Green News & Views

Arboretums: Trees that rock!

Across the nation and around the globe, people value woodlands and gardens as indispensable citadels of the natural world. Rick Fedrizzi, the president, CEO and founding chair of the U.S. Green Building Council, underscored the crucial function beauty performs in a sustainable environment in an April 2012 article in the Green section of the Huff Post. Fedrizzi had just returned from London on USGBC business and during his trip he had visited two of England’s finest gardens, the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project.

Mud Maid at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

“We worked hard in London on ideas and strategies that could help us expand and inspire others to engage in our efforts to make green buildings and communities more available and accessible everywhere,” Fedrizzi wrote. “But it was in these lovely gardens where we were reminded that resilience and regeneration must also factor into our work. With new ideas and hope for the future of green buildings, communities, schools, it’s our gardens that can show us a way forward.” (Right: Mud Maid at Lost Gardens of Heligan)

DCTC Arboretum: Exploring the idea

One of the most powerful ways people preserve and showcase trees and gardens is by establishing an arboretum. Dakota County Technical College is exploring the benefits of creating an arboretum on the college's main campus in Rosemount, Minn. Already home to groves of mature trees, both deciduous and coniferous, a 22-acre wildflower prairie restoration area, and acres of open space suitable for all types of educational display, niche, specialty and edible landscape gardens, the 177-acre campus presents a bonanza of horticultural possibilities that can engage and delight residents of surrounding cities and towns—not to mention members of our own college community.

Ancient plane tree at Trsteno Arboretum entrance

Arboretums are not new ventures on the human timeline. Egyptian pharaohs were transplanting and raising foreign-born ebony and frankincense trees as far back as 1500 BCE. More than 500 years old, Trsteno Arboretum in Croatia was declared a Yugoslav national rarity in the 1948, but later suffered catastrophic damage during the wars that tore apart Yugoslavia. William Douglas Cook launched Eastwoodhill Arboretum in New Zealand shortly after World War I by importing thousands of trees. Today, Eastwoodhill features the largest collection of temperate zone Northern Hemisphere trees in the Southern Hemisphere. (Left: Ancient plane tree at Trsteno Arboretum entrance)

Founded in London in the early 1800s, Abney Park Cemetery Arboretum, an unusual merger between burial grounds and a woody science project, was the largest arboretum in Europe until the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew accepted the honor. Kew Gardens now employs some 650 scientists to oversee more than 30,000 different kinds of plants—the greatest collection on Earth. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, Kew might be humankind's most famous and popular garden with a scientific and conservation mission to match.

Gyeongsangbuk-do Arboretum in Pohang, South Korea, covers more than 7,900 acres, making this highland paradise the largest arboretum in Asia and the second largest on the planet. Gyongsangbuk-do operates 24 gardens, including specialized preserves for irises and alpine botanicals. Japan boasts 300 botanical gardens and arboretums with cherry trees of myriad varieties presenting a massive attraction during the spring blossom season. Byodo-in, one of the best, is located on the outskirts of Kyoto. A Buddhist temple complex with pavilions, bridges and a reflecting pond augmented by magnificent wisteria vines and weeping cherries, Byodo-in became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994. (Right: Gyeongsangbuk-do Arboretum)

Russia stands out as a hotbed for botanical gardens, having more than any other nation. Komarov Botanical Garden in Saint Petersburg was founded as an herb garden by Emperor Peter the Great in 1714, but has since grown to include a chain of 25 greenhouses, a botanical museum and an herbarium.

Butchart Gardens in Brentwood Bay, British Columbia, entertains more than a million visitors annually. In 2002, due to international acclaim, the gardens were designated a National Historic Site of Canada. Butchart is home to three extremely rare trees, the Wollemi Pine, Dawn Redwood and Cathaya argyrophylla, the latter a type of conifer native to China. Once considered extinct, Cathaya is making a comeback in China, but only two specimens live and grow in Canada. (Left: Sunken Gardens at Butchart Arboretum)

El Charco del Ingenio, a botanical garden and arboretum located in a spectacular canyon near San Miguel de Allende, a city in Guanajuato, Mexico, is a 167-acre Eldorado for amazing cacti and other succulents. The creation of El Charco followed a solid, traditional pattern that is applicable in some ways to the proposed DCTC Arboretum: "The original project took shape through a master plan of landscape design, carried out by the architects Alejandro Cabeza and Enrique Pliego. The plan visualized an extensive botanical garden surrounded by a conservation zone—a place dedicated to the study, appreciation and enjoyment of nature, open to the local population. The area's undoubted tourism potential was likewise proposed as a sustainable option."

What exactly is an arboretum?

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines an arboretum as “a botanical garden devoted to trees.” Merriam-Webster expands on that terse concept with the following explanation: “a place where trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants are cultivated for scientific and educational purposes.” (Right: Abney Park Cemetery Arboretum)

The National Directory of U.S. Arboretums, created by Jaime Lynn Smith, ranks arboretums as treasured havens where science, beauty and recreation meet to form a matchless synergy: "Arboretums runneth over with verve, are rife with natural beauty and fresh air, and some are brimming with tropical or exotic flowering plants and flowers, hundreds of butterflies, thousands of live exotic species, birds and small animals, waterfalls, colorful fish, sculptures, fragrant flowers and more. Quite simply, arboretums and their sister attractions, botanical gardens, are paradise."

