Cultivating beauty

Essential horticultural staff at the Morris Arboretum have been tending to the land to ensure that the sweeping property and its plants are ready for visitors when the time is right.

Flowering cherry trees
Early in the quarantine, cherry trees, such as these Prunus sargentii, opened their spectacular blooms, with no one around to see but the Arboretum’s essential staff. “It was an especially good year for flowering cherries,” says Anthony Aiello, the Gayle E. Maloney Director of Horticulture and Curator of the Morris Arboretum, “a collection that we have worked on developing for the last 10 years, so it was disappointing that there was no one there to enjoy them.” (Image: Anthony Aiello)

Spring is typically a busy time for the Morris Arboretum, as plants emerge from the ground and sprout new growth, weeds appear with a vengeance, and walking paths fill with visitors eager to stroll through the gardens and take in the sights of new life. Yet on March 14, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Arboretum was shuttered to all but essential staff,  separating the facility’s amenities for appreciation, relaxation, and education from the thousands who visit every year.

“On my desk,” says Anthony Aiello, the Gayle E. Maloney Director of Horticulture and Curator of the Morris Arboretum, “I keep a description of the ‘Curatorship of the Arboretum,’ written in 1941 when the Arboretum hired its first curator, Henry Skinner. One of the roles described is ‘fostering the enjoyment and educational benefits derived by the public from the collections.’ I often thought of this while out in the Arboretum by myself, with no one else around to share this fabulous spring.”

Yet the spring’s closure won’t be interminable, and the crew of essential workers has been balancing old jobs while taking on new ones to keep up with the long list of tasks necessary to sustain the Arboretum’s irreplaceable collections and landscapes. 

In between performing this care, workers have also been documenting the beauty they’re fostering, sharing stunning images on social media and informative videos on YouTube to connect visitors to the garden. If all goes to plan, the Arboretum hopes to open within the next two weeks, with some operational adjustments, including advance tickets, to keep visitors and staff safe. In the meantime, here is a selection of stunning images of the gardens and those caring for them to hold us over until we can once again visit.

Bright pink azalea bushes in bloom
The Azalea Meadow burst into bloom in May, featuring the Arboretum’s impressive collection of native and exotic azaleas in a variety of colorful shades. (Image: Bill Cullina)


Group of ducks walks across a path in a park setting
Bird's nest with three blue eggs in a potted plant
White-tailed deer standing in a clearing between trees
With the paths and gardens quieter, animals have made their presence known. “It was fascinating to see how the birds and other wildlife re-inhabited the Arboretum,” Aiello says. “For example, in early April I saw a committee of four turkey vultures on the roof of the studio (the small building on the Holly Slope), something I have never seen in my 21 years at the Arboretum. Throughout the spring there was a paddling of wood ducks in the Swan Pond, and the pileated woodpeckers were much more present than normal.” (Images: Eloise Gayer)


A group of allium flowers in bloom
White and purple alliums, like oversize lollipops, make a cheerful presence in the Arboretum. (Image: Eloise Gayer)


People working in a garden
Person wearing mask and gardening gloves holds up a bee
Person using shovel to put plants in the ground
Gardener leans against shovel and smiles
With a slimmed down staff, work continued to weed, plant, mow, and protect the gardens, while maintaining social distancing and embracing new safety measures. “We have been without our volunteers, whom we really miss, not just for all their hard work but as much for the social interactions that they bring,” says Aiello. “For the past few weeks we’ve had our own (socially distant) departmental team days, and staff has been happy to be able to work (if not shoulder to shoulder) in six-foot proximity of their co-workers.” (Images: Eloise Gayer)


Pink roses against a blue sky
Group of iris flowers in bloom
Close-up of brilliantly red-orange azalea bloom
Late spring flowers, including the Thérèse Bugnet shrub rose, Siberian irises, and the arresting red flame azalea have filled the Arboretum with new colors and textures. (Images: Eloise Gayer (rose), Katherine Deregibus (iris and azalea))


Large and curvaceous sculpture made of willow branches in a field
A popular attraction with the many families who typically visit the Arboretum, Patrick Dougherty’s Stickwork sculpture, “Loop de Loop” has sprouted, its willow branches featuring new spring growth. (Image: Eloise Gayer)