Arboretum takes root on Penn State’s main campus
STATE COLLEGE — Just down Park Avenue from Beaver Stadium, which rocks under the feet of 100,000 Penn State football fans on autumn Saturdays, a place of peace and solitude is slowly blooming.
It is part of the sprawling campus, yet an oasis from the hustle and bustle — a place where beauty prevails but lessons are ripe for the picking.
Nearly a century after such a place was first suggested for the campus, the Arboretum at Penn State is beginning to take shape with the opening of the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens, the front door to the larger 370-acre project.
From education to events, the gardens are the public face to an effort that began back in 1914 but only recently gained momentum.
“About 15 months ago, this was still a big muddy field,” Kim Steiner, director of the arboretum, said while sitting on a bench in the Overlook Pavilion, which provides a sweeping view of the gardens and its beautifully manicured round event lawn in the center.
Now, 17,000 plants from 700 species call the space home, from geraniums to spirea and river birch to lilacs. Every color of the rainbow can be found there. Students are calling it home, too.
A communications class came to produce a video. Art students are frequent visitors as are landscape architecture majors.
“It’s amazing how many different classes are using the garden, and then students just come over to study,” Steiner said.
The gardens, which are open from dawn to dusk, see several hundred visitors walk through every day. Docents are available to answer questions they may have, and employees have begun the monumental task of labeling each of the plants.
With spaces available to rent, including the event lawn and the pavilion, the gardens already have held wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs and reunions.
The Pollinators Garden, filled with plants that serve a symbiotic relationship with birds and bees and butterflies, recently served as a stop for a conference of pollination experts held at the university.
But getting to this stage was years in the making and would never have happened if not for the generosity of one Penn State alumnus.
In 1914, the university’s board of trustees set aside land for an arboretum, a living collection of plants and trees that enable people to learn more about the cultivation, growth and uses of different species.
But for years, efforts to raise the money for the project and other attempts at getting one started failed.
Back in the 1970s, a plot of land along Park Avenue was identified as the ideal location for an arboretum. But at that time, the 55 acres directly along the road was privately owned. The plans for an arboretum died due to lack of support in fundraising.
Known as the Mitchell tract for the family who owned it for decades, the property wasn’t even owned by the university until 1989, when it was purchased for use for farming operations for agricultural classes and for football parking.
In the years after that purchase, plans for an arboretum began to take shape. Steiner became involved in 1994 as part of a task force appointed to study the merits and feasibility of an arboretum. Within five years, a preliminary master plan for the arboretum was completed.
The first order of business was to raise money and develop a comprehensive plan for the first 55 acres, said Steiner, who was by then the director of the arboretum. The botanic gardens became the focal point of that planning.
Finding someone willing to give a lead gift of $10 million — the amount needed to get the project rolling — became a priority. Steiner said that without that lead gift, no other fundraising could be done because the project couldn’t be guaranteed to happen.
It wasn’t until 2007 that the gift became reality.
Charles H. “Skip” Smith, a 1948 Penn State graduate, donated $10 million to build the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens in honor of his late father, also a Penn State alum and founder of H.O. Smith and Sons, a real estate development and rental company established in 1951.
“I’ve always enjoyed the trees that we have naturally in Pennsylvania, and we do not have an arboretum between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia,” Smith said. “I had learned from the people at Penn State when I was discussing some other business that they had an arboretum in the plans but no money to do it.”
Smith had never been to an arboretum before making his donation and said he got to satisfy his own desire to see one by helping to build it.
“I certainly get a lot of pleasure out of it. What I didn’t expect necessarily is all the people who comment to me that they’ve been there for the first time and how they’re so surprised and pleased about what a wonderful facility it is. It’s one of those things you don’t hear any negative comments about,” Smith said.
Smith said he hopes his gift will encourage other major contributions to allow the rest of the project to be built.
More is to come for the Mitchell tract, Steiner said.
The next step is to build a one-acre Children’s Garden, a $4.5 million project for which $1 million has been raised so far.
“Even with the economy the way it is, we’ve had some strong interest in donating to that,” Steiner said.
