How a hidden gem blossomed into one of Chicagoland’s most visited attractions — a place of playful joy, education, conservation and reverence for trees
Aerial tree yoga? Indeed — Lynne Friedlander of Naperville took the class at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle. She climbed into the quasi-hammock — a bucket-like, cloth contraption — that was suspended between two strapping oaks. At one point, completing a yoga pose, she purposely turned herself upside down. “Can you imagine — the view of the majestic trees?” says Friedlander.
The right-side-up views are just as majestic for her when she comes to the Arboretum for a leisurely walk, lunch with friends, a bike ride as a volunteer for the bike patrol, and for other classes, such as a compass/topography challenge and a smartphone photography session, both which serve to highlight the venue’s extraordinary 222,000 trees, shrubs and plants.
“I just love trees. I wish I could explain that in a way that made sense,” says Friedlander, 59, a history museum worker. “It’s relaxing here. It’s energizing. It’s beautiful — in all seasons.”
Once more of a hidden gem, The Morton Arboretum has blossomed into one of the most visited Chicago-area attractions. More than one million visitors strolled its 1,700 acres last year. Founded in 1922, it has reinvented and transformed itself over the last 15 years or so, becoming perhaps the world’s top planned showcase of trees and a multi-faceted attraction.
The shorthand description of The Morton Arboretum is that it is a museum of trees. But more so than ever it’s an interactive museum that not only conducts important science and research on the preservation of trees but also teaches proper tree planting and maintenance. It influences its 46,000 loyal members and casual visitors to become active champions of trees.
Most of us have been to a national park or other mostly untamed wilderness that pulses with a raw and primitive heartbeat. Or we visit the local forest preserve, a seeming slice of the pre-settlement past, a digestible taste of the outdoors. The Morton Arboretum has its own vibe, a sense of nature captured for our perusal and admiration but still alive on its own terms. The grounds are tidy and groomed but real, not Disney-esque. The trees are in their home, and we’re the humble guests.
A Place Transformed
The Arboretum has 16 miles of wood-chip hiking trails and nine miles of paved roads that wind though woodlands, prairies, lakes and streams. Trees are grown within their botanical families. So rose bushes and cherry trees, both part of the rose family, stand near one another, as do 77 different kinds of elms. Altogether, 4,650 different kinds of plants grow here. Visitors can just take in the beauty — or learn exactly what their eyes behold. Small metal tags identify the common name and scientific name (in Latin) of the trees and shrubs.
The dozens of trails range from a quarter-mile in length to 1.5 miles. A favorite is the Joy Path, the trek taken nearly every day long ago by Morton family members. The path passes the Thornhill Education Center, which was once the library of the Morton family mansion. Salt magnate Joy Morton, who founded the Arboretum, is buried near the site of his former home (the grave is not accessible to the public). Morton truly inherited his love of trees — his father, J. Sterling Morton, founded Arbor Day in 1872.
Another favorite path is the placid Lake Marmo Trail, the scenic site of many marriage proposals. (The Arboretum also hosts wedding ceremonies throughout the year.) Also popular is the Fragrance Garden, a highly manicured spot — an anomaly at the Arboretum. Unlike the Chicago Botanical Gardens, the Arboretum is not a spectacle of elaborate arrangements of plants.
The Spruce Plot, a cathedral of evergreens, is a favorite of Sue Wagner, the vice president for education and information for the Arboretum. “It helps me to be more meditative, introspective, creative,” she says. “Other people have their own spots for experiencing that. It helps them to get away from the hustle and bustle of life.”
The Arboretum has been able to cast that kind of spell since its early days. Nature binds wounds, frees the mind and calms the soul. That was the main thrust of the Arboretum for decades. Though the Arboretum’s transformation began in earnest several years before Wagner’s tenure began nearly nine years ago, she still recalls its more somnolent era. “I do remember it as a quiet place,” she says. “I thought it was a research facility not open to the public.
