Native Curiosity - Ed Miller: Landis Marks the 20th Year of the Native Plant Collection

By Nick Miller

If you take a stroll around the Willow Pond Trail to view The Miller Native Plant collection, you will feel the presence of Ed Miller at every turn. Twenty years after its inauguration in 2001, much of Ed’s vision has been realized.

If you didn’t know Ed, you might be surprised that a man well into his 7th decade would embark on such an ambitious, even audacious, project. If you had the pleasure of knowing him, you wouldn’t be surprised in the least. Dad - I’m the youngest of his four sons - loved the outdoors even from his Depression-era growing up in Schenectady.

I have treasured photos of him hiking (in street shoes) in the Adirondacks as a 14-year-old Boy Scout and, later, freshly discharged from his WWII Navy service, hiking the Northville-Placid trail with my uncle. His love of nature, of kids, and of teaching led him to scout-mastering, expanding our pack of four boys to countless many more. He could take small armies of boys (and often girls – he was ahead of his time in that regard, occasionally driving the BSA brass crazy) into the woods. He could name every woodland plant one might find, knowledge which he would gently impart to all around him. He took endless 35mm Ektachrome slides of woodland flowers (which we still have).

In those days, while he loved his woodlore, he eschewed more formal botanical practice, mostly ignoring taxonomy and Latin nomenclature. But after he retired in 1983 from an illustrious four-decade career at GE as a world-recognized pioneer in steam turbine engineering and design – a story for another day -- his botanical curiosity was unleashed without bound. He traveled the country and the world, always gravitating to people who loved nature, loved life, and shared his unfettered love of knowledge. Becoming active in the North American Botanical Society was something like naturalist graduate school for him. He learned to love the subtleties of identification, appreciating the need for taxonomy and Latin to achieve a precision not possible with common names. An indefatigable organizer, he hosted Botanical Society meetings in the Northeast on multiple occasions. His association with accomplished botanists stirred his need to share his knowledge and was the fertile ground on which the seeds of the Native Plant Collection were sown. At some level, he felt that the native flora of New York was underappreciated by, and rather under-represented to, the public. Exotic plants from the steppes of Asia, or the jungles of Borneo are great, but what about our own wonderful but often overlooked plants? Thus, the idea germinated of getting all New York State’s native woody plants together so that people could learn about them.

Building the collection took epic effort. We Miller Boys helped with the unforgiving mechanical aspects of creating the trail itself. The relentless Landis clay, which drains miserably, sticks to your tools, boots, and tires, is interspersed with rocks and roots. Even today, after 20 years, drainage is a constant battle. But it was Dad’s endless hours, toiling with saw, shovel, pruner, mattock, watering can, and knife, all through his 80s and into his 90’s, that allowed over 200 species to grow and, more often than not, flourish. Dad took such delight in successes like the pawpaw, and the oaks, and the roses (who knew that family was so BIG??).

The bog gardens also reflect a particular passion. Dad loved the understated and sometimes exotic beauty of the unique ecosystem that is an Adirondack bog. But how to share with people who don’t relish slogging knee deep through black, bubbling bogs in search of an orchid or a carnivorous sundew? The two bog gardens, which are presently being upgraded to a single new one, our fourth version, are packed with interesting plants – including Landis’ only carnivorous plants. Another passion, which Dad shared with dear friend Nan Williams, was ferns. Together, they created a collection of every native fern that can tolerate the local climate. In the moist, shady dell below the Willow Pond along the Spur Trail, you will find well over 20 species, including delights like Goldie’s fern and maidenhair fern.

Dad liked to say, “how optimistic for an old man to plant a tree”! His optimism and curiosity live on in the Native Plant Collection. Come enjoy it. Learn. Dad would want it that way.

Nick Miller is currently the hereditary curator and conservator of his father’s Native Plant Trail at the George Landis Arboretum.

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Summer 2021

Volume 39 , Number 2

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