This year, the American Horticultural Society’s (AHS) highest honor, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Award, was awarded to Scott Arboretum Director Claire E. Sawyers. The award is given annually to an individual that has made significant lifetime contributions to the field of horticulture. The Phoenix spoke with Sawyers about her accomplishments and experiences, as well as her work directing the Scott Arboretum.
Sawyers has helmed Swarthmore’s Arboretum for more than 30 years and has also overseen the Scott Arboretum’s acclaimed Arthur Hoyt Scott Medal and Award program, which honors top American horticulturists. The AHS has recognized Sawyers for “transforming the Arboretum into one of the leading examples of campus gardens in the country,” and has been lauded by the Denver Botanic Garden as having “helped elevate the Delaware Valley to be America’s garden heartland.”
Sawyers found out about her award on a call with Holly Shimizu, an old friend and board member of the AHS and a recipient of the Arboretum’s own prestigious Scott Medal in 2020.
“I was deeply appreciative and quite surprised, frankly. Part of that surprise comes from the fact that I have now given out our Scott Medal to 32 recipients. I know what stratosphere they operate in and I don’t see myself in that same stratosphere. So, it’s quite an honor to be recognized in this way,” Sawyers said.
Sawyers grew up on a farm in Missouri and learned about gardening through her grandparents. She received both her Bachelors and Masters from Purdue University and has worked in gardens all over the world, from Europe to Delaware, before being hired as the executive director of the Scott Arboretum in 1990.
She has written a number of popular articles and an acclaimed book, “The Authentic Garden: Five Principles for Cultivating Place,” which received the AHS Book Award in 2008.
“The book was a very long and gratifying process. I had the good fortune of living and working in Japan for a few years and because of that experience, when I came back to the US, people would ask me to help them build a Japanese Garden. I didn’t think that was the best way to go about [building gardens]. We needed gardens that spoke to our own culture and served our needs,” she said.
Sawyers gave multiple lectures across the country on the Japanese approach to gardening and the qualities she believed could be implemented to make powerful and evocative gardens in America; these lectures eventually inspired her book. Sawyers said she was particularly fascinated by the concept of combining elements of the indoors and the outdoors, as Japanese temples often do with an indoor devotional section and a veranda that looks out onto outdoor gardens. It was one of the qualities that attracted her to Swarthmore and its arboretum.
“The Lang Music building is a special place because you’re looking into nature while having an indoor experience. On the flip side, there’s our incredible amphitheater, an outdoor space, which functions almost like a room. Up until recently, the most sacred ceremony of the college, Commencement, took place outdoors [in the amphitheater],” she said.
Sawyers emphasized the uniqueness of the Scott Arboretum, as its integration with the buildings and the life of the college makes Swarthmore stand out.
“We like to say we were the first college that developed the campus as an arboretum, not strictly for academic purposes, but to serve the community beyond the campus boundaries.”
Sawyers described developing and sustaining the Scott Arboretum as challenging in its initial years, but now that the arboretum is well-established and funded, it is viewed as a recruiting advantage because of the emotional response students and parents alike have to the campus.
“We all want to be surrounded by beauty. We want to work in an environment that tickles us, that entertains us, that pleases us. It’s definitely a competitive advantage. Other colleges ask us how this came about and how they can emulate it and I think part of that is the recognition of experiential consumerism and learning,” Sawyers said.
She described how college administrators and her team think of the arboretum as the “cover of Swarthmore College.” While the primary motivating factor for students is the college’s academics, the visual impact plays a big role. Sawyers is aware, however, that there is a disconnect between the college as an institution and its arboretum.
“A lot of our professional colleagues come here and ask how many horticulture majors there are. And we say, zero. Then they go, ‘Oh well, do you have a landscape architecture department?’ and we do not because we’re a liberal arts college.”
The arboretum’s original mission when it was established in 1932 was to be a visual catalog of plants based on ornamental genera.
“We’ve got the evergreen along the railroad tracks, you’ve got the magnolias behind Mertz, you’ve got the cherries and the lilacs plotted in different sections,” she said.
Over the years, under Sawyers’ tutelage, the arboretum moved towards creating meaningful landscapes and associations between the plants on campus. An example of this is the Nason Garden, between Pearson Hall and Trotter Hall, which contrasts different plant textures by featuring fine-textured grasses next to bold leaf plants. Sawyers believes that it’s not just about color or bloom — garden and landscape interest can arise from various factors.
“I like to describe the arboretum as a palimpsest. It’s like a manuscript that has been written on over and over again, with traces of the past remaining but new developments occurring. That’s how our arboretum is too, flexible and ever-changing,” she said.