“Today we offer a lot more interpretive information. There are more exhibits. We’re more engaged with the public. We made it fun and friendly. It’s about how we can surprise and delight people.”
So today the calendar at the Arboretum is full with a wide range of activities including a craft beer festival, a Dog Admission Day and, currently, a Troll Hunt. An acclaimed Danish artist, Thomas Dambo, created six whimsical sculptures with reclaimed wood. Startling in its sudden appearance on a hill, one particularly wacky troll catches the attention of drivers on nearby Interstate 88.
More central to its mission, the Arboretum also offers a wide array of classes and workshops focused on the planting and maintenance of trees. A popular offering is the Woodland Stewardship Program — soon to be renamed the Natural Areas Restoration Program — which meticulously trains participants to do conservation work. Last year, 750 people eager to help the environment learned in detail how to increase the tree canopy and decrease invasive trees and plants.
Most people surely do not realize it, but the threats to our local trees are numerous and dire. The effort to save trees goes much deeper than maintaining the beauty of our neighborhoods or preserving swaths of uninterrupted nature. The quality of our lives is at stake. (More on this later.)
Two new initiatives — eight years apart — transformed the Arboretum from a staid place of contemplation into a more entertaining and educational venue. In 2005, the four-acre Children’s Garden opened. The $10 million addition included water-play areas, tree fort walks and discovery gardens. Today it’s a beehive of gleeful activity. Giddy children climb colossal acorns and — in one of the nearby Nature Play Spaces — make mud-pit dirt cakes in the Mud Kitchen.
“The Children’s Garden was really a key addition for us,” says Gerard Donnelly, the Arboretum’s president and CEO. “It brought in a different kind of people.”
The redevelopment back then also included a new, spiffy Visitor’s Center, a one-acre maze garden, a more visible and more welcoming entrance, and minor but important touches such as an environmental-friendly parking lot. (The pervious pavers allow water to be filtered and directed to vegetation. Sadly, the oil from cars that spill onto many store blacktops eventually pollutes local streams and rivers and conceivably can eventually find its way to the Gulf of Mexico.)
In 2013, the Arboretum took another major leap forward when it first held Illumination, its premier wintertime exhibit. Other venues present holiday light shows. Illumination allows visitors “to see trees in a different light.” It drew a robust 88,000 visitors in its first year and has become increasingly popular. Last year 162,000 people saw it. “Illumination brought in people who have not been here before,” says Wagner. “It’s the time of the year where you normally don’t go outside. You just don’t think much about trees in the winter. We came up with a concept to see the beauty and form of trees in the winter.”
The upgrades pulled in people. By 2006, attendance jumped to 736,000 from 400,000 in 2003. Annual attendance topped one million for the first time in 2015. The Arboretum had become — nature’s alternative to a coffee shop or tavern — a place that people reflexively return to over and over because of its familiarity and basic appeal. By 2017, 57 percent of visitors were repeat customers.
The trees remain the star attraction of the Arboretum, but they no longer stand quite so alone. “One of the cool things about the Arboretum is how we’ve evolved,” says Donnelly. “It once was a quiet, less public space. We were seen more as a private organization. We still have a large area of woodlands. The trees we’ve grown we’ve maintained. You can still take a peaceful, contemplative walk. What we have added are opportunities to learn and explore. Now we’re really engaged with the community.”
The Children’s Garden and other upgrades around 2005 were made possible thanks to the Branching Out! campaign of the Arboretum. Fundraising brought in $18 million of the $45 million needed for the expansion. Until that campaign, the Morton family had provided the chief support. “We didn’t have an established group of friends. It (raising the funds) was hard,” says Donnelly.
In 2015, the Arboretum launched the $63 million Growing Brilliantly campaign, which is nearing a successful conclusion. This campaign, while enhancing the Children’s Garden and adding other upgrades, focused on expanding research and broadening conservation efforts. Two new large buildings have been erected at South Farm, the nerve center for the Arboretum’s army of 130 arborists and horticulturists. Also added were new greenhouses and plant production facilities.
