Scott Arboretum Reaches Out: A Conversation with Sue McQueen, Community Coordinator

12 mins read


The Scott Arboretum retains an air of mystery even for a veteran senior like myself. The word ‘arboretum’ is awkward to pronounce and clearly has something to do with trees, but at Swarthmore the term encompasses a vast botanical garden containing plants of all persuasions. Cunningham House, the wood-shingled former observatory that serves as the arboretum’s headquarters, appears simultaneously anachronistic and of the future – a rustic English cottage melded with a spaceship. The relationship between the Arboretum and Swarthmore has always perplexed me – the geographic boundaries of the two institutions align perfectly, but they are distinct. Is there an arboretum on our campus, or is our campus on an arboretum?

This ontological question remains somewhat hazy even after investigation. The Arboretum has an endowment separate from the college, giving it a certain degree of autonomy. However, the college owns the grounds, and it seems to be regarded by Arboretum staff members as the parent organization.

“We’re an organization within an organization,” said administrative coordinator, Jacqui West, after acknowledging that the relationship is somewhat complex. “We’re employees of the college.”

“Our email addresses say so,” added community outreach coordinator, Sue McQueen.

The endowment was donated in 1929 in honor of Arthur Scott Hoyt ‘95. Scott, a man who made his fortune in the paper business but was most passionate about peonies and irises, dreamed of creating a public space in the Philadelphia area where home gardeners could learn about how various cultivars would fare in the local climate. He died suddenly of a stroke before this horticultural vision could be realized, but his family posthumously carried out his wishes, despite some resistance from then-president of the college Frank Aydelotte.

It seems that a certain lack of appreciation for the Arboretum from faculty and students has been a consistent part of its history since its inception. In Professor T. Kaori Kitao’s introduction to “The Scott Arboretum: The First 75 Years,” by Ben Yagoda, Kitao notes that at the time of the Arboretum’s establishment, gardening seemed like a flowery distraction from the life of the mind to Aydelotte’s administration.

“Horticulture was a pleasant but inessential accessory and a low priority. It was a cosmetic, and embellishment was a frivolous pursuit. Moreover, because gardening engages the hands, it was thought to lack intellectual rigor to serve the college in any significant degree.”

John Wister, the Arboretum’s first director and namesake of the Wister Center, was one of America’s most highly awarded horticulturalists (if you’re looking for a magnificently obscure piece of Swarthmore trivia to impress your relatives, you may be interested to know that wisteria, the popular flowering vine, is named after a member of the Wister family), but Kitao laments that Wister was “a shy person who lacked political influence to inspire the college to do more for him and for the Arboretum.”

The Arboretum flourished in later years with more robust funding and perhaps more bullish directors, and in 1995 it was accredited by the American Association of Museums, which apparently is an honor granted to fewer than 750 of America’s 8,500 museums. However, Kitao notes that this accomplishment was virtually unnoticed by the college community at large.I certainly was unaware that I was rushing through a museum every time I have been late to class, though I guess that does explain all the tags.

Kitao matter-of-factly states that with a few exceptions, Swarthmore students “are not gardeners. Most are indifferent because, for the most part, horticulture is beyond the realm of their immediate interest.” Yet this is in part because the college devotes little attention to fostering botanical interest among students – there are no courses in horticulture or landscape design, and while there are several courses on plant science in the biology department, they remain largely inaccessible to those not willing to delve deeply into the cellular mechanics of the Krebs cycle.

“The potential of the Arboretum’s plant collections as teaching resources has remained largely unexplored – or, at best, underused – perhaps with the exception of the Crum Woods,” writes Kitao. “Students walk by the plant specimens, but by and large, they ignore them. Some, no doubt, take note of the flowers in bloom – who can resist spring blossoms? But few stop to read the tags on the trees, shrubs, and flower beds, and even fewer understand their meaning.”

Perhaps this is the most accurate critique of the attitude towards the arboretum on campus: not that we don’t notice we are surrounded by natural beauty, which is impossible to ignore, but that we don’t think about the nature of that beauty very deeply. We don’t notice the ways in which it is constantly being curated and managed for our enjoyment and edification, as well as being a work of art on its own terms – on our way from an English class to an Art History class, we devote little analysis to the living artwork we traverse with each step. Obviously, the great majority of credit for spring goes to spring, but it is worth remembering that our Swarthmore springs are particularly perfumed and blossom-strewn because we live in an intentionally built garden.

However, if Swarthmore has historically viewed the Arboretum as peripheral to its intellectual mission, the Arboretum is now reaching out to address some of these issues.  Last summer they created the new position of community outreach coordinator and hired Sue McQueen as  as part of a 2015 plan to increase engagement.

“My job at this point is to connect everybody on campus – the students, the faculty, the staff, and help them find ways to get outside and connect with nature,” said McQueen. She has run a table at the Sustainability Showcase, put on workshops with the Health and Wellness Center, and hosted a Tu b’Shevat celebration (The Jewish New Year of Trees) in collaboration with the Interfaith center and Kehilah.

“Pretty much every discipline you can imagine has a connection to nature, so I figure out how to promote that,” said McQueen. “What a great teaching tool we have here.”

Talking to McQueen, I got the sense that the Arboretum is a hotbed of activity. It hosts an active schedule of events, ranging from the annual Woody Plant Conference, which regularly brings 600 visitors, to an excursion for members to the Dogfish Head Brewery. The Arboretum is serviced by an active coterie of extensively trained volunteers, whose numbers are capped at 120 due to excessive interest.

The winter season may seem slow, but McQueen assured me that for those involved in planning, it is one of the busiest times of the year – a time for budgeting and for looking ahead to see how the arboretum can improve its stewardship of the land, not to mention a lot of mulching.

McQueen also conveyed how well-regarded the Scott Arboretum is in the horticultural world.

“Philadelphia is known as a hotbed of horticulture because we have these wonderful long growing seasons,” she said. “This is a world-class arboretum. The things you take for granted when you live somewhere – this is a scientific workshop.”  

She said that the Arboretum regularly provides other gardens with plant specimens and cuttings from their collection and serves as a trusted source of information on how best to propagate a particular species.

She also takes great enjoyment from working with other staff members who are experts in their field.

“I’m really surrounded by a star-studded cast,” she said. “We can totally geek out talking about Latin names.”

However, what McQueen stressed most was not the prestige of the Arboretum, but how it should be a tool to help community members be more conscious of their surroundings, saying that that overall goal of horticulture is to help people appreciate nature.

At one point in our conversation she jumped up and escorted me into the garden in front of Cunningham House, enthusiastically pointing out signs of life even in the winter landscape. We looked at snowdrops, and she had me sniff a branch of fragrant witch hazel, blooming even in February. She pointed to a large oak and said that after a few warm days the trees would start to take on a faint reddish hue as buds swelled.

“When you’re a gardener, you see the beauty in all seasons,” she said. “It’s happening now! Plants in the end of winter – total potential. This is the kind of stuff that once you show people, they don’t unsee it.”


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