University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Bernard Emerson Harkness, Horticulturist

Volume XXXIX  • 1986
Bernard Emerson Harkness, Horticulturist

When Bernard Emerson Harkness joined the City of Rochester Park Bureau in January 1948, he brought with him a background of horticultural education and experience which had already earned him recognition as one of the country's leading horticulturists.

His interest in plant materials started while he was still a student at Moravia (New York) High School. He became friends with a local physician, Dr. Charles Atwood, who had earned a degree in botany before turning to medicine. Dr. Atwood maintained a private herbarium and botanical library, and Bernard made good use of these facilities. At the same time, he developed practical skills by working as a gardener on a local estate.

Immediately after graduating from high school in June 1924, Bernard secured a job at the horticulture greenhouses at Cornell University, where he worked until he registered as a Cornell student in the fall of 1925. An exceptional student, he earned the lifetime friendship of Professor Ralph Curtis, a world-renowned expert on woody plant materials, who recognized Bernard as a true plantsman.

During his last summer as a Cornell student, Bernard worked at Hill House, the Long Island estate of a Wall Street broker, Anton Hodenpyl. Impressed with his work, Mr. Hodenpyl hired him as head gardener after graduation. This estate with seven distinctly different garden areas provided a laboratory where Bernard could more closely study plant materials and their usage in the landscape.

In the fall of 1930, Bernard left Hill House to enroll in the Harvard School of Design to study Landscape Architecture. Later he came to feel that he was "getting too far away from plants," and changed his plans.

He left Harvard in 1933 and became a landscape supervisor for the Civilian Conservation Corps; his assignment was to help develop Palisades Interstate Park at Bear Mountain in southeastern New York. He enjoyed the challenge and was impressed with the native plant materials there, but in June 1937 he resigned to accept a position in Baraboo, Wisconsin, as manager of a nursery, the Garry-nee-dule Landscape Service.

He loved the wild north country of Wisconsin, and his new opportunities in herb farming, landscape service and flower growing, and enjoyed a warm association with the family for whom he worked during the next five years. This was to come to an end, however, after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Bernard was inducted into service in September 1942. Except for periods of boredom, his wartime experiences were not entirely bad. He even found time for an extension course on grasses through the University of South Dakota. When the Air Force assigned him to a weather cryptography unit in China's Szechwan Province, he obtained permission to study at the University of West China, where he made extensive use of the herbarium and enjoyed meeting other scholars.

While in China, Bernard wrote many letters to his mother, Nellie Sturgis Harkness. She saved the letters and in 1975 Bernard published excerpts from them in a booklet entitled Letters from Hsingching. These excerpts show his intense interest in horticulture and his concern for the people and their culture. A few examples follow:

Dr. Dye and I went into the banker's family house - probably the wealthiest family in the province. One of the family grows chrysanthemums and there were about 150 pots of the cuttings... Part of the house and garden go back 150 years - there have been additions from time to time. There was first a little square paved court with a big palm against one wall... certain trees are cherished, but more for their symbolism than for their rareness... The rock work is an important part of the garden; it is a limestone... here it is built up in representation of a mountain - an aspiration toward heaven... there was some under planting of ferns, begonias and bulbous things but in among the rocks they like to have trees, especially gnarled and picturesque ones. (May 10, 1945)

The temple is not ancient but its main feature for me was the ginkgo tree over a thousand years old. A young monk took me around to see the statues, the paths in and about huge rock crevices, by the kitchen, the bamboo water-pipes from a spring higher up.... At the end of the trip he asked me to sit down in a pavilion, very cool and shaded overlooking the valley below at a great distance.. Temples in the hills like this one also serve as summer resorts. People can come and sleep here, buy their food and enjoy a retreat from the city. (June 28, 1945)

I saw just the other evening a quaint celebration which is part of the expensive ceremonies following a death.... It was after dark as we came on this group lighting the incense sticks along the path and road to the house. Some monks in robes were chanting and there were hired musicians and the children were busy burning the so-called paper money  which, someway, is an offering for the deceased, in this instance an old lady, who died some weeks ago. This particular night's ceremony celebrated the night when her earth spirit returned to the home dwelling and the lights were made to guide her back. (August 6, 1945)

When the war was over, Bernard expanded his China travels for a month and then spent three weeks in India, studying the native plants.

