Situated on the western edge of the Philadelphia suburbs, the Tyler Arboretum is an unassuming institution of public horticulture with plenty of plant collections arranged in a natural setting among 650 acres. The property was released by William Penn in 1681 to Thomas Minshall, an English Quaker, and remained in the same family for eight generations until Laura Tyler donated the property to be developed as an arboretum in 1944. Nearly 150 years ago, the Painter brothers, members of the Tyler family ancestry, began planting collections of trees and shrubs on the family’s farmland. Almost 20 original trees from their efforts still grow among Tyler’s collections today, including the Pennsylvania state champion cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani). Tyler’s historic legacy is obvious upon entering the grounds through the visitor center. Just beyond the entrance, visitors are greeted by alternating scents originating from herbaceous perennial beds and flowering woody ornamental species. A fieldstone barn imparts the farm’s original focus in grain and milk production with neighboring period houses invoking similar images of historic ages.
On July 13, 2007 the First Year Fellows of the Longwood Graduate Program experienced similar visual and olfactory stimulation passing through the Tyler Arboretum entrance. Mr. Rick Colbert, Executive Director of the Tyler Arboretum, first greeted the students in the Arboretum’s conference room to describe Tyler’s organizational structure and provide a brief overview of key initiatives. Mr. Colbert detailed an early need for clearly defined roles within the organization and a lucid vision for the future of the Tyler Arboretum. Recognizing these needs, Mr. Colbert recounted the development of Tyler during his tenure, including an examination of yearly attendance patterns, reaching nearly 45,000, considering an initial capital campaign, and collaboration on master plan development. In 1996, a committee composed of volunteers, board members, employees and administrators produced a defined vision and master plan for the Arboretum. The original master plan provided needed clarity for employees and volunteers to prioritize daily maintenance, large-scale projects and continuing initiatives to meet emphasized objectives. Preliminary achievements included a 12-foot high deer fence stretching for two miles to encompass and protect the Arboretum’s plant collections, newly designed interpretive signage, a youth-friendly meadow maze and increased herbaceous plantings near the visitor’s center. Continual growth is a central tenet of Mr. Colbert’s leadership philosophy at Tyler, and consequently a new initiative to update the master plan is advancing the Arboretum’s efficiency and relevancy in the greater Philadelphia region.
In addition to Rick Colbert, the First Year Fellows held detailed conversations with individual department directors. Ms. Betsey Ney, Director of Public Programs, outlined her responsibilities. All of the support staff in this department are part-time employees who enjoy their service at the Arboretum. Ms. Ney directly supervises the visitor’s center that was built in 2001 to provide orientation, engagement and a welcoming first impression to Arboretum visitors. The visitor’s center was initially built to provide these services for an expected increase in visitor traffic during the traveling Big Bugs exhibition, a collection of massive insect sculptures by David Rogers. Ms. Ney also coordinates a group often considered the lifeblood of many organizations - the volunteers. She indicated that the organization is constantly striving to provide unique volunteer opportunities for varied demographics including retirees, families and students. One of Ms. Ney’s most difficult responsibilities includes evaluating and developing educational content to meet new standardized testing and curriculum requirements. The educational programming and services provided at Tyler must meet minimum content benchmarks positioned by the government to be considered by local school districts. Remaining appealing to these school districts and attracting new young visitors is a main priority for the Arboretum.
The Director of Horticulture, Mr. Mike Karkowski, also discussed issues and developments within Tyler Arboretum’s horticultural plant collections. The Arboretum’s collections are held within several separate named areas including the Pinetum, which is an 85-acre collection of pines, spruces, firs, hemlocks and other related species planted by the Arboretum’s first director, Dr. John C. Wister; the Old Arboretum, which includes the Rhododendron Collection (a North American Plant Collections Consortium recognized collection); and the Magnolia Collection, among many others. The horticulture staff is composed of an ISA Certified Arborist (Mr. Jeff Wilson), a head gardener (Ms. Carla Hetzel), as well as two support gardeners. Dividing the immense workload among four full-time staff is a constant challenge for Mr. Karkowski, but the band of dedicated volunteers and the recently installed deer protection fence alleviate the onerous tasks.
The Fellows last spoke with Mr. Andy Brundage, the Director of Development, about special events fundraising efforts at the Tyler Arboretum. Mr. Brundage coordinates the annual giving and capital campaigns that provide vital funding for the Arboretum’s programming. He also directs a series of wine and cheese tasting events, the annual plant sale, a benefit auction and Pumpkin Days, an autumnal celebration. The Tyler Arboretum’s facilities are also available for event rental throughout the year, which continually elevates it as a community resource.
Following lunch, the Fellows toured the grounds with Mr. Karkowski, Mr. Wilson and Ms. Hetzel. The Fellows and staff casually walked through the Tyler’s represented ecosystems while conversing about select maintenance concerns, interpretive signage and the need for improved circulation patterns through the grounds. The group also surveyed many large trees, including a giant sequoia, cedars of Lebanon and river birches. A distinctive attraction at the Tyler Arboretum is the 1400 square foot butterfly house. Open yearly from June through September, this structure contains numerous species caught on-site by volunteers, and fosters complete butterfly life cycles within its confines.
The combination of remarkable plant collections at the Tyler Arboretum, engaging educational programming, and continued development all ensure this historic landscape will have a place in a modern, suburban community. Undoubtedly individuals and organizations will seek the respite of Tyler’s naturalized plant collections, stimulating public events and beneficial environmental stewardship instruction. For the First Year Fellows, this institution and its hospitable staff have fostered an unforgettable experience filled with equally important insights.