Some of these changes have not been for the better. As a result of recent construction on campus — from geothermal drilling on Mertz Lawn to the building of the Dining and Community Commons to the current renovations on Martin Hall — the arboretum has had to respond to accommodate for the construction. For example, the arboretum had to cut down trees in order to accommodate the new dining hall.
“My staff right now may be feeling like it’s more of a curse than a blessing. We’ve had laments … We’re cutting more down to make way for the new building and the Winter Garden and Pollinator Garden are being undone. They’ll come back eventually, but it is still painful for us. It does mean, however, that we can address current trends and work with the college to take a new approach to the landscape,” she said.
Sawyers believes that the arboretum is dynamic in that it is completely integrated with the campus’s buildings, and a new project is an opportunity to craft the surrounding landscape. Singer Hall is a prime example of the dynamic nature of the campus.
“There was a germ of an idea to make sure the landscape could be useful to teach biology and serve the departments in the building. The other piece to this was current interests in the gardening world. A lot of them center around sustainability, biodiversity, and the preservation of flora and fauna. How do we demonstrate that? We decided to make it a synoptic representation of natural landscapes within 100 miles,” Sawyers said.
The areas around Singer Hall feature plants such as the New Jersey Pine Barrens and Pennsylvania Mixed Hardwood, with four different landscapes created.
“It could be useful for an introductory biology class to study different ecosystems. And from a Scott Arboretum point of view, it makes us think about how to be more ecologically-minded, so we made the deliberate decision to use natural processes instead of mowing, blowing, spraying, etc.,” she said.
The arboretum team does not get rid of the leaf litter accumulated near Singer, which allows the grasses to grow out. In other ornamental gardens, grasses are trimmed. Allowing leaf litter to accumulate eliminates the need to use shredded hardwood mulch, allowing natural maintenance strategies to prevail. While some have expressed their distaste at how it looks, Sawyers said that when they learn the thought behind the project, they appreciate its natural beauty.
Beyond connecting the curriculum at Swarthmore with the arboretum, one of Sawyers’ primary goals has been increasing student involvement.
“Every boss I’ve had has told me how great it could be if the arboretum could somehow incorporate or contribute to the core mission of the college. And I’ve asked, ‘What does that look like to you?’ and that’s where it gets hard. We’re never going to have a horticulture department. So then it becomes a question of how we can get the attention of students and contribute to them,” she said.
In addition to her work creating dynamic landscapes, Sawyers has also increased student engagement and made the arboretum more accessible. Six years ago, she established an official Campus Engagement Coordinator, which is a dedicated staff position with the goal of developing programs and activities to involve students and faculty with the arboretum. Sue MacQueen serves in that position and hosts frequent pop-up events from walks in the crum to crafting birdhouses. Students can get involved by attending these events, working as gardeners, or participating in volunteer opportunities like planting in the Crum Woods and cleaning up the Crum Creek.
In addition, students have the opportunity to take courses that engage with the arboretum’s work. A generous gift by alumna Janet Jones ’61 has allowed the arboretum to launch two new academic courses in collaboration with the Environmental Studies department — Human Culture and Plants and Nature Rx: Wellbeing and the Natural World. These courses have been very well-received among students. Sawyers commented on other potential areas to expand the college’s academic involvement with the arboretum.
“We have ambitions to do other classes. I would love to work with the Art department and have a ‘History of Landscape Design’ class someday. Offering credit courses is a way for us to directly contribute to the core mission of the college and simultaneously serve the mission of the arboretum by teaching students about the importance of nature and our reliance on it,” Sawyers said.
One of the biggest projects that contributed to student engagement was the development of the Wister Center, located near the arboretum offices behind Willets Hall. According to Sawyers, it took ten years for the arboretum to raise money to build the center and it was a massive project for such a small organization. Nevertheless, she said, it “transformed [the arboretum’s] operations and really stood the test of time. It’s one of my most tangible accomplishments.”
The Wister Center serves as a space for educational programming, arboretum team meetings, and fun activities hosted by MacQueen.
For Sawyers, the arboretum will always be a special place. She considers the Scott Outdoor Amphitheatre to be their masterpiece landscape.
“It’s beautiful in every season. I think it’s an extraordinary expression of a sense of place. It was built when there were only 400 students at the college and functioned beautifully for the sacred Commencement ceremony for a long time. Highly functional, highly beautiful, humble materials of stone and existing trees. I never get tired of the amphitheater,” she said.
Sawyers has dedicated a significant portion of her life to horticulture and the Scott Arboretum and her love for both continues to grow.
“Yes, we want beauty. Yes, we want education. But yes, we also want to serve where people’s needs and wants are going in amenity horticulture,” Sawyers said.