The Benefits of a Campus Arboretum

True or false? To be officially certified, an arboretum must include a minimum of 250 different species of trees on a minimum of 50 acres. False. The truth of the matter is that there is no official arboretum-certifying body — any outdoor space can be called an arboretum. Even the American Public Gardens Association (APGA) in Wilmington, DE, doesn’t certify.

The APGA does note several classifications of public gardens on its Website (, including college and university gardens: “Educational institutions often maintain their own arboreta and gardens for purposes of research and public display.” And Madeline Quigley, APGA communications and marketing director, says that its members are asked to follow these specific guidelines:
1.    be open to the public, at least on a part-time basis;
2.    function as an aesthetic display, education display, or site research;
3.    maintain plant records;
4.    have at least one professional staff member, paid or unpaid; and
5.    allow garden visitors to identify plants through labels, guide maps, or other interpretative materials.

Certification aside, many college and university campuses have arboreta, which can encompass part of or the entire campus, or an adjacent tract of land. Arboreta offer a number of benefits, ranging from student recruitment to food production. Seriously!

Campus Beautification
Obviously, a wide variety of well-chosen and well-placed perennials, shrubs and trees creates a beautiful campus. However, campus beautification creates a tug of war with facility planning and construction — more facilities can equal less landscaping. Claire Sawyers, director of Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, has been able to use construction to the advantage of the arboretum. “Every building that has gone up has led to landscape improvement and improvement in material standards,” she said. “There’s been a tremendous upgrade in the caliber of the landscape because of the college development.”

An added benefit, said Ellen Newell, CGM, assistant director of Grounds Services at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe, is that studies have shown that students do well in an attractive setting.

Student Recruitment and Retention
Speaking of studies, Peter S. White, director and professor, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) Department of Biology and Ecology Curriculum, noted that studies have shown that a campus’ beauty is one of the biggest reasons undergraduates choose the campus they choose. “A peaceful setting is an image of a place to reflect, learn, and study,” he said, “an image of an atmosphere of scholarly contemplation. An arboretum represents a depth of knowledge that parallels the university and college activities.” That clearly describes Coker Arboretum’s five acres of old trees and shady paths near the historic heart of UNC-CH, and which is part of the North Carolina Botanical Garden.

Once students have been recruited to a campus, the attractive setting arboreta create is one factor in their staying. “An attractive setting doesn’t have to be an arboretum,” Newell pointed out. “But having an attractive landscape with a good selection of plants helps us keep students once they’re here.”

Employee Recruitment and Retention

Similarly, said White, arboreta help attract and retain researchers, faculty, and staff who associate their work lives with the same setting of scholarly contemplation.

What’s more, the staff who maintain arboreta have great satisfaction in their jobs and take pride in their work. “We’re maintaining an arboretum,” said Newell, “and we take that seriously. We’re not just doing grounds maintenance.”

For research universities, arboreta provide research material — continually. “Many of our classes have to do with botany or plants,” confirmed Newell, “so having plant samples right on campus is very valuable.”

Then there’s Swarthmore, a liberal arts college. No research there. Nevertheless, says Sawyers, the arboretum, which encompasses more than 300 acres of the campus and exhibits more than 4,000 kinds of ornamental plants, is an invaluable part of the education process. “Based on a survey, our arboretum supports 30-some classes, like art and creative writing classes, in ways that include supporting class work or assignments.”

Annual Campaign Growth
Once the students have finished their classes, earned their degrees, and moved on to make a difference in the world, they remember the setting the arboretum provided and show their thanks and loyalty by contributing to the annual campaign.

Town/Gown Relationship

An arboretum can enhance the town/gown relationship. The down side, said Sawyers, is that it also can come to feel as creating a conflict for resources. Examples include using facilities for arboretum programs rather than classes, and devoting parking to arboretum visitors.

“It really depends on how you look at it,” Sawyers explained. “In our case, it’s in the college’s best interest to serve the community at large. Giving back to the town and helping the town thrive is important, and the arboretum has been a successful way of doing that.”

Preservation of History
Both the town and campus can appreciate an arboretum’s benefit of preserving history. Newell described how the ASU Arboretum, which encompasses the campus’ 632 acres, does just that: “We’re an historical arboretum. The buildings are landscaped with plants typical of the era in which they were built.”

Local Food Production
Finally, and most surprising, an arboretum can offer the benefit of local food production. The ASU arboretum, dedicated in 1990, does. “There’s a history here of citrus growing,” said Newell. “We harvest the fruit and send it to Aramark, our foodservice provider.” The arboretum includes a date palm collection, too.

Planning for Growth
If you’re serious about calling your campus an arboretum, it’s obvious that the benefits support your decision. “You’ll find it improves quality of life on campus,” promised White. Keep in mind the following advice as you move forward.

First, plan your finances as you plan for plants. Endowments are a good start: Today, the Scott Arboretum is supported by 13 endowments that cover 65 percent of its operating expenses. Even if state maintenance dollars provide for grounds services, it won’t be enough. You’ll need to consider grants, as ASU does, to cover signage and brochures, and revenue-generating activities.

In the same vein, consider the use of volunteers to both offset low budgets and accomplish specific projects. “We have a program coordinator who works with the volunteers,” said Newell. “Our crew helps train them, which adds interest to their jobs, as well.”

And remember that building an arboretum is a process. Consider Swarthmore: The arboretum was established in 1929; a friends of the arboretum group was established in the mid-‘70s; and a volunteer program established in the mid-‘80s. “It’s a gradual building,” confirmed Sawyers. “It requires a landscape that people can get excited about, a leader who can excite people, and resources and programs to engage and involve people.”