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More Than a Walk in the Woods

Arboretum visits can help homeowners visualize their own landscape

By Wendy Greenberg

The ambler, the hiker, or those seeking inspiration from nature are probably not far from one of the many lush arboreta and gardens in the tri-state area. A visit can also offer homeowners a preview of what a young tree will look like in 50 years, among other landscaping ideas.

“Let’s face it,” says Bruce Crawford, director of Rutgers Gardens at New Brunswick, “the palette we (homeowners) pick from is limited, and somewhat self-perpetuating, as we often see one style of a backyard and acquire the same plants and trees. But a public garden or arboretum can show what blooms in the off season, and create a broader palette for the home.”

Rutgers, he notes, has many native dogwoods, but also has interspecific hybrids between our native dogwood and the Chinese dogwood, like the recent hybrid, Scarlet Fire, with “good deep, red flowers.”

The Garden State, after all, was home to New Brunswick’s Alfred Joyce Kilmer, who wrote the oft-quoted poem, “Trees.” Any collection of trees might be called an arboretum, but a respected database, the Morton Register, run by the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ills., lists arboreta and gardens worldwide that focus substantially on woody plants.

ArbNet (The Interactive Community of Arboreta at, has criteria for achieving varying tiers of arboretum distinction (Levels I through IV) and designates accordingly. 

The Morton Register lists 30 arboreta in New Jersey.  Within this list, four are accredited at Level I: Barton in Medford, Colts Neck, Florham in Madison, and Marquand Park in Princeton. Two are designated at the next level of certification, Level II: Sister Mary Grace Burns in Lakewood, and Robert A. Winters at Meadow Lake in East Windsor. There are none at Level III, and the nearest Level IV arboreta are Longwood Gardens and Morris Arboretum in Pennsylvania.

The accreditation program looks at criteria such as planning, governance, number of species, staff or volunteer support, education and public programming, and tree science research and conservation. Grounds For Sculpture in Hamilton is in the process of applying for Level I accreditation, says Janis Napoli, horticulturist. The designation will help achieve peer recognition and guide consideration of the longevity of the collection, sustainability, and education, such as signage. Additionally, joining the arboretum community will offer early notice of concerns such as tree disease in the area, Napoli says. 

Tours and Visits

In some cases, an arboretum can be explored in combination with a college visit, since many colleges maintain accredited arboreta. On the East Coast, these include Frank. A. Waugh Arboretum at U Mass Amherst (Level IV); Botanic Garden of Smith College (Level III); Connecticut College Arboretum (Level II); Haverford College Arboretum; Florham Arboretum at Fairleigh Dickinson University (Level I); Bard College Landscape and Arboretum Program (Level II); Rowan University Arboretum; and Sister Mary Grace Burns Arboretum at Georgia Court University (Level II); among other campuses.

The Level III Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College is about an hour’s drive from the Princeton area. Becky Robert, who coordinates public relations and volunteer programs at Scott, says it encompasses “every tree” on the campus.

Scott’s mission is “to showcase great garden plants for the average gardener.” Gardens are designed on a residential scale. Also, visitors can get an idea of what gardens look like in all seasons through a QR code that offers a look at the seasonal changes. 

According to Deanna Curtis, senior curator of woody plants and landscape project manager at New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), the majority of the trees that can grow outside at NYBG would also be suitable for New Jersey’s climate. Some highly ornamental smaller tree collections to look for at NYBG this spring include dogwoods and magnolias. Cultivated varieties (or cultivars) of flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa), or their hybrids, are planted throughout the garden. “A few of my favorite cultivars are Appalachian Spring, an excellent selection of flowering dogwood; Mandarin Jewel, a kousa dogwood with unique orange-yellow fruit; and Venus, a dogwood hybrid with plentiful large-bracted blooms,” she says.

 Generally, arboreta horticulturalists and education staff are eager to answer questions – and many are shown cell phone photos of trees and plants with accompanying queries. Most sites have educational events, self-guided tours, or cell phone tours.

For a learning experience or an inspirational walk, discover these and more arboreta, and see what those who know them well have to say:

Big chairs, and Magnolia kobus ‘Larry,’ at Rutgers Gardens in New Brunswick.


Rutgers Gardens
112 Ryders Lane
New Brunswick

Rutgers Gardens relies heavily on support from facility rentals, special events, memberships, and donations. The oldest collection in the garden dates to 1927. The gardens adjoin Frank D. Helyar Woods, a climax forest with marked trails. Fundraising is ongoing for expanding the site store, Cook’s Market, where the first living green roof at Rutgers New Brunswick will come to life this spring.

Rutgers Gardens will spotlight its trees during National Public Gardens Week May 13-19, sponsored by American Public Garden Association and feature many unusual plants for sale during the Mother’s Day Plant Sale May 10-12. Rutgers Gardens is open 365 days a year, and admission is free.