Returning home in 1946, he was hired in May by the State of New York as a landscape architect based in Albany. It was not the perfect job for him; Bernard, as he later explained, "disliked being cooped up in an office." Hence he was ready to listen when a different opportunity appeared.

In the same year Richard E. Horsey, a botanist who had served the Rochester Park system for almost fifty years, decided to retire. With his extensive and varied gardening and landscape experiences, and his habit of corresponding with those who shared his interests, Bernard Harkness already was well known in the horticultural and botanical world. Heartily recommended by Professor Curtis of Cornell, Bernard came to work for the City of Rochester. He had found his lifetime career; he was home at last.

From January 1948 until April 1967, his duties included managing the horticultural library and the herbarium collection of pressed and preserved plant specimens, and identifying and labelling all plant materials within the park system. He also administered a program to safeguard the plants from insects and diseases, and assisted in planning the use of plant materials in the parks, along the streets, and in the landscapes of public buildings.

In July, 1961, the County of Monroe agreed to take over the maintenance of certain city-owned park areas. Under the new arrangement, Bernard Harkness became Plant Taxonomist for the Monroe County Department of Parks. He was immediately faced with the task of moving and reorganizing the herbarium. During the next several years he spent many hours in collecting and preserving new specimens and in upgrading this valuable resource.

Protecting and improving the lilac collection, a symbol of the arboretum to the local public and a principal tourist attraction for the area, naturally required much attention from Bernard. He particularly enjoyed the academic and scientific interchange as a member of the 1953 Lilac Survey team, under the auspices of the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboretums (AABGA). This committee of six experts researched all lilac varieties grown in American gardens, assigned color and flower form classifications and developed a listing of the 100 best varieties for recommendation to collectors and commercial growers. The complete survey included over 900 varieties and was a complete, definitive lexicon of all known lilac varieties at that time.

His love of plants and endless quest for greater knowledge about them took him far beyond his routine responsibilities. For many years the Park Department had been involved in a program of plant exchange with other botanical gardens and arboretums. In 1948, Bernard initiated a more formal program of exchange: each year he collected and prepared seeds of selected plants and published a Seed Exchange List which was mailed out to colleges, arboretums and botanical gardens throughout the world. The list usually contained 200 or more different plants, and always generated wide response. In 1952, for example, requests for seed came from 72 American institutions and 69 foreign institutions in 24 countries. Since the program was reciprocal, Bernard perused seed lists published by sources around the world and requested shipments of seed of many plants for trial within this area. Many of these are now specimen plants within the park collections.

Early in his tenure with the Park Department, he traveled to Moravia practically every weekend to take care of his parents, both of whom were in poor health. He cooked and did all the household chores and tried to leave them prepared to cope until his return the following weekend. After the deaths of his parents in 1953, Bernard became even more engrossed in his work, and even used his vacations to search for plants in their native habitats.

He also devoted many hours to the Garden Center of Rochester, as a consultant in the planning and administration of its horticultural program. "Bernard Harkness, Horticulturist" appeared in the masthead of the Garden Center Bulletin for almost twenty years, and he contributed many articles to this publication. Bernard also wrote articles for several of the leading garden magazines, including Popular GardeningFlower Grower,Horticulture and others; appeared as a featured speaker for many local garden clubs; and conducted tours through local park areas.

Several leading universities offering courses in plant sciences, botany, horticulture and landscaping brought classes to Rochester to experience a field trip with "Bernie" Harkness. Classes from Cornell, Syracuse and Alfred visited annually; occasional classes came from Rutgers, Michigan State, Farmingdale, and elsewhere. Frequently in May or June the School of Gardeners of the Niagara Falls, Ontario, park system visited en masse. Individual visitors included students working on advanced degrees, representatives from other botanical institutions, commercial nurserymen, leading educators, and government officials - all interested in observing plant materials under Bernard's guidance.

Bernard's technical writings can be found on the book shelves of many scientific establishments. Among them are several articles in the technical journal Phytologia, including "Hortus Durobrivensis," Parts I, II and III (Volumes 4: June and November 1953 and 5: July 1955), with detailed information about certain plants in Rochester Parks; and "Checklist of the Cultivated Woody Plants of the Rochester Parks" (Volume 9: February 1964).

