Journalist: Jon Pixler
Photographer: Andrew Gapinski
The Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania is a stunning 170 acre arboretum located in northwest Philadelphia, which functions as an interdisciplinary resource center for the University, and is recognized as the official arboretum of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The arboretum has a proud history of promoting science, art, and the humanities through research, teaching, and outreach programs. In 1887, the land on which the arboretum is located was bought by siblings John and Lydia Morris. When originally purchased, the land had barren soils but over years of ownership the Morrises built a summer home and developed the landscape and a plant collection that are still enjoyed today. John was a noted plantsman and community leader. Both John and Lydia traveled extensively in America, Asia, and Europe where they not only extended their interest in plants but also fostered a love of culture and art. This influence and direction is an important part of the Morris Arboretum mission today where many art pieces can be found in the garden throughout the year. The Morrises had also envisioned and planned for building a school and laboratory for the advancement and education in horticulture and botany. Following the passing of John in 1915 and Lydia in 1932, the land and an endowment were left to The University of Pennsylvania to further the development and fulfillment of the Morris’ wish to designate the land as a public, educational institution to be utilized by generations to come.
Today, that dream is currently being carried out by Director Paul Meyer who has been part of the Morris Arboretum staff since 1978. On July 11, 2008 the Longwood graduate students were lucky enough to get a guided tour of the entire facility by Director Meyer. Soon after our arrival that morning, we began the tour and headed out from the parking lot. The tour began with a chance to see one of the most majestic oak trees, Quercus benderi, which was estimated by Director Meyer to be somewhere between 400 and 500 hundred years old. This tree truly sets the mood for walking down a path into the beautiful Arboretum. After passing the visitors center and onsite restaurant we preceded into the site for the new Out On a Limb: A Tree Adventure exhibit that is planned to be open in late spring of 2009. This new exhibit will allow visitors to get off the ground up and into the trees’ canopy to experience a whole new view. The visitors will start out on a boardwalk that will lead up to 40ft above the ground, placing them up in the canopy where they can admire the beautiful trees and wildlife at a closer view. Other features include a mesh netted walkway that will make you think you are floating on air, as well as a suspension bridge for the less adventurous visitor. A pavilion in the exhibit will provide a gathering space for people to learn about the importance of trees in everyone’s lives, especially in an urban environment.
As our group continued down, we passed many beautiful tree specimens of primarily North American and and Asian descent, which were collected on earlier expeditions. An opening in the green canopy gives way to a view of a beautiful English style rose garden, a site of major revitalization in the recent past. With the addition of many new colorful perennials and annuals now mixed among carefree varieties of roses, this garden provides a burst of color sure to catch the eye of all visitors. The rose garden also features a sprawling rock wall across one side that is just bursting with small perennials.
Another part of the garden has also has seen revitalization thanks to generous arboretum donors. The Pennock flower walk is now surrounded by a wrought iron arbor that has been planted with a variety of flowering vines to help enclose the space and also serve as a deer fence. Inside the flower walk there are many beds and pots bursting with annual flowers and foliage plants for the summer. A bench in one corner underneath a large tree gives visitors a nice place to relax and enjoy the newly completed space.
After venturing further into the garden, the visitor is immersed amongst enormous specimens of trees and expansive lawn area. As part of the arboretum’s mission to support and advance art, many 3 dimensional sculptures made of wood, metal, and ceramic are featured on the main garden loop. These pieces are a nice accent to the garden and are rotated with new ones on a regular basis. However, this is the area of the Arboretum where the main focus comes into picture, the trees. One of the largest Causnera trees in North American can be found on this site along with many other impressive specimens. There are many spaces along the garden trail where a visitor can find seclusion. Benches and other sitting areas are found on and off the path that weaves its way through the garden and passes by many large fountains, ponds, and small streams that add the always-essential sounds and feeling that water brings to any garden experience. One of the interesting places on the pathway was a small Fern house that was packed with ferns of every shape and size. On the way back through the garden, we stopped at the garden railway, which is an interesting mix of miniature trains and miniature buildings amongst garden beds. In all, there are 7 loops and 12 railways of tracks. Designed by Paul Busse this feature has now been a part of the Morris Arboretum for almost 11 years and is one of the most popular attractions for all ages. The railway theme is currently the “Architectural wonders of the world.” Many other activities are also offered at the Arboretum from educational programs to social events, like Moonlight and Roses and Grooving In The Garden, which features live music.
New plans for the Arboretum are also currently implemented from the master plan developed in 1978. As Morris Arboretum celebrates its 75 year anniversary, a major finance campaign for a new Center of Horticulture is being kicked off. The design for the new facility is utililizing green technologies, such as thermal heating, green roofs, and even solar power. The new faculties at the center will be built in two phases and have around 40,000 square feet of space for education, facilities, and staff offices. The first phase will be a much needed new staff facility comprised of 24 office space, two conference rooms, a kitchen and a break room. Adjoined to this building will be a mechanic and arborist shop that will also function as a garage for trucks, golf carts, lawn movers and all other large equipment. The second phase will be a new education center that will greatly increase the ability to offer onsite programs to the public. This building will house three classrooms, a public gallery space, and a large conference room that will accommodate 200 people. Outside the building there will also be an outdoor classroom and space for an amphitheater. Phase one construction is tentatively planned to begin in the fall of 2009 and the goal is to break ground on phase two by the fall of 2010.
With all the new changes happening at Morris Arboretum there is much excitement in the air. The future for this prestigious institution that was originally envisioned by John and Lydia Morris is on its way towards becoming a reality. The Morris siblings would be astonished to see how much has been contributed to their former estate by the public and most importantly the dedicated staff who make Morris Arboretum the wonderful place it is to visit. Over the next few years it will be exciting to follow along as these new facilities are opened for use to better the visitor experience while at the Morris Arboretum.