Folsom Funeral Service

Spongberg, Stephen A

Stephen Alan Spongberg

Born October 15, 1942 to Alan Edward Spongberg (1912-1981) and Barbara Elsie Sandehn Spongberg (1912-2008), Stephen Alan Spongberg died at home in Westwood, MA on March 18, 2021 of complications related to oral cancer. Steve grew up in Rockford, IL, attended Rockford College, and went on to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where, in 1971, he earned a PhD in botany.

Steve’s professional positions included, in part, Executive Director of The Polly Hill Arboretum and Curator of The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, both emeritus positions at the time of his death. His primary research interests included Magnolias and Stewartias. His field studies took him to the Rocky Mountains, Japan, Korea, and The People’s Republic of China. He was the Arnold Arboretum’s participant in the 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition to western Hubei Province, PRC.

Steve held many editorial positions over the years including memberships on the editorial boards of Harvard Papers in Botany, 1996-1998, and The Plantsman, 1996-2006. He was Editor of The Journal of The Arnold Arboretum, 1979-1990, and Associate Editor of Rhodora, Journal of the New England Botanical Club, 1972-1978.

Steve served on many committees, published numerous articles, and wrote several books including A Reunion of Trees: The Discovery of Exotic Plants and their Introduction into North American and European Landscapes, 1990, and Island Life: A Catalog of the Biodiversity On and Around Martha’s Vineyard, 2008, which he co-authored with Allan Keith.

Awards and recognition Steve received include the naming of the Polly Hill Arboretum Library in his honor, 2004; the Thomas Roland Medal of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, 2001; the Veitch Memorial Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society, 1996; and the Award of Distinction from the Alumni Association of Rockford College, 1983. Two plant species new to science have been named in Steve’s honor, Cotoneaster spongbergii and Sorbus spongbergii.

Steve enjoyed reading literature classics and was a dedicated armchair traveler. He was a passionate collector of antiques and oriental rugs, and he had an impressive collection of botanical and natural history themed postage stamps. He loved classical music and opera, particularly the works of J.S. Bach, G.F. Handel, and R. Wagner. He thrived on hikes and walks. Any garden he created was thoroughly enjoyed by all. Those who knew him best were treated to his subtle and often mischievous wit. He was an excellent chef, and his enthusiasm for cooking and his Swedish heritage expressed themselves each December as he spent weeks preparing an elaborate Christmas Eve Smörgåsbord for friends and family. Loved and respected by many, Steve was indeed a gentleman.

Steve is survived by his wife, Harmony (Happy) Clement Spongberg of Westwood, MA, his daughter Harmony (Nia) Sandehn Spongberg and daughter-in-law Margaret (Mollie) Leslie McDermott of Ann Arbor, MI, and among others his closest nephews William Boggs of Tiverton, RI, and Nathan Boggs of Beloit, WI. Steve was predeceased by his sister Sondra Kay Spongberg Boggs (2012) and nephew Andrew Boggs (1987). A memorial gathering will be private. In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made to The Polly Hill Arboretum ( or the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (

Guestbook Entries

  1. Sue Craver
    March 19th, 2021 | 4:40 pm

    Dearest Happy and Nia, Words can’t begin to express my deep sadness at the news of Steve’s passing. Yet there is also the relief in knowing that he’s no longer suffering from that dreadful disease that held him captive for so long. The contributions he made to the botanical world will continue to educate and inspire scholars and us “non-scholars” for many years to come. I’m grateful and feel honored to have known Steve. Love and best wishes to you both,

  2. Susan Murphy
    March 19th, 2021 | 4:52 pm

    Godspeed, my friend.

  3. Sally Woodin
    March 19th, 2021 | 4:53 pm

    A gentleman, a scholar, a wit, a wonderful walking partner who told me about plants, and a friend, Steve, I will miss exploring life and thoughts with you.

