What is the history of the Scott Arboretum?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

When Swarthmore College was founded in 1869, there were “but two trees” on the entire campus, which was primarily composed of cornfields. In Ben Yagoda’s book “The Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College: The First 75 Years,” we learn that the lush landscape of thousands of plants from over 4,000 species that we know today only dates from 1929, when President Frank Aydelotte agreed to turn the campus into an arboretum in honor of president of the Scott Paper Company and avid gardener Arthur Hoyt Scott, Class of 1895.

Some features of the Swarthmore landscape date from before 1929. The trees that line Magill Walk actually date from 1879, when President Edward Magill planted two rows of 31 swamp white oaks to line the path from the train station to Parrish Hall. The trees grew slowly; by 1895, they were only 25 feet tall. From the beginning, it became a tradition for each senior class to plant a tree on campus. According to Yagoda, “the Class of 1880 planted a red oak near Cunningham House, and the class of 1881 put a purple-leaf beech nearby. Both are still standing.” Trees have also been planted “by three governors of Pennsylvania, the governors of Delaware and Indiana, and U.S. Presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.”

But by the 1920s, the college was still rather sparse in terms of foliage. Noted horticulturist John Wister wrote that “the variety of trees is not very great… two quite inferior trees, the Norway Maple and the Norway Spruce, are used in much larger quantities than is desirable… in general, there is a surprising lack of evergreens for a college campus which is used mostly in winter, and which therefore is quite bare during most of the college year.”

Arthur Hoyt Scott was one alumnus who took an interest in the college’s landscape. He was an officer in both the American Peony and the American Iris Society, and in 1915 he donated one hundred lilacs to the college. He first proposed the idea of an arboretum to Samuel Palmer, head of the Botany Department, in 1925. When he died in 1927, his widow and his friends raised an endowment in order to establish an arboretum in his memory. Although President Aydelotte was initially skeptical, Edward Martin, the chairman of the Board of Managers was a plant devotee, and he was able to talk Aydelotte into the plan.

At this time, botanical expert John Wister was appointed the first director of The Arthur Hoyt Scott Horticultural Foundation. With an annual budget of only $1,000, he worked to turn the Crum Woods into “a wild garden… unlike anything in this section of the country,” but also wanted to transform the main campus so that people would know the foundation had arrived. Some of his early projects included the lilac shrubs near the meetinghouse and the cherry trees on Cedar Lane.

The arboretum was designed as a place where homeowners could learn about practical horticulture, not as an exotic botanical garden. According to a 1932 statement in the Swarthmore College Bulletin, “the founders have wished to make possible a dream of Mr. Scott’s to help horticulture by visual demonstration. They have believed that this dream can be realized by planting in a public place of such trees, shrubs, and flowers as can be used by people of average means living in the Philadelphia suburban area.” Wister wanted to arrange these practical plants by botanical family in a great circle around the campus, working from gingko and yew at Wharton to dogwoods at Martin to honeysuckle by Beardsley.

Some of the most important projects over the next seventy years include the Scott Amphitheater, which was built in 1942, and the Dean Bond Rose Garden, which was dedicated in 1958 with over 200 species of roses. Not many colleges can say they have a flower named after them, but in 1964, the Conard-Pyle company actually “introduced the hybrid tea rose ‘Swarthmore’ in honor of the college’s centennial, and a specimen was planted in the Dean Bond Rose Garden.”

Wister retired in 1969 and moved into a house on the edge of the Crum Woods. He continued to tend the garden until his death in 1982, and his wife Gertrude until her death in 1999 at the age of 94. The Wister Greenhouse, which is adjacent to Cunningham House, was dedicated in their honor in 1981.

The most important organizational change was the establishment of the Associates of the Scott Arboretum in 1972. This group is a “dues-paying organization with a charge of furthering the aims of the foundation through volunteer work and financial support.” Today it boasts over 1,500 members. Also in 1972, the Foundation offered Swarthmore students a noncredit course on practical horticulture that attracted three times as many students as could fit in the greenhouse.

James Frorer, Class of 1915, donated a collection of 450 hollies representing over 200 species in 1973. He funded the transportation of the collection from his home in Delaware to the Crum Meadow. Since then, the collection has grown to 320 species of holly and has been designated as an official Holly Arboretum by the Holly Society of America. Martha Stewart even featured it on her television show in 2001.

The 1990s saw the Cosby Garden, a “faux ruins garden,” planted at the same time as Kohlberg Hall, and the John W. Nason Garden and Outdoor Classroom, which “emphasizes texture,” planted between Trotter and Hicks. The Scott Arboretum was also accredited by the American Association of Museums in 1995, at the time one of only 750 accredited museums in the country.

The Arboretum is currently raising funds to replace the Wister Greenhouse with a more energy-efficient structure that is five times as large and that meets today’s accessibility and safety standards. This will increase the quality and capacity of the arboretum’s educational and volunteer programs. Although students may not notice it during their four-year stay, the Scott Arboretum continues to grow and change. Students who graduated from the “barren” 1895 campus would not have recognized the campus landscape in 1945, and if you come back in fifty years, the same statement might very well apply to you.

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