Before the Barnes Foundation moved to Center City, Philadelphia, in 2012, its off-the-beaten-path location in Merion, Pennsylvania, made going there seem like a discovery. In its new location it has become a major destination — and rightly so — but there’s something mystical left behind in the old neighborhood. Happily, one can still visit the Barnes Arboretum in Merion. A refuge of birdsong and floral scents only a block from Route 1, it is well worth the one-hour drive from Princeton.
I arrive early for my meeting with curator of living collections Jacob Thomas and am asked to wait in the library. Wait? Thank you! What a perk for an investigator of the remains of an art world legend. A sampling of titles that line the shelves: “The Hookers of Kew”; “Art Held Hostage: The Battle Over the Barnes Collection”; and others on paleobotany and trilobytes, and the flora of Hong Kong, Greece, and Ceylon. What a privilege it must be to do research here, with views out the windows of a lushly manicured respite rimmed by irises in bloom.
The library is in the building that was once the residence of Dr. Albert and Laura Barnes — the white-tiled kitchen in which they cooked on a vintage white stove is still intact. When they bought the property, a condition of the sale from Joseph Lapsley Wilson, the preceding owner, was that they had to maintain the trees on the grounds, some 200 of which Wilson had planted. Wilson stayed on, serving as the first director of the arboretum. His original residence was razed for the gallery building, but the Barnes’ built him a new house. When Albert died in 1951 and Laura in 1966, their residence became an administration building, and today is where horticulture classes are taught.
Brief review: Dr. Albert Barnes, a medical doctor with a specialty in physiological chemistry and pharmaceutics, made his fortune from Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound used in the prevention of infant blindness. With an interest in art, he was known for treating his employees well and offering daily seminars drawn from the ideas of William James, George Santayana, and John Dewey. He collected works by groundbreaking European painters Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Modigliani, Soutine, and de Chirico; American innovators Charles Demuth, William Glackens, Horace Pippin, and Maurice Prendergast; old master paintings; African sculpture; and Native American ceramics, jewelry, and textiles.
He established the Barnes Foundation in 1922 for the purpose of promoting the advancement of education and appreciation of the fine arts. In 1901 he married Laura Leggett of Brooklyn, who developed the arboretum and became its second director in 1928. A holly and a lilac were named for the serious horticulturalist.
In 1940 Laura Barnes founded the Arboretum School, where she was an instructor and was responsible for the acquisition of plants for the gardens. She corresponded and exchanged specimens with many other notable collections, including the Arnold Arboretum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
The Arboretum School, now in its 75th year, was started with the help of Dr. John M. Fogg, a dean and botany professor at the University of Pennsylvania who became the arboretum’s third director in 1966. Today visitors can still tour the tea house where it is said Laura met with Dr. Fogg on a rainy day, sitting around the stone fireplace to talk about the school, which offers a three-year certificate in horticulture, botany, and landscape design in a one-day-a-week intensive program. Graduates go on to volunteer in other gardens, such as the Morris Arboretum. The magnificent library is used by horticulture students, faculty, and volunteers.
Jacob Thomas, who joined the Barnes Arboretum in 2002, is its ninth director. When the foundation moved to Center City in 2012, his title was changed to curator of living collections. “When the gallery was here, we were in its shadow,” he says. “Thousands of visitors came, but they didn’t have the right shoes or the time to visit a garden. Now we are at the forefront. We are looking at what Laura planted — she had the best collection of hardy ornamental ferns — and bringing back those that have not survived.” The fern collection is the largest of hardy ornamental ferns in the mid-Atlantic region.
The medicinal plants garden, originally called the physician’s garden, was important to Dr. Barnes in his role as physician and pharmacist. Traditional plant-based healing laid the foundation for the development of modern medicine, and many commercial drugs contain active compounds from plants. The 170 species and cultivars from the Americas to Europe, China, India, and Africa are intended as a teaching tool to provide insight into the healing powers of plants.
“Our ancestors learned about the benefits of these plants by trial and error. Though we have comprehensive information about the many medicinal plants in this garden, there are potentially still thousands of plants whose medicinal uses have yet to be discovered,” says Thomas. “It is our duty to study them for their active components. We understand the importance of conserving plants for scientific research. As the fields of ethno-botany and ethno-pharmacology grow, many plants’ medicinal properties might be better leveraged to benefit future generations.”
Leopards’ bane, from which arnica derives, catches my eye — arnica is a major component of both badger’s balm and Topricin, and has worked for my aches and pains.
From signs I learn that periwinkle is used to produce medicine for childhood leukemia, lily of the valley produces heart medicine, hellebores are used to treat nervous disorders, gout, and meningitis, papaya juice for digestive problems, mulberry for kidney disorder and vertigo: “Information regarding the plants in this garden is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or condition,” warns the sign. “Always consult a health professional before taking any medicine, herbal or otherwise.”