 What I like about Rutgers Gardens
“The sense of unwinding and feeling human again, each garden has that. But at Rutgers, there is a sense of innocence; the garden slowly opens up in front of you.” 
Bruce Crawford, director

Carlos Dorrien, The Nine Muses, 1990-97, photo by David W Steele.


Grounds For Sculpture
80 Sculptors Way
Hamilton Township

Located on the site of the former state fairgrounds, Grounds For Sculpture melds art and nature with more than 270 sculptures by contemporary artists, each work purposefully positioned on a landscaped parkland with thousands of exotic trees and flowers. The sculpture, many monumental, join the work of founder Seward Johnson. Throughout the year, Grounds For Sculpture offers hands-on art and horticulture classes.

General admission is by timed ticket only. Fees range from $18 to $10, and are less expensive online. Hours are 10am to 6pm Tuesday through Sunday through April 30. Check website for summer hours.

What I like about Grounds For Sculpture
“A lot of the grounds are planted with such an artistic eye, whether they’re inspired by the sculpture they’re framing, or recreating the scenery from a painting, through plant choice and pruning. The landscape is a work of art unto itself, and it changes with the seasons, much like the exhibitions in our galleries.”
Janis Napoli, horticulturist


Cora Hartshorn Arboretum and Bird Sanctuary
324 Forest Drive South
Short Hills

The Cora Hartshorn Arboretum is a historic woodlands garden and educational institution that fosters ad promotes environmental awareness, education, and stewardship. The nonprofit organization relies on special events, memberships, summer camps, field trips, scout programs, birthday parties, and classes. “If you come in the winter, it is fun to track animals through the snow; in spring, the Wildflower Dell is bursting with delicate spring ephemeral wildflowers; in summer, the pollinator garden out front is buzzing with bees and butterflies; in the fall, the trails glow with golden leaves,” says educator Wendy Mulvey. 

The Stone House education center is open weekdays 9am to 4:30pm and closes at 4pm weekends and holidays. Trails and grounds are open during daylight hours year-round. No dogs are allowed, per a Millburn Township statute.  Admission is free, donations are welcome.

What I like about Hartshorn Arboretum
“Our beautiful historic Stone House was designed and built by the Hartshorn family with the intention of connecting people to nature, well before conservation was a popular buzzword.  Our 16-plus acres of forest are maintained both as a recreation area, where families can hike and explore, and as an outdoor laboratory, where citizen scientists can learn to collect and interpret data on diverse projects such as Project Feederwatch, FrogWatch, Project Budburst, and a variety of other biodiversity projects. We train volunteers to help restore the woodlands to a pristine, precolonial state, leading teams to remove invasive species and restore native plants.” 
Wendy Mulvey, environmental educator


Reeves-Reed Arboretum
165 Hobart Avenue

Listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places, Reeves-Reed’s estate and gardens represent design trends by prominent landscape architects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Calvert Vaux submitted the original landscape design for The Clearing, now Reeves-Reed Arboretum, shortly after the founding Wisner family purchased the property in 1889. Vaux was partner of Frederick Law Olmsted, and together they designed Central Park in New York City. Reeves-Reed “engages and educates” through horticulture and environmental education.

The Arboretum Grounds are open from 9am to 4pm from November through March and from 7am to 7pm April through October. The Visitors Center is open seven days a week from 10am to 4pm.

Did you know?
“We were voted the Best Garden in New Jersey by readers of NJ Family and recently received the Good Neighbor Award from the Suburban Chamber of Commerce. This is a real testament to the Reeves-Reed staff.”
Frank Juliano, director

Frelinghuysen Arboretum, Haggerty entrance garden.


Frelinghuysen Arboretum
353 E. Hanover Avenue
Morris Township

The 127 acres of woodlands, meadows, gardens, and distinctive collections of trees and shrubs offer serenity, exploration, and education, surrounded by a stately Colonial revival mansion. George Frelinghuysen and his wife Sarah, heir to Ballantine Brewing, spent summers there and had fresh vegetables and fruits shipped by train to their New York City winter home. Their daughter Matilda left the house and grounds to the Morris County Parks Commission for use by the public. 

Grounds hours: 8am to dusk daily. Admission is free. See website for hours for Haggerty Education Center.

What I like about Frelinghuysen Arboretum
“The English country estate setting with formal Rose Garden and may other gardens for public education and enjoyment. The Frelinghuysen family horse-drawn carriage collection is also available for viewing in the historic Carriage House.”
Charley Zafonte, assistant deputy director, Morris County Park Commission

Willowwood Arboretum
Morris County Park Commission
300 Longview Road
Chester Township

Willowwood is the longest, continually operating arboretum in the state. The 136 acres of rolling farmland is home to about 3,500 types of native and exotic plants. Of interest is the historic residence and Pan’s Garden, where plants are woven together to form a living tapestry based on the design of a Persian prayer rug. Willowwood Arboretum is free and open to the public daily, 365 days a year, from 8am to dusk.