  4. March 19th, 2021 | 6:03 pm

    Steve was the definition and epitome of a gentleman: learned, curious, energetic, gallant, witty, thoughtful, charming, kind, gracious, and wonderful company. I feel lucky to have known him and only wish I’d met him sooner. Sending love to Happy, Nia, Mollie and all who miss him so keenly. Our community has lost a fine man and a true friend.

  5. Nick Woodin
    March 19th, 2021 | 7:40 pm

    My sister Sally said it: a gentleman, a scholar, and a wit. We will miss him.

  6. Janie Orr Drevo
    March 19th, 2021 | 9:02 pm

    Sending my love and prayers to Happy, Nia, and Molly. He was a wonderful human being, and so accomplished in his life on earth. An honor to have met him through Happy.

  7. Nancy Wolff & Dave Booth
    March 19th, 2021 | 9:09 pm

    We feel so fortunate that we got to share time with Happy and Steve on Martha’s Vineyard. We got to taste his wonderful cooking, sit in some of his antique chairs, enjoy the garden and listen to lovely music. We also got acquainted with that wit that seemed to kind of sneak out before we realized it. We are so sad to know that he is gone, but comforted that he is no longer suffering. Our love to you, Happy and Nia.

  8. Samuel P. Cement
    March 19th, 2021 | 10:40 pm

    Dear Steve–
    You’re the best Brother in law anywhere, I shall keep you in the present tense always. Smooth sailing my friend, you deserve it.

  9. Eliza Twichell
    March 19th, 2021 | 10:54 pm

    So sad for your family to lose Steve. Sad for all of us in your family too- we will all miss him. You and Nia are in our thoughts. Big hugs to you both.

  10. Jane Boisvert
    March 20th, 2021 | 9:03 am

    Nia, Our hearts go out to you for your loss. We know he will be dearly missed and we are keeping you and your Mom in our thoughts and prayers. Glad that his suffering is over. Take care. Love,
    Jane & Dana

  11. Hugh Cory Angus
    March 20th, 2021 | 2:23 pm

    This is a sad loss to the botanical world, he was a real gentleman and I still have many happy memories of my time with him and Roy Lancaster in the White Mountains, more years ago now than I care to remember.

    Happy and Nia my thoughts are with you at this sad time.

  12. Nancy Hebard
    March 20th, 2021 | 8:52 pm

    We were so honored to have Steve amongst us at Fox Hill, and will greatly miss this engaging gentleman. Although modest about his knowledge and accomplishments, he plunged right into life here. He joined the committee responsible for creating flower arrangements in our foyer. Using fabulous containers, Steve combined floral material he purchased with specimens he and Happy collected on their walks. We all looked forward to admiring his spectacular results. Although Steve is relieved of his suffering, this is a very sad time for Happy and Nia.

    We send our deepest condolences,

    Nancy and George

  13. Sabina Knees
    March 21st, 2021 | 5:06 am

    Steve was a great help to me as Editor of the New Plantsman and I always valued his horticultural opinion along with a generous slice of wit.
    Happy and Nia we are so very sorry for your loss and our thoughts are with you now.
    Sabina & Martin

  14. Suki and John
    March 21st, 2021 | 12:11 pm

    We shall miss the sweetest man in the world.
    Please know, wonderful Happy and Nia, that you are in our thoughts and we send you much, much love.
    John and Suki

  15. abigail higgins
    March 21st, 2021 | 1:39 pm

    Steve Spongberg —
    We are lucky that He and Happy entered our Vineyard orbit and exposed us to top level plantsmanship and botanical experience. Their time here was too short.
    Steve was gracious and helpful to me when I needed more accurate information about plants and botanical terms than my limited experience could supply.
    A kind and gentle soul has departed but leaves a botanical oeuvre, many good friends, and chlorophyll-green memories. I picture Steve with a sprig between thumb and forefinger, about to discourse upon another wonderful bit of nature.

