Generations of Growth

Rhododendron collection at Highland Park

Shaping a Vision
Imagine planting an arboretum, a showcase for tree collections, from scratch. That was the daunting task facing landscape designer and horticulturist Rick Bogusch in 1982. As he looked out over a 50-acre pasture, Bogusch struggled to find a starting point. The site would come to be known as the “Great Bowl” extension of the F. R. Newman Arboretum at Cornell Plantations – the name for the collective botanical resources of Cornell University in Ithaca.

For decades, the bowl had been a grazing area for Black Angus cattle maintained by the university’s natural resources department. Now the land had been cleared and mowed, and two ponds had been constructed as focal points in the center of the unique geologic formation. It was up to Bogusch, then a graduate student, to develop a master planting plan.

“It was scary and overwhelming,” he says, “to go out there and put the first stakes in the ground. It just seemed like all those little trees were going to be lost, they’d look like nothing in that vast space.”

Bogusch envisioned the need for plantings that would make the space feel more manageable to visitors. He wanted a space that would draw people into it and provide shade and a sense of mystery. The first step was to plant an obvious backbone of evergreen trees along the south rim of the bowl to emphasize a long, encompassing ridge and to create a feeling of safety and enclosure.

Two decades later, Bogusch is no longer at Plantations, but the arboretum is starting to fulfill his vision as the trees he and his coworkers planted take on some stature. Now that the trees are large enough to emphatically define the space, the Plantations staff can explore creative new directions.

“One of the things I find most exciting about potential future arboretum plantings,” says Mary Hirshfeld, director of horticulture for Plantations, “is the use of herbaceous (non-woody) perennials in large-scale situations. In the main fields of the bowl and around the parking lot bays, we can demonstrate a type of mixed shrub, small tree, bulb and herbaceous perennial planting. I think this will offer the arboretum a new look that is richer and more colorful, and these mixed plantings will become one of the signature aspects of the arboretum.”

Besides having inherent value as a museum of living things, the arboretum at Plantations serves as a vast outdoor laboratory for Cornell. Professor Nina Bassuk has worked with Mary Hirshfeld to create an urban tree collection – those species that can endure tough situations – for study by students, nurserymen, extension educators, and homeowners. Plant breeder Peter Podaras is using the arboretum’s collections to conduct controlled plant crosses in search of promising new varieties. (That explains the presence of plastic bags over flowers – they protect the reproductive parts from random pollen sources.) And entomology students regularly cast their nets in the goldenrod fields in search of rich and varied insect life.

With the recent hiring of a full-time Cornell Outreach Coordinator, efforts are underway to bring increasing numbers of Cornell students to the arboretum, so that no student graduates without experiencing the beauty and utility of this unique outdoor resource. Of course, all visitors are encouraged to explore – free of charge – the arboretum, botanical garden, and natural areas that comprise Cornell Plantations.

Several lakes to the west, in Monroe County, two arboreta stand as contrasts: Highland Park, an established arboretum with scores of mature specimens, and the Webster Arboretum, a largely volunteer-run organization that’s still in its exuberant infancy.

Tracing the Lineage
Dedicated in 1888, Highland Park was Rochester’s first public park. Over time, with the involvement of prominent plantsmen, it became a horticultural jewel that now comprises more than 150 undulating acres.

Alarmed by the rate of city sprawl, Rochester’s most famous nurserymen, George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry, donated 20 acres of their nursery grounds toward the creation of the park. They envisioned that the project would be an educational resource for nurserymen as well as much-needed recreational grounds for Rochesterians.

The seminal landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, known for his work on Central Park and countless other public spaces, stepped in to design sections of Highland Park. Ellwanger and Barry contributed plants to the effort as did Charles Sprague Sargent, first director of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. When the Arnold acquired new specimens from worldwide plant-collecting expeditions, Sargent arranged for duplicates to be sent to Highland Park. The result is that the park is filled with mature trees of international origin, many of which are seldom seen outside arboreta in North America.