Bernard did not confine his efforts just to the ivory tower of books and study. He was also a plain dirt gardener. Almost single-handedly he developed and planted the gardens located at the rear of the Garden Center building, "the Castle" at Highland Park. These gardens are a living library of plant materials which reflect Bernie's special interest in rock garden plants.

His professional honors included election as president of the American Association of Arboretums and Botanical Gardens, and of the American Rock Garden Society, and as vice president of the Rochester Academy of Science. He was made a fellow of the Academy in 1961 at the Civic Medal Award Convocation of the Museum; his citation made special note of his study of landscape architecture, his interest in tropical plants developed during his wartime assignment in India and China, and his field trips to Jamaica, Portugal, the Canadian Rockies, and Kentucky, as well as throughout the Rochester area.

Bernard's service at the Garden Center constituted much of his social life. Among the many volunteers he met there was Mabel Gleason Olney, a University of Rochester graduate and long-time member of the Rochester Academy of Science. With library experience and an interest in horticulture and gardening, she agreed in 1953 to develop a library for the Garden Center. Their mutual interests in horticulture, books and the Garden Center brought Mabel and Bernard together; they were married at the Anabel Taylor Hall Chapel at Cornell on September 5, 1964.

Although he decided to leave the County Park Department in April 1967, he never really retired. With Mabel, he moved to the beautiful cobblestone house they had purchased on Pre-emption Road near Geneva. Here they shared many interests, including the Seed Exchange of the American Rock Garden Society, a special project operated almost solely through their efforts. Lilacs also continued to be of interest to Bernard. In 1971 he was a founding member of the International Lilac Society; both he and Mabel served as directors of the group for several years.

Bernard continued to study and to share his knowledge with others, and to develop his own garden, now containing many rare and unusual plants. He researched, wrote and published the Seedlist Handbook which lists over 9,000 plants, including habitat, height, outstanding characteristics, and country of origin, along with references to other publications for more detailed information.   

In the Foreword to the third edition of this Handbook (Bellona, NY: Kashong, 1980), H. Lincoln Foster, author ofRock Gardening (Houghton Muffin, 1968) states: "This updated and expanded third edition of the Seedlist Handbook was readied for the publisher only a few days before Bernard Harkness died suddenly on September 18, 1980. This work and its predecessor editions will stand as a long-lived memorial to a man of importance in the world of horticulture . . . the Seedlist Handbook is a remarkable document. . . . Unpretentious as it is, just as was its author, the Seedlist Handbook is a veritable storehouse of dependable information, based on the prodigious industry and immaculate scholarship of Bernard Harkness." (Editor's note: a fourth edition of theSeedlist Handbook, compiled by Mabel Harkness from her husband's notes, is in the final stages of publication.)

At a retirement party in his honor, Bernard was presented with a portfolio of letters solicited from his friends and associates throughout the world. His friend and former classmate, Ben Blackburn, director of the Willowwood Arboretum, Gladstone, New Jersey, wrote of his own correspondence files: "The 'H' file has been particularly resistant to reorganization. This file is all Harkness. During every attempt to reorganize," Mr. Blackburn wrote, he becomes "engrossed in re-reading letters, plant notes, etc. and ends up with no change."

From the Royal Botanical Gardens, Hamilton, Ontario, Director Leslie Laking (also then president of the AABGA) wrote: "The publication of the Check List of woody species in the park system has been exceedingly valuable to us. If you knew how frequently this is used at the Gardens here, you would know how worth while your efforts have been. The same applies to the dedicated attention you have given to the International Seed Exchange over the years."

David Leach of Brookville, Pennsylvania remembered well his first meeting with Bernard: "You were tramping along on a trail, pack on back in the Blue Mountains ridges of Jamaica." Mr. Leach was making it the easy way, partly by car and then on mule back to the mist forest of Morey's Gap. "After our momentary conversation, I made a chalk mark on my mental blackboard. I had met a man who loved the natural world. . .one who responded fully to the aesthetic appeal and the scientific fascination of plants."

There were many more letters which gave tribute to Bernard for his contributions in the field of horticulture. In his professional world, the name Bernard Harkness represents a source of expertise. In far flung places, other horticultural experts recognized him as an authority on plant materials. We no longer have the opportunity to share experiences with Bernard, but we will always remember the warmth of his friendship and the intensity of his interest in plants. The Rochester and Monroe County parks are richer because of his contributions as a valued employee, but even more because of his unselfish interest in plants and their relationship to people.


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