At campus arboretums, learning never grows old

"I have people who say I never knew you were here, this place is marvelous," said Tom Kirk, manager of Widener's Taylor arboretum.

One recent sun-drenched day, Kate Goodrich stood amid one of the main reasons she took a job as assistant professor of biology at Widener University: that beautiful arboretum up the road, where professors have taken students for years to study the plants, trees, and water.

In May, Widener acquired Taylor Memorial Arboretum, which means professors and students will have unfettered access, 24/7, to the 30-acre oasis in Nether Providence Township, just across the border from the city of Chester.

"It's nice to know that there's security here, that Widener will continue to have this as a resource," Goodrich said, standing near Japanese maples with her student Khanh Mihn Mai, there for a summer research project.

With its acquisition of the 85-year-old arboretum, Widener joins quite a few other colleges and universities in the region with botanical gardens and wooded acres.

Rutgers, Swarthmore, Haverford, the University of Pennsylvania, Temple, Pennsylvania State University, Muhlenberg, Cedar Crest, the University of Delaware, and Delaware Valley University all have arboretums. They boast flowers, trees, and shrubs from all over the world.

Penn State's grove of ancient plants adjacent to its main campus in State College includes species that existed at the time of the dinosaurs.

Rutgers' arboretum, with a bamboo forest and one of the largest collections of American hollies, just celebrated its centennial. Penn's 167-acre Morris Arboretum is on the National Register of Historic Places. Swarthmore's and Haverford's arboretums encompass their campuses. Swarthmore's has more than 200 types of roses.

And Haverford's, the oldest of the bunch, includes an elm that the college calls the great-grandchild of the famous Penn Treaty Elm. That's the one along the banks of the Delaware River under which William Penn met with Lenape Chief Tamanend and forged a friendship treaty more than 300 years ago.

Scions were taken from that tree and replanted, and in 1840, Haverford received a shoot from one of the replanted trees and planted it on campus. Scions from that tree were planted and yielded seven more elms, one of which still stands between the duck pond and Barclay Hall, according to the college.

The arboretum also includes a popular 2.2-mile nature trail that circles campus.

"We have more people visiting the campus every year using the nature trail than we do academic visitors," college spokesman Chris Mills said.

All the arboretums are open to the public. Some are well-known and draw large crowds - more than 138,000 annually at Morris and more than 150,000 at Penn State's botanic gardens. Others are sweet secrets.

"I have people who say I never knew you were here, this place is marvelous," said Tom Kirk, manager of Widener's Taylor arboretum.

The arboretums run on budgets from several hundred thousand to $6.8 million at the Morris Arboretum.

They serve as living, breathing classrooms and laboratories, offering lessons in landscape architecture, botany, ecology, evolution, and horticulture. Student artists gain inspiration from their brilliant fall colors, plush green summers, and still, quiet winters.

"We've had poetry classes come out here," said Bruce Crawford, gardens director at Rutgers. "They were reading some poetry about trees, so they took a walk through Helyar Woods."

More than 30 classes, ranging from nature writing and biology to engineering and art, use Swarthmore's arboretum.

At Widener, professors also envision "citizen science projects" that involve community residents in monitoring streams, plants, and wildlife, said Stephen Madigosky, professor of environmental science and biology.

Bordered by Ridley Creek in Nether Providence Township, the arboretum includes a giant, sprawling dogwood, a towering dawn redwood, magnolias, pawpaw trees, and a cypress stand. Trails wind through the property, leading to meadows.

Madigosky, who has been using the property since 1989, worked on the deal for Widener to acquire Taylor for four years. BNY Mellon had been administering the trust that maintained it.

Joshua C. Taylor, a Chester lawyer, had dedicated the arboretum to the memory of his wife, Anne Rulon Gray, in 1931 after she died of cancer.

Kirk thinks Taylor used the arboretum to work through his grief.

"Sometimes if you're lucky, if you work through grief, you can get to beauty, and that's what we're dealing with in my opinion," Kirk said.

When Taylor died in 1946, the trust was established. Widener didn't pay for the arboretum but took over the trust and promised to maintain the place.

Widener wants to do more than that, Madigosky said. In the short term, it will identify and label all the vegetation on the property and may add picnic tables and a gazebo. With help from donors, eventually the university would like to replace one of two existing structures with a retreat center and lab building, he said.

For now, professors and students will look to take full advantage of the new asset. Madigosky said one of his colleagues went on the property at 2 a.m. recently to study moths.

Education professors want to bring out future teachers, he said. Professors in other disciplines are exploring uses, too.

"There's a new interest," he said.

Taylor gives students hands-on learning they can't get in a lecture hall, Goodrich said. Her student Mai, a junior from Vietnam, agreed.

"I love this place," Mai said. "There are a lot of things to learn in here."

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