A ‘reawakening’ of interest in nature

In a Q&A with Penn Today, Morris Arboretum Director Bill Cullina discusses lessons taken from the pandemic, adapting to climate change, and future research. 

Bill Cullina stands on bridge surrounded by ferns
Bill Cullina, director of the Morris Arboretum, poses inside the Arboretum's Victorian fernery in March 2022. 

Bill Cullina began his tenure as the F. Otto Haas Executive Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Morris Arboretum in July 2019—mere months before the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world and shuttered many public spaces. Gardens and arboretums included. 

Here, in a Q&A, Cullina reflects on lessons learned from the pandemic—including renewed interest in nature at large—and how an upcoming master plan accounts for climate change, new research initiatives, and a heavier focus on the Arboretum as a space to socialize.

You started your role as director right before the pandemic hit. Obviously, things got derailed. How do you think about that time, as you reflect on it?

I had about six months of your typical honeymoon period of meeting people, colleagues at Penn, our donor base, and then we went into lockdown and remote operations. So, it’s been strange. We just had our new cohort of interns come this week, so we had a lot of our staff here, and it was interesting because it was the first time we’d gotten together in exactly two years, in person. There’s also been new faces and a lot of retirements that happened in that period. It’s been an interesting time.

We were closed the first three months or so [of the pandemic], until the governor gave us permission to open again. We took it as an opportunity to do a lot of strategic planning, thinking about staff reorganization, and developed a new strategic plan as well as started a master plan. It wasn’t what I would have thought of as an ideal way to start in a new position, but in some ways, it was good to have that time with a little distance to be thinking about things to plan.

Ironically, the Arboretum is probably one of the safest places to be during a pandemic.

I got into public horticulture because I love the idea of sharing my passion for plants in the natural world and gardens with people, but I think during the pandemic, seeing the way the community responded to the Morris Arboretum and our record visitation and all the comments and letters and emails of appreciation, it viscerally hits home how important our role is in the community and society. That part has been really rewarding, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens after this, but I think there’s a whole generation of people—several generations—now who have come to value being outdoors and in nature as a safe place, and a place to socialize in a different way, to relax, to commune. I think it’s a real reawakening of interest in what we do.

The pandemic presented a couple narratives or wake-up calls for people: one was the need for contact with other people, but then also, the comforts of nature. How do you build on that?

That’s what we’re puzzling with now. We have a lot of conversations about what it’s going to be post-pandemic. Certainly, membership has grown rapidly during this time, and we used this time to do some audience research—to poll our visitors and find out what they enjoy and, as you said, the idea of just being in nature and in a beautiful place.

But the social aspect was one of the most important things: this idea of being in a beautiful place with family and friends. In the short term, we’re doing something in the summer called ‘Summer of Swings.’ We made swing seats out of wood from trees that had to be taken down at the Arboretum, different species. We’ll have information and hang them safely from different trees around the Arboretum. And people can just swing. We’re trying to do things like that that are fun and engaging and simple and involve being outside, but we’re also amid a master plan that we started in October 2021. It should be done this coming October.

There are non-public parts of it like building our research program and summer education programs, but also looking for ways to be more welcoming, accessible, and to provide more opportunities for socialization. We’re looking at food opportunities, event spaces, and really seeing ourselves as not just a research institution but a place for people to come and experience joy, to socialize.

What do you think about the Arboretum’s relationship with Penn and communicating with the campus community?

We’re always trying to do what we can to engage with the Penn student body. We’ve provided buses through the years for students to come out, and during parents’ week and alumni week, we have special programming.

One of the things that has come from COVID is that more people are comfortable with virtual programming, so that’s allowed us to do more with the alumni base. We have one event in the spring looking at how trees and human culture interface, and I think we can continue that kind of virtual programming because it works great with a dispersed alumni base.

I’m really trying to build our research program here; we’re putting together a molecular taxonomy lab. The idea with that is to try and answer questions about rare species: Why are they rare? I also will be advertising soon for a plant geneticist position that will be looking at breeding native trees for resistance to all these things that have come in and are killing our forests. And so, there’s opportunities on the research side to interface [with campus]. I’ve talked with the folks at the [GRASP] Lab to potentially use drone technology in some of this work, and I think there’s potential we could do some plantings at Penn Vet, perhaps.

We currently also use our Ph.D.s to teach undergraduate classes and in the [Stuart Weitzman] School of Design, and I think there’s potential for that to grow, too. And I think it shouldn’t be discounted what a resource for the staff at the University we are, too. We are free for anyone with a PennCard, and we get a lot of staff coming here, too. I’m happy that we’re really adding that component to work life at Penn.