Arboretums come in all shapes and sizes with widely divergent missions and modes of operation. Some are extraordinarily specialized such fruticetums, which focus on shrubs, viticetums, which focus on vines, pinetums, which focus on conifers, or quercetums, which focus on oaks. Arboretums can stick with trees native to their geographical location, or they can branch out to exhibit trees from other parts of the world that can grow in their climate zone. (Left: El Charco del Ingenio)

Many if not most arboretums enhance their tree collections with magnificent gardens devoted to various champions of the floral domain, including orchids, roses, peonies, clematis, azaleas and you can pretty much name it. Mazes, home landscape displays, urban agriculture models, rain gardens, butterfly gardens, wildflower gardens and other themed gardens are also quite common.

Colleges and universities get the arboretum bug 

Arboretums, or more formally arboreta, are keystone attractions on numerous U.S. campuses. Some are world-renowned such as Arnold Arboretum at Harvard and Davis Arboretum at Auburn. Others might not be household words outside botanical circles, but they still serve as linchpins for some of the most gorgeous college and university campuses in all of higher education. In fact, of the top 15 beautiful campuses ranked by The Princeton Review in 2012, eight feature officially designated arboretums. Some like Holy Cross and Mount Holyoke, both in Massachusetts, have their entire campuses designated as arboreta.

Three of the top-10 colleges and universities in Minnesota feature an on-campus arboretum—Carleton, Gustavus Adolphus and Saint John’s. Cowling Arboretum is dedicated to preserving plant species native to the Northfield area down to a 15-mile radius of the Carleton campus. The amount of work needed to achieve that goal for the 900-acre arb is enormous, but exceptionally rewarding. In 2010, The Princeton Review, in partnership with the USGBC, published its first Guide to 276 Green Colleges, listing Linnaeus Arboretum at Gustavus as a “stunning example of Minnesota’s natural history.” Saint John's places strong emphasis on sharing their 2,830-acre arboretum with students from the university and the community. Every fall, arboretum staff and volunteers take all 1,000 freshman on a tour simultaneously, but in 50 separate groups. K-12 students then begin visiting the arb on a daily basis. (Right: 12-spot skimmer at Cowling Arboretum)

The University of Minnesota operates one of the finest arboretums in the world, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska. The arboretum’s website gives a succinct account of an inherently sustainable project’s dramatic success:

In 1958, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum was a little-known horticultural research station sitting on 160 acres of remote marshland. Today, 50-plus years later, the Arboretum has blossomed into an international research center and cultural destination that contributes to the horticultural, economic, and intellectual lives of people all over the world. Named as one of the ‘10 great places to smell the flowers’ in America by USA Today, the Arboretum boasts 21,699 member households, 856 volunteers and more than a 317,900 visitors each year. With its 1,137 acres, 28 gardens, 17 displays and model landscapes and 45 plant collections and more than 5,000 plant species and varieties, the Arboretum has become one of the premier horticultural field laboratories and public display areas in the country, reaching out as a living, vibrant extension of the University of Minnesota.” (Left: Minnesota Landscape Arboretum)

What are the benefits of a college arboretum?

Ellen Kollie, editor of College Planning & Management magazine, published an article called “The Benefits of a Campus Arboretum” that summarizes both the purpose and benefits of establishing and managing a campus arboretum. Kollie notes that national organizations such as the American Public Gardens Association, or APGA, in Kennett Square, Penn., home to the world-famous Longwood Gardens, do not certify arboretums, but offer guidelines to universities and colleges that have or wish to establish an arboretum:

  • Allow public access at least on a part-time basis
  • Function as an aesthetic display, educational center or research site
  • Maintain plant records
  • Have at least one professional staff member—paid or unpaid
  • Allow garden visitors to identify plants through labels, guide maps or other interpretative materials

(Below: Entrance to Linnaeus Arboretum at Gustavus Adolphus)

Arboretums naturally create several advantages for the college and its surrounding communities. Significant objectives for any college can be achieved through the serenity, beauty and scientific wealth provided by arboretums or botanical gardens, including:

  • Enhancing student recruitment and retention
  • Strengthening faculty and staff morale
  • Attracting area residents to the campus
  • Creating welcoming and peaceful meeting places and study areas
  • Producing local produce through an urban agriculture program with a focus on landscape design aesthetics
  • Partnering with a local farmers’ market to bring community members on campus
  • Providing an interpretive teaching center on the natural world to inform and inspire students in DCTC science classes, students from area schools and community members
  • Forging partnerships with area businesses, particularly landscape design firms, retail garden centers and wholesale nurseries, but other corporations as well
  • Forging partnerships with other arboretums to expand knowledge and professional networks
  • Engaging national and regional foundations focused on environmental enrichment and community outreach
  • Building powerful bonds with alumni
  • Providing educational opportunities through access to a master-planned sustainable landscape
  • Creating revenue streams as a desirable site for weddings, business meetings, anniversaries, family reunions and more
  • Serving as an attractive outdoor location for spring commencement
  • Boosting the status of the existing Landscape Horticulture program by offering strong learning and professional opportunities
  • Establishing a growable resource that only gains value over time to ultimately emerge as a priceless gift to posterity

(Below: Munsinger Gardens in St. Cloud, Minn.)

Official arboretum status is more than doable

The Morton Register of Arboreta provides a database of named arboretums and public gardens that focus on woody plants. The Morton Register offers an Arboretum Accreditation program with four levels of accreditation, creating a clear, standardized pathway for establishing a bona fide arboretum. As an HLC-accredited technical college, DCTC would view the Morton Register program as a valuable resource. The Sustainable Sites Initiative™, or SITES™, would provide other excellent avenues to pursue.

Ideas and support welcome

If you have ideas or suggestions about how to make a DCTC Arboretum a reality, please contact:

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(Above: Cowling Arboretum at Carleton College)