The plans for the Children’s Garden call for a space that allows kids to climb and play, but also to learn about plants and trees and conservation at the same time.
And there are more projects lined up for the future, including an education center and a conservatory housing tropical plants. More gardens, showcasing fruits and vegetables, as well as grasses, also are planned.
“All of this depends on people giving us a lot of money,” Steiner said.
The university provided $3 million towards the project, which included seed money to move utilities to the property.
“Other than that, our growth depends on private philanthropy,” he said.
The beauty of the gardens already is apparent, but Steiner said it will take five to eight years of growth before the space reaches the vision it was planned to meet.
The gardens are filled with trellises that are, for the most part, empty now, but in years to come will serve as flowered walls separating the gardens into rooms, Steiner said.
Bamboo lines both sides of a walkway leading from the fountain that serves as the “magnet” drawing people to the gardens. In time, the bamboo will grow to form an arch over that walk.
Water lilies bloom in a pond in the Oasis Garden where tree frogs soon will make their home.
Friends Barb Smith and Jinny Plavetich stopped and sat at the lily pond for a time while they made their way through the gardens. Both plant lovers, the pair were in town for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts and decided to visit the gardens for the first time.
“We’re amazed at what they’ve been able to do,” said Smith of Bethel Park.
“It’s gorgeous. It’s just gorgeous,” added Plavetich, a Penn State alumnus from Upper St. Clair.
Jen Mosher of Plymouth Meeting, her sister, Amanda Hirsh, and mother Trish Hirsh, both of Wayne, who are all Penn State alumni, also stopped by while in town for the arts festival and were impressed.
“Much more than I thought it would be just from driving on the road,” Mosher said.
They plan to stop by whenever they return to their alma mater.
“I think it’s nice to see it in the beginning and watch it progress,” Trish Hirsh said.
One of the most popular aspects of the gardens is the water map behind the pavilion. Made of blue stone, the map is a view of the watershed in the State College region. Rainwater funneled from the roof of the pavilion fills in the waterways marked on the map, where people often stop to find locations familiar to them.
Melissa Marshall, principal at MTR Landscape Architects in Pittsburgh, developed the master plan for the Mitchell tract and the site plan for the first phase of construction of the Botanic Gardens.
Marshall said the vision for the site was to make it a “gateway to the university” and part of its fabric — a place where visitors have to stop when they are in town and “one of those places where you can gather and hang out and get away from it all to study.”
It is meant to be both an educational and a community resource, in addition to being a showcase of what Penn State does in terms of horticultural and agricultural research, Marshall said.
“People are losing connections with the out of doors, and they’re not understanding that we’re part of a biological web. And when we push something out of kilter, we can negatively impact all sorts of other things, and that includes the flora and the fauna and the soils and the water an all those things that we depend on for our very existence,” Marshall said.
She said the gardens serve as the “honey” to bring people in to the larger arboretum to educate them about conservation and other issues.
The Smith gardens only take up about five of the 55 Mitchell tract acres and is only a small part of the overall Arboretum.
The Overlook Pavilion at the edge of the gardens sits above the rest of the arboretum to the rear, offering a view of a 30-acre Old Growth wood lot, which is home to oaks more than 300 years old.
Some elements of the arboretum already are in place. There’s a 1.3-mile bike trail that runs through the property. There’s also an Air Quality Learning and Demonstration Area, where people can see first-hand the effects of air pollution on plant growth.
An American Chestnut breeding program, which aims to bring back a blight-resistant species, also is located in the arboretum.
Plans for the rest of the arboretum include ecological restoration, including the re-creation of a prairie that was common in Pennsylvania when European settlers arrived but is now all but extinct. Agricultural research and demonstration areas also will be part of the arboretum.
For now, the first phase of the project will have to be enough, as fundraising continues. Steiner hopes others will be inspired by Smith’s generosity and the university’s use of the land to help the project grow like the plants it houses.
“It’s really prime real estate,” Steiner said, adding that the law school and business school located their buildings nearby to offer views of the planned arboretum. “The university could have put classroom buildings, they could have put dormitories (on the land), so the university really made a commitment.”