by John A. Wott, Director Emeritus
On August 19, 2015, one of the original staff members of UW Botanic Gardens (Washington Park Arboretum) left this earth to tend to her new garden “in the sky.” Joan Pirzio-Biroli, known to everyone as “Jan” or “JPB” was officially employed as a research/extension program assistant at the University of Washington from November 10, 1980, until her retirement on November 1, 1991.
Jan was born in Davenport, Iowa, and was proud of her Midwestern heritage. She met her husband, Giacomo Pirzio-Biroli (Jimmy) in Baltimore, where she was an art historian at the Baltimore Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art. Her passion for art often showed through in her later editing and designing of early Washington Park Arboretum/Center for Urban Horticulture newsletters and posters. The couple moved to Mercer Island in 1952 where Jimmy became one of the founding doctors for Overlake Hospital. They had a life-long passion for each other and for the earth.
In the northwest, Jan shifted her passion to botany. It began with her own garden, which started as a thicket of pussy willows and maple saplings and was transformed over 50 years into an Eden of beauty and wonder. Early on, she volunteered at the Washington Park Arboretum, where she made life-long friends with both people and plants. Later she went back to the UW for a master’s degree in Botany, which she obtained in 1981. She was an extremely acute botanist and worshiped “Hitchy,” the revered Northwest botanist C. Leo Hitchcock. Jan and Jimmy raised a son and daughter who eventually married and built homes on the family property; she cared for her mother as she aged and was an editor of the Arboretum Bulletin. She threw show-stopping Christmas Eve parties, and we had many Washington Park Arboretum/Center for Urban Horticulture gatherings at their home. As a volunteer and employee of the Arboretum, she was respected by colleagues and friends alike for her passion for plants. She mentored many young botanists who admire her to this day. After her retirement from the Arboretum, she returned as a volunteer, continuing to lead her popular educational tours of the park.
Jan started work with Joe Witt in the crowded original Arboretum office. She also assisted Brian Mulligan with plant identification. She soon became the person answering questions, giving tours, identifying plants, and being Joe’s personal assistant. She felt that Joe was greatly overworked. It seemed like she knew the location and botanical information on every plant in the Arboretum. She was the first one to begin the arduous job of transferring all the huge hand-written plant curation cards to a new computer system, under the supervision of Timothy Hohn. Later this was taken over by volunteers, most notably Eileen MacDonald.
When I arrived here in 1981, I became Jan’s supervisor and I found her to be a talented, spirited, and most trustworthy employee. She was adamant about my needing to understand that gardening in the Northwest was not the same as in the Midwest. She was right! There was no way I could ever keep up with her encyclopedia of plant knowledge.
On my first July 4th weekend in Seattle in 1981, Jan and Jimmy asked me to accompany them on their new 38 ft sailing yacht moored in Anacortes. This was a delightful adventure….she had prepared fried chicken, fresh baked breads, salads galore, plenty of drinks, and every evening we caught our Dungeness crabs for dinner. I certainly learned about sailing. During the last night near Friday Harbor, the waters became very rough, and when Jimmy loosened the ropes the next morning, we took off at break neck speed, scraping the bottom of the boat on rocks, thankful later that it was not a severe problem. The winds eventually calmed and we smoothly returned to port. I will never forget that trip!
Jan wrote many plant articles, she published monthly newsletters of public activities in the Arboretum, and she led legendary Explorer Walks for years. She was extremely accurate as a writer and editor, but somehow the word “Arboretum” always seemed to be misspelled. I remember the horror the first time it appeared in bold headlines…Abroretum. From then on, I tripled checked every future newsletter to Jan’s great glee as well as embarrassment.
For many years, she supervised our Index Seminum Seed Exchange between botanical gardens around the world, supervising a large contingent of volunteers. She and Jimmy led several public class tours to eastern Washington to explore the eastern Washington plants and geology. I have returned over the years to several of these locations. I always will remember the exploration trips to set up the tours, one especially when we were trying to find a bog on Weyerhaeuser land, only to get totally lost with two frustrated leaders (a spirited Italian and a spirited Iowan)! But after finding the bog and stepping on submerged logs, we all accidentally slipped into it up to your hips, necessitating a very wet trip home. The trip returned to frivolity.
Upon her retirement in 1991, Prunus (Sato-zakura Group) ‘Ukon’, Accession number 273-91-A, was dedicated in her honor “for her 11 years of service as an Arboretum staff member. It was noted as being 6’ high when measured that December, and is planted in 60-3E, right across Arboretum Drive E from the Graham Visitors Center. The tree is still there, although now impacted by huge overstory trees and the Cherry Bark Tortrix.
R.I.P Jan….it was through dedicated spirited people like you, that UW Botanic Gardens exists today.…..your legacy lives on!
Jan receiving her 10-year service award from Director Harold B. Tukey Jr.
Jan hard at work on the Index Seminum
Jan sharing information at an open house in 1987
Celebrating Jan’s 65th birthday