The first thing I have to say about the Morris Arboretum — which is open all year and opens its annual holiday Garden Railway on Friday, November 28 — is how easy it is to get there. It took 50 minutes from Princeton, there was no traffic, and much of it was a pleasant route. Even though our area is rich with nature preserves and parks and sculpture gardens, there are compelling reasons to make the journey to the Morris Arboretum.
Just before getting to the 92-acre horticultural oasis, owned and operated by the University of Pennsylvania, we drove through Flourtown. I love the name alone, and after looking it up I learned it was so called because of three mills that operated here, fed by the Wissahickon Creek. The Wissahickon flows through the Morris Arboretum, where there’s also a mill — visitors can grind their own flour and make muffins.
We meet our guide, Elyse Schatz, at the visitor center — at one time the carriage house for the estate — and the very first thing Schatz tells us is that this is an arboretum, not a garden. “Longwood Gardens is a garden. We have gardens here, but an arboretum is a collection of specimen trees.” The Morris is the official arboretum of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Here visitors learn about the relationship between plants, people and places, integrating science, art, and the humanities.
The Morris Arboretum was founded in 1887 as Compton, the private estate of siblings John and Lydia T. Morris. The Morrises were Quakers who never married, and heirs to the I.P. Morris iron manufacturing company. They traveled the world, bringing back plants and ideas to Compton.
The Morrises purchased the land in incremental parcels. It was barren, with poor soil that drained too quickly, but they hired the best gardeners and architects, and over time they were able to enrich the soil and landscape. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Compton became the Morris Arboretum and was willed to the University of Pennsylvania in 1932.
There are many exotic specimens at the arboretum, although in the last 15 to 20 years, Schatz says, there has been an increased awareness that native plants grow well in the environment in which they originated. She points to a native Bottlebrush buckeye. With compound leaves, the shrub flowers in July, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds. The shade it casts makes it difficult for weeds to grow, and it is relatively deer-resistant.
In order to keep out deer, the arboretum has a fence all around. Schatz recounts how a pair of Jack Russell Terriers were recruited to keep deer out of the rose garden, but it failed.
As we walk around the undulating grounds, we see little yellow cards dangling from each tree. I ask Schatz why each tree has its own credit card.
“They’re not credit cards,” she says. “They identify the tree.” Each metal card tells the botanical name, the common name, the family, and the year it was planted. If a tree was planted before the arboretum was willed to the University of Pennsylvania, the date is listed as 1932.
Schatz quizzes us to see if we can identify the large tree growing over our heads. It’s a Canadian hemlock. “Hemlocks used to be all over Pennsylvania, but now Wooly Adelgid is the enemy of the state tree,” she says, pulling down a section to show us the white cottony pest colonizing under the needles of the conifer.
IPM, or Integrated Pest Management, is used at the arboretum — rather than spraying routinely for pests, chemicals are used only when needed to target a specific problem. Biological control may be used to combat certain pests.
John and Lydia shared a love of history and art, and established a tradition of placing sculpture in the garden that continues today. “Two Lines,” a kinetic sculpture by George Rickey, marks the location at the top of the hill where the original Compton house stood.
Schatz takes us through the cherry allee. She has been leading tours of the arboretum for 23 years, and in that time has become a master gardener and completed the horticulture program at the Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania. She takes us to Pennock Garden, started at the arboretum by Linden Pennock in memory of his wife, Alice. Pennock was a prominent Philadelphia florist. His Meadowbrook Farm, located in Meadowbrook, Pennsylvania, was taken over by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
“Orange and blue were Alice’s favorite colors, so you see a lot of those here,” says Schatz. During my visit a few weeks ago and looking around the very formal terraced garden, I see lilies and daylilies, butterfly bush and eupatorium, canna, and calendula. She takes us to a secluded area to see a rectangular fountain, copied from one in the Alhambra in Spain.
At the top of the stone steps we see three giant sequoias that marked the entrance to the original Compton house with an orange balustrade and a water feature.