Longtime Highland Park volunteer James Atwater has come to know the arboretum intimately, with a focus on the more unusual specimens. “When people come to visit, I show them the 110-year-old Japanese raisin tree (Hovenia dulcis). It’s much bigger than the literature says it’s supposed to get, and the fruits look and taste like raisins. I also show folks the paperbark maples (Acer griseum), which come from China. There are three at Highland that are fully mature, and they are among the oldest in North America. There’s nothing more beautiful than the peeling bark – like cinnamon sheaths over polished bronze.”

Atwater says that living so close to so many mature trees enriches his life and those of all Rochesterians. “The older the trees get,” he says, “the more spectacular they are, not just visually but from an emotional perspective. Walking through the Pinetum (the section of the park filled with towering evergreens) on a winter day is no less than a religious experience.”

The man who oversees the care of this “tree museum” is Tom Pollock, Superintendent of Horticulture for the Monroe County Department of Parks. He says that it can be a challenge to preserve the historical character and the horticultural resources of a heavy-use park. “We need to expand active recreation space,” he says, “while protecting mature species. We’re at the point now where we have to plan for some senescence (loss of large trees to age) and think in terms of replanting. Also, we’re grappling with an aging infrastructure.”

The operating budget for Pollock’s horticulture program is funded by county tax dollars, with gifts and grants supporting special projects. Pollock and staff oversee the more than 6,700 specimens – from Abelia to Zenobia – of Highland Park. Events are a great way to bring attention to the park, and the highest profile event of the year is the annual Lilac Festival in mid to late May, where visitors drink in the sights and scents of more than 1,250 lilac shrubs.

Breaking New Ground
The first stage in the life cycle of an arboretum is the golden period of creation and early development. Enthusiasm is high and volunteer involvement is critical in light of limited funding. Such is the case for the Webster Arboretum, located two miles south of Lake Ontario. The community arboretum, officially part of the Webster Parks and Recreation system, was dedicated in 1990.

Landscape designer Michael Kopicki was one of the arboretum’s founding volunteers. “It was a blast in those early days,” he says, “a true grassroots effort. We worked with local nurserymen and locally grown plants as much as possible. People were so generous, donating interesting material, plant and otherwise, often in the name of loved ones.”

Kopicki oversaw the installation of new gardens and collections by community groups as varied as the Rotarians, Boy Scouts, and Daylily Society. Though he kept the overall plan in mind, he was careful not to turn away any eager volunteer groups. The result is a patchwork quilt of gardens that, to Kopicki’s credit, manages to charm rather than confuse. This approach means that gardens of herbaceous plants (such as daylilies) play a larger role here than they do at some arboreta. The many and varied gardens also help create a lush overall appearance while the trees are still young.

Garden motifs on the 32.5-acre site include perennials, gardens to attract hummingbirds and butterflies, fragrant plants, herbs, dwarf conifers, lilacs, and azaleas. Twin groves of paperbark maple (Acer griseum) with an understandably universal appeal, flank a large constructed pond (thanks to skillful landscaping, it looks like it’s always been there). A mile of trails through the woods is maintained by the Boy Scouts. A large children’s garden includes a maze, a pizza garden, and a display of sculpture by kids.

The Town of Webster maintains a community building on the site, mows the lawns and provides part-time gardener support; industrious volunteers take care of the rest. Fundraising is an ongoing challenge, but volunteers pursue foundation grants and hold plant and antique sales, auctions, and barbeques. A campaign is underway to create a wheelchair-accessible path that will wind through the popular rose gardens.

The Webster Arboretum Association’s Carroll Manning hopes that more visitors will avail themselves of this gem. “In this day and age so much money is being spent on sports, with so little attention to nature,” she says. “I’m proud of our arboretum, and my hope is that the Webster Arboretum will be used more and more as people recognize how deeply connected we are to plants.”


by Michelle Buckstrup
Michelle Buckstrup is a garden writer and self-employed horticulturist living in Farmington.