Elizabeth Clarke, 89, founder of Cylburn Arboretum

June 07, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Elizabeth Clarke's childhood home on the Delaware River -- a property with large gardens and a greenhouse -- instilled a love of plants that led her from a job at a seed company to a role that she considered her greatest achievement -- founder of a garden preserve that eventually became Cylburn Arboretum.

Miss Clarke, who supervised nature and garden activities for the Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks for nearly 30 years, died Wednesday at Charlestown Care Center of complications from a stroke she suffered in 1994. She was 89.

She was traveling from park to park in 1954, teaching gardening classes and leading nature walks, when she realized that construction and utilities were obliterating some of the city's native plants.

"It became apparent that it was vitally necessary to preserve an area where wildflowers native to Maryland could be protected," she said in a 1964 interview in The Sun.

"She got a group of garden people together, went to the park board and requested creation of a nature and wildflower preserve," said Gerard Moudry, chief horticulturist for Baltimore at the time.

The park board agreed, and Cylburn Preserve and Garden Center was born.

Cylburn was an abandoned antebellum mansion on 180 acres. The mowed grounds were a favorite picnicking spot.

As president of the center, which grew to become Cylburn Arboretum, Miss Clarke was instrumental in transforming its carriage roads into nature trails, and its formal gardens into beds of perennials, roses and herbs. Greenhouses went up, becoming the chief source of plants in city-owned gardens. Today, Cylburn attracts more than 200,000 visitors a year.

"Liz Clarke wasn't a pushy person, but she was an energetic soul," Mr. Moudry said.

That energy was legendary among friends. At age 73, she still cut the grass at her North Baltimore home with a push mower. An Orioles fan, she rarely missed a game until her stroke. She traveled extensively into her 80s, visiting Europe, China and Egypt.

She also had a shy side, friends said. She was a bookworm. A beauty with long chestnut hair in her youth, she never married.

"I think there was never anybody good enough for her, in her family's eyes," said Ruth Carr, a lifelong friend.

Her passion was gardening.

"I have a memory of a bed that was 100 feet or more long and 4 feet wide," said Mrs. Carr. "It went from the street all the way back to the garage. And when the peonies were out, it was a real sight. I can still close my eyes and see them, whites and pinks. I can't guess how many."

Born in Philadelphia, Miss Clarke grew up in Delanco, N.J., a suburb, and graduated from Friends Central School in 1928. She studied at a school of horticulture that is now part of Temple University and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1932. She obtained a master's degree in education from the University of Maryland in 1954 and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Hood College in 1967.

After her first job with a seed company, she was curator at the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Botanical Gardens from 1941 to 1948. She left to come to Baltimore, where she headed horticulture for city parks until her retirement in 1975.

She was a member of Episcopal Church of the Nativity, 419 Cedarcroft Road.

Private graveside services were held Saturday.

Miss Clarke had no survivors.

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