The signature tree of the Morris Arboretum is a Katsura, planted between 1901 and 1909, and it truly has to be seen. Its multi-branching trunks sweep out horizontally, creating a giant upside-down spider of a form. Schatz tells us that even hurricanes and tornadoes do not affect the spreading pendulous branches, and people in Asia plant this tree near their homes because they believe it will bring prosperity. “But don’t plant it too close to your house — it really needs room to spread. The roots grow beyond the canopy.”
In the fall, when the leaves fall and decompose, they are said to smell like caramel or cotton candy. “Katsura are not usually found in garden centers,” says Schatz, “because most people are seeking trees with a significant flower.”
The katsura is one of a number of champion trees in the arboretum. An oak, with a 90-foot spread, is believed to predate the Morrises, and may have been planted 250 years ago. The oak allee, planted in 1905, is interplanted with holly and oakleaf hydrangea so that it is not a monoculture and subject to being wiped out.
The story of trees in this country in not always a happy one. One of its best trees, the chestnut, was lost to a blight at the turn of the 20th century. The chestnut was a valuable source of wood for everything from building to firewood. So many elms succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease.
And now the ash borer threatens to decimate that species. Here at the arboretum, a Chinese elm, with a spread of 80 feet, is resistant to Dutch Elm Disease and a model for an urban street tree. And perhaps here, at the research facility, a method to control the ash borer, and maybe even find a new disease-resistant chestnut, will be found.
A yellow buckeye, at 90 feet tall, is a native tree that gives shade, feeds animals with its hard brown nut, and has a visually appealing flaky bark and colorful fall foliage. It’s part of a section called “Bark Park,” filled with trees that have visible exfoliation, such as the Stewardia and paperbark maple.
We walk to the meadow, where bronze statues of John and Lydia, in their Victorian garb, are looking out and surveying the fruits of their labors. Summer concerts take place in the meadow.
The stone spring house, once the ice house, has been turned into a sitting garden next to a stream. For the 25th anniversary of the arboretum, the Morrises had the Mercury Loggia built. A Greek-inspired structure with views of the Arboretum, it includes “Mercury at Rest.” Mercury was the god of commerce and travel, and this is a reproduction of a sculpture excavated from the Herculaneum, an ancient Roman town in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. Mercury’s winged sandals allowed him to fulfill his role as messenger to the gods.
Under the Loggia is the Grotto, an underground cave and passageway, and you walk under a grape arbor to enter it. This leads to a shady garden — a welcome relief on a hot day — filled with ferns, Fothergilla (in the witch hazel family), wild ginger, and more paperbark maples that thrive in the moist atmosphere.
I see trees I have never before heard of, such as a Persian Parrotia. Native to Iran and in the witchhazel family, it is multi-branching and has bark like a sycamore.
The Morrises built a log cabin in 1908 to entertain friends. One could sit on the porch and contemplate the stream and woodlands. The building was cool in summer and provided the warmth of a fireplace in the winter. Log cabins were featured at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial and soon became popular in American estates. This cabin was similar to a style built in the Adirondacks, where the Morrises would vacation. Victorians saw log cabins as a symbol of civilization’s mastery over the wilderness.
“Even though Lydia and John were Quakers, they were not immune to Victorian taste for the ornate and splashy,” says Schatz. A Fernery is in a Victorian greenhouse with a goldfish pond and stone arbor covered with ancient spore-bearing plants, a little Buddha tucked into an alcove.
The takeaway: From a sign in Out on a Limb, a family friendly attraction that is like the High Line of the Morris Arboretum — “Imagine if every family planted a tree. We would help reduce climate change, cool our homes and buildings, create new forests, and sustain communities for future generations. Trees provide us with food and medicine, and scientific studies show how a view of trees helps patients recover faster and students concentrate better. Tree planting improves the quality of neighborhoods and communities.” Amen.
Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, 100 East Northwestern Avenue, Philadelphia, open daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., $8 to $16, 215-247-5777, www.business-services.upenn.edu/arboretum/index.shtml.
The Garden Railway: A quarter-mile of model-train track, seven loops and tunnels, 15 different rail lines, cable cars, bridges, and model trains that cruise past scaled replicas of historic monuments and Philadelphia-area landmarks adorned with thousands of twinkling lights for the holidays. Trains run Friday, November 28, through Sunday, January 4, with season grand opening on Saturday, November 29, 1 to 3 p.m., free with admission.