What I like about Willowwood Arboretum
“The informal, natural country ambiance with delightful gardens and plantings in personal and intimate settings. Willowwood is home to many New Jersey State Champion trees, including one of the largest dawn redwood trees in the U.S.”
– Charley Zafonte

Bamboo Brook
170 Longview Road
Chester Township

Bamboo Brook features 670 acres of fields, woodlands, and a formal garden. Portions of the designed landscape have been restored to a “circa 1945” appearance with careful attention to the plants used. In addition to its formal areas, there are numerous trails that wind through the fields and along Bamboo Brook. A wide variety of birds, butterflies, and animal life inhabit the area.

Did you know?
“Bamboo Brook was home to Martha Brookes Hutcheson, one of the first women landscape architects in the U.S. It is a national and state registered historic site, and a stop on the N.J. Woman’s Heritage Trail.”
– Charley Zafonte


Duke Farms
1112 Duke Parkway West

Duke Farms emphasizes stewardship and conservation. The 2,000 acres of farmland and nine man-made lakes were designated for public use by socialite landowner and conservationist Doris Duke.

From mid-March to early November, the Orientation Center and Duke Farms are open six days a week Thursday through Tuesday from 8:30am to 6pm. After November, the hours shorten to 8:30am to 4:30pm. Admission is free. Duke Farms is closed to visitors Wednesdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.

The Thielke Arboretum of Glen Rock
640 Doremus Avenue
Glen Rock

A wetland forest with trails, a garden, and a spring-fed pond and brook, the 11 acres support many species of trees and plants native to Northern New Jersey, and includes many trees recommended by Rutgers University appropriate for New Jersey residential landscapes. It is also a natural habitat for birds, butterflies, amphibians, and water fowl. It features an antique gazebo and a comprehensive education program.

Grounds open daily, dawn to dusk. See website for hours for the Vielbig/Scerbo Environmental Education Center.


New York Botanical Garden
2900 Southern Boulevard
Bronx, N.Y.

Established in 1891, The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) is said to be the largest in any U.S. city. Within the 250-acre garden are 50 specialty gardens and collections comprising more than 100 plants and 30,000 trees, many more than 200 years old.

This spring visitors can see many new exciting later-flowering magnolia hybrids becoming more readily available at nursery retailers. These vigorous-growing cultivars bloom after the threat of frost, which endangers so many early-spring blooming classic magnolia varieties. Look for newer cultivars like the yellow-blooming Sun Spire, the coral-colored Daybreak, and dark red-purple Genie. Also look for a new large native canopy tree, the blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) cultivar Wildfire, featured in the NYBG Native Plant Garden.

The NYBG is open all year, Tuesday to Sunday, and select holiday Mondays. Typical hours are 10am to 6pm. See website for special circumstances and ticket prices.

 What I like about New York Botanical Garden
“The beauty and diversity found within the natural landscape (Bronx River, forest, unique site geology) and the designed landscape (engaging temperate to tropical collections, plus naturalistic to formal display gardens) all at a single Botanical Garden, set within one of the largest cities in the world.”
Deanna Curtis, senior curator

Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania
100 East Northwestern Avenue
Philadelphia, Pa. (Chestnut Hill)

Morris Arboretum is a 92-acre public garden that offers winding paths, colorful gardens, champion trees, and beautiful fountains. Its award-winning Out on a Limb takes visitors 50 feet up into the treetops on a canopy walk that requires no climbing. An outdoor Garden Railway exhibit features a quarter-mile track with model trains, open all summer and around Christmas.   

Regular hours are 10am to 4pm. Open daily except for New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. See website for expanded summer hours.

What I like about Morris Arboretum
“Morris Arboretum is great for visitors of all ages. It’s perfect for families to spend time with one another, to explore, learn, and have fun. It’s a safe place for kids to run around. It’s a great date place with secret gardens to discover. There is always something happening in the changing landscape with events and classes all year long. Research has shown that getting outside in nature is healthy for the mind, body, and spirt.”
Susan J. Crane, director of marketing

Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College
Swarthmore, Pa.

Among the 4,000 plant varieties are an impressive display of bulbs, a tree peony collection, and much more. The gardens represent the diversity of the Delaware Valley and the mature plants and trees can help homeowners make decisions, says Director Becky Robert. A number of plants introductions are now in the nursey trade, such as Hamamelis mollis Early Bright and magnolia denudate Swarthmore Sentinel, hosta Swarthmore Surprise, and magnolia virginiana var. Australis Henry Hicks. Hours: Dawn to dusk daily, free admission.

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