The second campaign tapped into the increasing environmental awareness. “It still was not easy (raising funds),” says Donnelly. “But we found that people are keenly interested in supporting tree science and conservation.”
The first wave of transformation most notably improved the grounds. The second round of fundraising and subsequent expansion has enabled the Arboretum to intensify its behind-the-scenes efforts to preserve trees and at the same time to promote that mission among members, visitors and volunteers. The Arboretum initiated the Center for Tree Science, which trains researchers worldwide. It established a new plant development program to breed plants that can tolerate urban environments, handle climate change and withstand the dangers of pests and disease. It also expanded its tree conservation efforts to build a healthier urban forest in the Chicago area and to protect endangered species of trees here and worldwide.
All those changes and improvements have elevated the prestige and value of the Arboretum. “We’re the most significant arboretum in the world,” says Nicole Cavender, vice president of science and conservation. That’s not just natural pride speaking or instinctive public relations. The Morton Arboretum is a leader in tree science among arboretums and public gardens. Its attendance and scope of programs are near the top. Especially indicative of its standing, The Morton Arboretum established the accreditation program for arboretums a few years ago.
Trees: Our Best Friend in the Whole World
Remember the vicious, relentless emerald ash borer? The pest eliminated 13 million trees, or three percent of the tree canopy, in the Chicago region several years ago. Pests are far from the only threat to trees. Pollution, climate change, disease and loss of habitat also endanger trees. In a northern, urban area such as Chicago, preserving the health of trees is particularly problematic. Besides heaps of pollution, trees must contend with road salt and intense cold.
Who doesn’t cherish trees and harbor a precious memory of one? “We climb them as kids. We enjoy the comfort of their shade. We have a connection to them,” says Donnelly.
But the roots of our affection should run far deeper. Trees play an incredibly vital role in society. Most importantly, they clean the air and water. In the Midwest, 100 trees annually absorb 37 tons of carbon dioxide and remove 370 pounds of other air pollutants, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Those same trees catch 216,000 gallons of rainwater. It’s hard to say how many basements have not flooded thanks to trees, but one may well have been yours.
Trees increase property values and reduce air conditioner costs. An unshaded street needed to be repaved six times in 30 years at a cost of $4,791 for a homeowner, while a street shaded by large trees needed to be repaved only 2.5 times in 30 years at a cost of $2,071, according to the Center for Urban Forest Research. The lifetime benefit for one large tree is $3,790 in the Midwest, a 250 percent return on investment, according to the U.S. Forest Service. All those savings add up big time. The 157 million trees in the Chicago area provide an economic benefit of $51.2 billion a year, according to a 2013 study.
Yet the monetary benefits understate the value of trees. Will your child finish high school? Will a burglar break into your home? How happy will you be at work? The number of trees you see on a regular basis has a far-ranging effect, impacting school graduation rates, crime and job satisfaction, studies show.
The Arboretum undertook a massive tree census of Chicago’s seven-county region in 2010 and found that our 157 million trees provide an urban tree cover of 18 percent. River Forest has a 56 percent canopy cover, one of the highest rates. Aurora at 18 percent is one of the lowest. Others: Riverside, 50 percent, La Grange Park, 47 percent, Glen Ellyn, 36 percent, Elmhurst, 29 percent, Batavia, 26 percent and Naperville, 21 percent. Nationwide, the urban forest (trees in the city) is around 40 percent.
Counter-intuitively, housing development in the western suburbs actually has a positive effect — typically the land that is being developed is agricultural, which tends to have relatively few trees. Largely agricultural Oswego, for example, has only an eight percent canopy cover. On the other hand, the large trees that predate urbanization, especially the beloved oak trees that are wonders at cleaning air and water, are reaching the end of their natural life span.