“I’ve learned so much about medicinal plants working with Jacob,” says living collections associate Bill Rein. “Most every plant has multiple uses. This isn’t just an herb garden; there are trees, shrubs, colorful perennials, and even some common plants.” In October, the plants are taken into the greenhouse for winter protection.
Some of the plants in the medicinal garden work their magic through aromatherapy. As Thomas and head gardener Drew Lehrian crush leaves and fruit from cardamom, neem, curry, tamarind, and allspice, offering a sniff, I can attest to the healing power of these fragrances. Indeed I felt happy the rest of the afternoon, inhaling the residue of scents on my own fingers.
A native of Kerala, India, where his father worked for the state transportation corporation, Thomas always loved plants and earned a bachelor’s degree in botany and master’s degree in genetics and plant breeding from Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute and a Ph.D. in cytogenetics from Kerala University. He trained in botanical garden management at Kew Gardens in London and followed a brother to the U.S.
The Barnes Arboretum boasts the largest East Coast collection of hostas (a leafy perennial used for bordering or groundcover) north of South Carolina. The large leaves of the plant in all its varieties can be seen from outside the fence, an attraction for the neighbors. There are also diminutive hostas with names like “Mousetrap,” “Pure Heart” and “Mighty Mouse.”
The collection was developed by the Delaware Valley Hosta Society and designated a National Display Garden by the American Hosta Society, says Thomas. Sixteen of the 19 “Hosta of the Year” awards have been awarded here.
It’s especially exciting to see 160 cultivars of the shade-tolerant plantain lilies, since those in my own garden have been nibbled to the ground by deer and other vermin. The hostas at the arboretum are protected by fencing, and when the occasional deer does manage to jump the fence, Lehrian brings in the dogs.
It’s survival of the fittest at the Barnes Arboretum, where the squirrel population is down now that a fox has established a den on the 12-acre property. Hawks keep other populations at bay, and groundhogs have been relocated. Integrated pest management is used — that is, chemicals are only sprayed when a problem necessitates it. In order to protect trees from the emerald ash borer, trees are given preventative injections every two years.
There are 40 state champion trees at the Barnes Arboretum, noted not for size but for rarity, from a coastal redwood to a Chinese fringe tree cascading white flowers like a waterfall. There’s even a chestnut tree here — it’s 90 percent American, crossed with Chinese chestnut to resist the blight that wiped out the American chestnut in the mid 20th century.
But a tree doesn’t have to be a champion to spread its arms and embrace with its shade and its beauty, such as many in the magnolia grove, gingkos, Franklinia, Paulownia, and trees with exfoliating bark and torsos like sculpture. The understory resembles a fairy world of shade on a hot day. Following the basic design principle of landscape architecture, a fourth of the property remains open space, creating a backdrop against which colors and textures stand out.
Indeed there is magic in the microclimate — there are many trees, such as the subtropical monkey puzzle tree from Chile, that should not thrive here but do.
Among the structural highlights are a French well Dr. Barnes had shipped from Brittany (it was disassembled and shipped piece by piece) and the tea house designed by Paul Cray, the architect who also designed the gallery building.
Just below the tea house is the pond, home to koi, goldfish, dragon flies, and lily pads, and rimmed with Japanese painted ferns and azaleas with orange blooms. Further on is the formal garden with terraces and a rose arbor. Stonework continues in a horse trough used as a planter for savory, sedum, and puntia (prickly pear cactus, the only cactus native to this region). The lilac walk to the house was used for cocktail parties when the gallery was still here, and is available for special event rentals, with a reflecting pool at center. During bloom time, the lilac scent wafts all the way to the parking lot, Thomas says.
Up above, a yellow swallowtail is encircling the tree canopy. There are so many ways to delight the senses, from a Chinese pistachio tree to a Japanese raisin tree, a wisteria pergola, and a white handkerchief tree, one must spend at least a day.
“I can’t imagine any job I’d love as much, where I can be teaching and getting dirty and leading a tour group all in the same day,” says Lehrian, who apprenticed at Longwood Gardens before coming to the Barnes six years ago. “You don’t become a gardener sitting down. There are quarterly educational programs for staff, and we can sit in on classes when there are extra seats. This place is a treasure.”
The Barnes Arboretum, 300 North Latch’s Lane, Merion, Pennsylvania, is open Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. through September 4. Tours offered 1 p.m. $10. Twilight in the Arboretum Thursday, July 21, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Musical entertainment on the great lawn; bring a picnic, stroll the grounds and enjoy the sights, scents, and sounds of twilight at the Barnes Arboretum, $10 and children under 12 free. www.barnesfoundation.org.