Any other research you’d like to highlight that’s ongoing?

We’re basically the go-to source for information about the wild plants of Pennsylvania. Our staff wrote the book on the wild plants of Pennsylvania, so that work is going on, and the molecular taxonomy part of it is new, as well as plant genetics. And we also have a history of plant exploration, and basically going out into the wilds, whether it’s the Eastern U.S., or Asia, or Central Europe, looking for plants appropriate to bring into cultivation.

We’re also really focused on plant species for a warmer future. We’ve got a trip coming up in June where we’re sending staff to North Carolina to look for plants that are a little bit south of here that may be a little bit iffy in terms of climate adaptability now, but are things we want to test for the future. For example, if you see scenes of Louisiana and the huge oak trees with the Spanish moss, that’s a species called live oak. And it grows as far north as coastal Virginia, so our staff went down and collected seeds from populations there. We’ve been growing those out. On campus, too, we’ve been trying out a few as a potential park tree, street tree, urban tree, and it’s been amazing that they’ve been surviving and doing well. We’re getting to the point now we’ve got some pretty good size ones to test out.

So, I think that idea of really what you might call assisted migration is something that I think is a new role for us. Trying to help native flora and native trees move north as the climate warms.

What are other ways you’re factoring in climate change as you map out the master plan?

That’s a good question. One of the key things for us is, with the Wissahickon Creek bordering our property, a lot of the Arboretum is in the flood zone or will be. So, [we’re concerned about] stormwater management, flood control, looking at how we can not only plan development to accommodate climate change, but how we can make the flooded landscape more resilient by potentially putting in more retention ponds for water to help the community. Or how to slow down and control the movement of stormwater.

That’s a big thing, looking at site resiliency going forward. We’re certainly also part of Penn’s larger Climate Action Plan. With the University buying solar power so that 75% of our power will be coming from renewable energy, I want to get the other 25%. That’s going to be hard. Some of [the challenge] is we have legacy buildings with fossil fuel-heated, inefficient systems, but we want to do more with onsite solar, retrofitting some buildings, trying to move to an all-electric vehicle fleet. Hopefully, when the new pickup trucks come out, we can procure some of those, but we are also switching over to electric carts, backpack blowers, trimmers, chainsaws—technology is really moving fast.

We have a robotic mower that’s like a Roomba for your lawn. It does about an acre and has a little wire around it like a dog fence. So, every night it comes out after dark, drives around and mows, and goes back to its charging station and goes back out again. It’s funny because the woodchucks have grown accustomed to it, thinking it’s just another grazing animal. So, I think all these things, and then looking at alternative transportation, certainly we’re working with the township—Montgomery County parks and trails, as well as the city—to better connect bike and walking trails from Forbidden Drive up through our property and farther north through Montgomery County. My hope is that you can go all the way from the city up through Forbidden Drive right through Morris Arboretum and then up through the suburbs to the north. And potentially with more access to electric bikes; I’d like to see us get a rental station to use.

The public transportation part is hard because of the way SEPTA routes are. But we’re working to see what we can do to be more accessible to public transportation.

What is the vision for Morris Arboretum in the master plan you’re working on, in a nutshell?

I would say it’s three-tiered. As far as the public side of things, we really want to be welcoming and accessible to everybody. And that’s [partly] how we portray ourselves, so maybe changing metal fences to wood so it feels more accessible. Physical accessibility is huge, we are thinking about changing our arrival sequence so the grade issues are not so big for people with mobility challenges.

And as I said, the social aspects and joy and events. To put it in perspective, the University acquired Morris Arboretum in 1931, and for the first 40 years or so it was pretty much a research institution, and then in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s and 2000s, it has flowered as a public garden. We’re now one of the 20 largest public gardens in the country. But we still need to upgrade our facilities—I’d like to see us being really considered one of the great arboreta in the world, worthy of Penn.

But then, of course, there’s the research side of things and seeing how we can grow our research program. We have ideas to create an institute out here that focuses on the wild plants of the mid-Atlantic and their challenges and opportunities. As far as education, we’re looking at continuing the lifelong learning that we do, but putting more of an emphasis on school-age engagement. We just hired someone to be a community liaison with the schools—we have a lot of kids come on buses, but we’re looking at how we can grow deeper engagement with students through internships, work studies. It’s one thing to come and spend a couple hours here, but really, if we’re going to find our future staff and train students in the community, we need to provide deeper experiences, too. We just expanded our internship from nine to 14 or 15 and I’d like to see that continue as well.