But the chief takeaway of the tree census is the relative lack of diversity. More than half the trees surveyed consist of fewer than 10 species. The infestation of a pest such as the Asian longhorned beetle would be devastating. Hollywood invents all sorts of fantastical, apocalyptic scenarios to scare audiences, but a tiny critter could devastate our area. “More than 41 million trees, or one quarter of our urban forest, could be lost,” says Cavender. Diversity is a necessity to forestall a disaster. “We’re too monocultural. Our number one message is more planting of the right kind of trees and proper care,” she says.
Homeowners often choose the type of tree to plant on a whim. They need to take into account the type of soil, amount of sunlight, moisture level and potential obstructions such as overhead power lines. “Look around your street and neighboring yards to see what your neighbors planted and choose something different,” Cavender says. “People look at their front yard and say, OK, I have space for a tree. They pick out a tree. But they should pick out the right kind of tree. Everyone has a role to play. One tree can make a tremendous difference.”
The Arboretum has an online tool to help homeowners decide what kind of tree to plant. Its classes and programs also educate homeowners, village officials and others on proper planting. The Arboretum has become a trusted, widely known source for advice. Its Plant Clinic now has answered inquiries from 586 zip codes about plant selection and care.
Those initiatives represent a kind of micro-level approach to preserving the local urban forest. At the macro-level, the Arboretum is the leader of a collaborative, comprehensive effort to sustain a diverse urban forest. In 2013, it helped launch the Chicago Region Trees Initiative to gather and spread information and coordinate tree stewardship. Among the 13 partners in the collaboration are the Forest Preserves of Cook County, the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
The Arboretum also runs a longstanding tree advocate program. Staff works with homeowners, elected officials and volunteers to protect and improve the tree stocks. Towns have initiated Arbor Days, drawn up ordinances and changed what they plant and how they manage their trees.
But an audience the Arboretum has worked especially hard to connect with and mobilize is those not old enough to hold office or vote. Teenagers and preteens are a visible presence at the Arboretum. Last year 600 youths attended science camps at the Arboretum. Hundreds volunteer throughout the year. Students from 646 schools have taken part in field, lab and outreach programs. In October, the Gateway to Tree Science will open. A celebration of the research accomplished by the Arboretum, the exhibit also intends to inspire tree-related careers.
Also debuting next school year are STEM podcasts targeted at teenagers and teachers, and a groundbreaking initiative, Little Trees, an innovative, nature-based early childhood learning program. Envisioned as a supplement or even as an alternative to preschool, the children will gather multiple times each week for 32 weeks to engage in nature play and other outdoorsy activities to spur their development. “We want to encourage children to be stewards of trees,” says Wagner.
Upcoming generations face an uncertain world, an environment in flux. Even the trees expertly planted by the Arboretum on Arbor Day grow with a question mark. “We know that the climate is changing. But the models we have are not precise,” says Donnelly. “We’re planting a diversity of trees. Some will be suitable for the climate. We’ll have some winners in the mix.”
Visitors to the Arboretum are not tree huggers — though at the Illumination holiday celebration, they are actively encouraged to give a tree a warm hug. But visitors do embrace the trees. They stare and marvel. They read the displays and learn. And sometimes they let the benign presence of the trees alter their moods and feed their souls. Forest Therapy Guides lead participants on meditative walks through the woods of the Arboretum. “This is a way to reduce blood pressure. It keeps you calm,” says Wagner. “You can practice mindfulness while in nature amid trees.”
Repeated exposure to the Arboretum also tends to make you mindful about conserving and protecting trees. The Arboretum has transformed itself, and in the process its members and visitors have found themselves changed as well.
It happened to Friedlander, the yoga practitioner. “I didn’t pay much attention to the trees in my yard. But the last five years it has been important for me to be the best tree steward I can be,” says Friedlander, who now properly fertilizes and trims her trees.
The Arboretum is working to plant that seed of love of trees in many others. “Our job is not done,” says Donnelly. “We face many opportunities and challenges. But there could not be a better time than now to be a tree museum. We are taking on a role that not even Mr. Morton could have imagined.”Edit Module