  16. Erik Beckstrand Roth
    March 21st, 2021 | 5:25 pm

    The sweet picture accompanying Steve’s obituary here perfectly captures his puckish personality and the dazzling wit behind his bright piercing eyes.
    Steve’s professional contributions to botany were brilliant, naturally, but for those who knew him personally, it was his exuberant love of life that was most inspiring.
    Fond memories of my dear second cousin go back to our childhood, and like Dylan Thomas noted:
    “Memories of childhood have no order and no end.”
    Likewise, our love endures, with prayers of comfort (literally “with strength”) for Happy, Nia, and Mollie.

  17. Fokos Eniko
    March 21st, 2021 | 7:45 pm

    Dear Happy
    My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  18. Terina Bainter
    March 22nd, 2021 | 1:10 pm

    I am so sorry for your loss, sending you and your family hugs and prayers.

  19. Lawrence Banks
    March 22nd, 2021 | 3:27 pm

    Steve Sponberg was an extraordinary plantsman and only last week I was looking at the wonderful plant of Sorbus caloneura that he collected in China and which is now just breaking into leaf and flower at Hergest Croft to mark his passing on. So many of us worldwide were the beficiaries of his knowledge and generosity. A giant is now gardening in the skies

  20. Charlotte Feldman
    March 22nd, 2021 | 10:41 pm

    I met Steve as a young/new member of the IDS (International Dendrology Society), when I visited the Polly Hill as part of planning an IDS Council meeting in the Boston area. His sense of humor presented itself almost immediately as he shepherded me to an Osmanthus heterophyllus, and eyes twinkling asked: “Do you know what this is?” I have always remembered him and his boundless joy in plants. A great tree has fallen, but will not be forgotten
    Charlotte Feldman, President IDS

  21. Holly Noble
    March 23rd, 2021 | 8:36 am

    When I think of Steve I think of crisp wit, a gentle manner, botanical books, photographs from China, rocking chairs in Keene Valley, wood smoke, art, oriental rugs, Parents Weekends at Bowdoin College, cooking in Chilmark, a pint of Guinness, strolling through Polly Hill Arboretum, literature, sharp oxford shirts, and the dad to my college roommate and best friend, Nia. A life well lived, Steve.

    Thinking of you, Happy, Nia, and Mollie.

  22. March 24th, 2021 | 11:17 pm

    Most of the memories and condolences shared thus far are from friends of Steve, the adult. You all would like to know that even as a youth and a young man, Steve was already a gentle man and a gentleman. He and I grew up together in Rockford, Illinois. We were neighbors across the driveway between our homes from grade school through our college years. Ironically, the communication difficulties we had in recent years making the internet work were eerily similar to those we had with the waxed string and tin cans connecting our bedrooms!
    Our fathers, his a pharmacist, and mine a physician, were great friends and shared a love of gardening. Alan’s gardens and yard were immaculate! I have to imagine that Steve’s passion for plants “stemmed” from that upbringing, and that rich environment. His mother, Barb, was a strong woman, way ahead of her time, with a strong wit also. I believe I can say that Steve, as the apple, did not fall far from his parents’ tree.
    Although I missed out on many years of his wit and company once he moved east, I had the privilege of being around him as he began his collecting of both stamps and plants. During his teens and early twenties, he took me on many “collecting” trips, taught me a lot about plants, and began to “blossom” into the person you all have admired. I feel Steve was important to each of us, and will be missed by all of us. Thank you, Steve.

  23. Ida Hay and Rob Nicholson
    March 26th, 2021 | 6:47 pm

    Such hard news to hear. Steve was a mentor, inspiration and friend to us when we first started at the Arnold Arboretum. For us, he defined “a gentleman and a scholar” and was not just a exceptional plantsman but his guidance and friendship showed us how to be proper co-workers. Coffee breaks were always a treat due to his easy laugh and love of a telling a good tale. So many memories with Steve we cherish, all positive. Our hearts go out to Happy and family.

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Folsom Funeral Service

Folsom Funeral Service