanon.” — Donald W. Iffland. And they have, Gertrude Wister. Today, thanks to phenomenal leaders like John and Gertrude Wister, Tyler Arboretum is attracting and engaging wide audiences, volunteers and members.