• Maris Rennolds

Arboreta in the Appalachian Region

Appalachian Region Arboreta Provide Important Knowledge & First-Hand Viewing to Communities

Arboreta, plural for arboretum, are botanical collections composed entirely of trees, shrubs and other woody plant life. They are used not only for aesthetics, but for research, educational and scientific studies, similar to a museum. They are an excellent opportunity to see, learn and teach about native and non-native trees and plant life in that region.

The East Tennessee State University Arboretum, which encompasses the entire 200+ acre campus, as well as the university’s Dwarf Conifer Garden and University Woods, began as a small project that was worked on by staff and students in the school’s biology department.

“In 1999, I had an independent study student who made a list of all tree species on campus as a special assignment,” said Dr. Tim McDowell, professor emeritus in the ETSU department of biological sciences. “Dr. Frosty Levy and I decided to make an improved map and species list, keep planting diverse tree and shrub species, and get our campus certified.”

Formally established in 2000, the campus arboretum was officially certified by the State of Tennessee just two years later. Initially only consisting of the main campus, ETSU’s arboretum has now grown to include four additional collections or “themes”, as well as University Woods, which was dedicated as a protected forest in 2019.

“ETSU has one of the most species diverse arboretum collections in the state,” said Travis Watson, Arborist and Horticulture Manager at ETSU for the last eight years. “Our Dwarf Conifer Garden, the first of the four collections, is a nationally recognized American Conifer Society Reference Garden that showcases more than 80 different species and cultivars.”

The remaining collections consist of the “Trees for Tomorrow” collection, which is a bed of non-native conifer trees planted on the edge of campus as screens from wind and traffic for the surrounding beds, the “East Asian-Eastern North American Relatives” collection, which showcases plants and trees that show the relationship between various East Asian and Eastern North American plant species, and the “Hinoki Cypress and Japanese Maple Cultivar” collection, which shows variation among species through selectively breeding plants.

The arboretum is a place where public events can be held for fundraising, celebration or educational purposes. Over the years, the ETSU Arboretum has held tours, hosted public talks by tree experts and done tree giveaways on Arbor Day.

Building something beautiful from a less than pleasant past is not easy. According to Stephanie Swaim, Public Relations and Marketing Coordinator for the Blandy Experimental Farm and State Arboretum of Virginia, this is something the University of Virginia tackled in 1926. Upon his passing, Graham Blandy gave more than 700 acres of land, which had been used for slave labor into the 1860s, to the University with the expectation that they would name it the Blandy Experimental Farm and use it to teach farming methods.

The following year, the university hired Dr. Orland White as the arboretum’s first director, and the diverse planting on the land started soon after. According to the arboretum’s website, it was initially used only by the university’s students and faculty. It wasn’t until 1982 that the arboretum became public, when Dr. Ed Conner took over as director and started fundraising and gathering volunteers. The area was designated “The State Arboretum of Virginia” a few years later in 1986.

Located in the central 172 acres of the farm, the arboretum is home to a wide variety of tree species, collections of plants, plant trails, a Gingko Grove, and more.

“The Arboretum is home to more than 200 types of conifers, the Virginia Native Plant Trail, an American Chestnut Orchard, and a 300-acre Gingko Grove, which is the largest grove outside native China. We also have the largest variety of boxwood cultivars in North America,” said Swaim. “We call Blandy an ‘Outdoor Laboratory and Living Museum’.”

Open dawn to dusk, 365 days a year, and with many walking trails and a seven-mile equestrian trail, the Blandy Farm and State Aboretum is a place where the community can go to learn more about plants and the environment. It also educates people on the effect humans have on the environment through education, research and hands-on learning. Community members can also simply take advantage of the beautiful dog-friendly location.

The State of Virginia Arboretum, backed by a group of supportive environmentalists and nature lovers who believe in the arboretum’s mission, called the Foundation of the State Arboretum (FOSA) as well as the University of Virginia, not only to take part in important research and education but offer many public programming throughout the year for the community.

“Blandy offers year-round public programs for all ages, PreK-12 educational explorations and research-driven field investigation,” continued Swaim. “At the heart of Blandy’s mission is field-based ecological research, most recently in plant pollination, plant-animal interactions, and the effects of pollution on plant growth.”

The arboretum will host their 32nd annual Garden Fair this coming May. They also host events throughout the year which include the Wildflower Identification program, Birding Walks program, as well as tours and workshops which provide important hands-on experience with outdoor life.

Located in northern Kentucky, one arboretum does things a little differently.

According to their website, in 1994 Boone County dedicated a new 120-acre baseball and soccer complex, with a two-mile trail that ran through the fields, as ‘Central Park’. In 1996 it was decided that this was the ideal area to grow and study different types of plant life that could be enjoyed by the entire community, making it the first arboretum in the nation that was also an active recreational setting.

“Our arboretum is a general landscape structure, so we’ve got areas that range to pretty much everything that can grow in our area, about 25-30 collections,” said Kristopher Stone, Boone County Arboretum Director. “We have collections of dogwoods, popplers, willow trees, viburnum. You name the category of landscape plantings, we have it here.”

After this initial planning, seven plant nurseries from the region came together as volunteers to make it happen. It was officially dedicated an arboretum in May of 1999. The area has gone from having 2,300 plants mapped in their global positioning technology in 2001, the first in the nation to have done this to their entire collection, to 3,600 plants currently in their system, which rely on a full-time team dedicated to their care.

According to Stone, the Boone County Arboretum, deemed level 4, the highest accreditation, by the Arb Net Accrediting Program, hosts events and programs regularly.

“Earlier this year we did our maple sap taping demonstration, we’ve got a 5k fundraiser coming up, and we’ve got various spring events and Bloom Walks,” said Stone. “We have something going on pretty much every week here until Thanksgiving.”

Something else they do differently? An Arboretum on Wheels.

“The Arboretum on Wheels is a program that was started in 2018 from grants and donations,” said Nicole Kmetz, the AOW Team Leader and Environmental Outreach Educator. “It’s run by the Friends of Boone County Arboretum, which is the nonprofit that it is associated with.”

According to Kmetz, the AOW does two types of programming. They have hour long, mostly plant-based programs, where they go to places like schools and camps, as well as public events like festivals.

“In the mobile classroom itself, we have tons of educational materials, specimens, samples and microscopes,” said Kmetz. “The whole point is the hands-on nature environmental education experience, and so we can represent the Boone County Arboretum throughout the Tri-cities area.”