It’s known by those who have been there as a hidden gem. That’s the Tyler Arboretum in Media, Pennsylvania — about an hour away from the U.S. 1 reading area. Tucked among its 650 acres are magnificent facets that appeal to a wide variety of visitors — history buffs to horticulturists, tots to retirees, athletes to environmentalists.
Right now an exquisitely brilliant feature is on display through August 29. Titled “Big Bugs,” 10 truly large wooden sculptures — some are 25 feet long — are artfully and beautifully placed throughout the arboretum grounds. Each sculpture is accompanied by a sign describing the bug in nature and its beneficial qualities. This is an exhibit with both educational and aesthetic values to say nothing of a big WOW factor.
You really do have to see these bugs in order to appreciate the artistry behind them. Once a setting has been chosen, the various individually created parts are put together and the constructed bug put in place for the duration of the exhibition. At Tyler a damsel fly with a 14-foot wing span hovers over a creek meadow. A spider and its 12-foot-wide web take up the entire space between two large trees. And three ants, each 25 feet long, march across an open lawn. These and the other bugs are easily viewed as all are located along the 1.5 miles of the arboretum’s paved Scenic Loop. This walk, by the way, provides ease of access for those in wheelchairs or with strollers.
The bugs, created by David Rogers at his workshop in Long Island, consist of natural materials, primarily locust and ash wood that has then been coated with resin. They made their debut at the Dallas Arboretum 23 years ago and gained so much attention then that they have been packed and unpacked as a traveling exhibit, one that has graced arboretums and public gardens across the country. Indeed, they tramped and flew through the Tyler Arboretum 16 years ago and were so admired that the arboretum — thinking that a new generation of children would enjoy them — brought them back this year.
While we did see lots of children when my husband and I visited Tyler in late June, the sophistication of the sculptures — they are all anatomically correct — did not appeal to the very young ones. Rather these kids were dashing into what are called the Totally Terrific Treehouses. These unique constructions, designed and built by architects and artisans in the greater Philadelphia area, debuted in 2009. They were so popular the arboretum decided to keep them spread about the property. Over time some have been rehabilitated, some have been added, and some no longer exist. Currently there are seven on the grounds.
The Storybook Houses are among the original creations. Nestled among giant hemlock trunks, three small cottages have been built on an eight-foot raised deck. While children gleefully charged up, older adults rested on benches in the shade below.
The charming Cape May Birdhouse was inspired by the arboretum’s Bluebird Trail. Though children could not care less about birds as they clamber up the steps to the structure, which does resemble a Cape May Victorian cottage, serious birders flock to the Tyler Arboretum not only for its Bluebird Trail — a series of more than 40 nest boxes for eastern bluebirds raising their young — but also because of its designation as an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. More than 195 bird species have been documented at the Arboretum. Spring migration can produce up to 33 species of warblers.
Neither my husband nor I are birders, so we have no idea what was flitting around as we walked through the grounds. I’m a plant geek and for people like me there are two Tyler areas that are definite draws.
The Wister Rhododendron Garden is nationally recognized for its large and significant collection. There are more than 1,500 in the garden and when close to 1,000 of these are sporting a kaleidoscope of flower colors in mid May, the result is more than spectacular. The color display is slightly more muted but still beautiful with the remaining rhododendrons bearing flowers early spring and into early summer. When the 13 acres devoted to these plants were redesigned in 2010, the Delaware Valley Hosta Society introduced a new swath of color. In mid spring through early fall, there is a beautiful ribbon of blue hostas (H. Krossa Regal and H. Halcyon for those who are curious) winding through the rhododendrons. Lavender flowers in late summer provide a colorful bonus to this display.
And then there are the trees. After all, the word arboretum does mean a place where trees are grown, and there are a lot of them at Tyler. While the Pinetum’s many conifers cover 85 acres at Tyler, the biggest — literally — attractions are the Painter trees. These were planted by two brothers, Jacob and Minshall Painter, who set aside land in 1825 to create an arboretum by obtaining more than 1,000 varieties of trees and shrubs. In 1944 their descendant, Laura Tyler, established a nonprofit entity to manage the property as a memorial to her husband, John J. Tyler.
What I find astonishing is that 20 of these Painter trees are still alive, five of which are state champions. Among the latter is the native redwood, a giant sequoia. The brothers planted it in 1856 after obtaining it during a collection trip throughout the western U.S. When last measured in 2006 it was more than 95 feet tall. This is a bit puny when it comes to redwood height and the blame for that goes to a Christmas tree thief who cut off its top in 1895. While this obviously shortened the tree, it did not deter its will to live so that it now sports the unusual feature of two separate trunks growing out of its upper portion.
My husband, Toby, is used to my oohing and aahing over plants. Now it was his turn to exclaim over the historical structures on the property. There are six at Tyler Arboretum, all dating to the 1800s, some as small as a small root cellar to as big as a magnificent mansion. Toby was most impressed by the bank barn, so called because it is constructed on the side of a land bank. It is the largest remaining such structure in the Delaware Valley and its stone exterior covers the almost two-century-old wood beams inside. Much as the Amish do today, the barn utilized a post-and-beam construction in which carefully measured and carved wooden pegs hold everything together.
We saw lots of hikers. These can choose among six marked trails covering 17 miles. The trails are located outside the deer exclusion fence that wraps around the primary visitor area. Had we bought a lunch with us, we could have picnicked throughout the grounds or gone to a comfortable setting with benches and chairs. The arboretum’s only requirement is that all trash must be packed away when dining is finished. Though food is not offered, the visitor center does sell a selection of cold drinks and light snacks. We noticed several hikers stocking up on water bottles before heading out.
In terms of attractions, the Tyler Arboretum presents an abundance of riches. The wonder to me is why it is so little known throughout the U.S. 1 area. It is actually closer in both mileage and driving time to my Princeton home than either Winterthur or Mt. Cuba Center. No matter what time of year one visits, there is always a facet to be admired. Remember, though, the “Big Bugs” are only there until August 29, and they are something not to be missed. As a bonus, docent tours are offered every Friday and Saturday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. during the exhibit.
Tyler Arboretum, 515 Painter Road, Media, Pennsylvania. Open 362 days a year with times varying by season. Currently opening at 9 a.m.; closing at 6 p.m. on weekends and 5 p.m. on weekdays with the exception of Tuesdays, when closing is at 8 p.m. $15 adults, $13 seniors, $9 youth, military, and students with valid ID. Children age 2 and under free. 610-566-9134 or www.tylerarboretum.org.