Jenkins Arboretum Packs A Stunning Natural Landscape

Opened as an official botanical garden in 1976, the Jenkins Arboretum is a gorgeous public garden in Devon, Pennsylvania, about 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia along the Main Line. During the early part of the twentieth century, this area became a country retreat for many affluent Philadelphians. The Main Line refers to the Pennsylvania Railroad, which allowed easy access to the area.

The arboretum originally was planned by H. Lawrence Jenkins as a living memorial to his wife, Elisabeth Phillippe Jenkins, who loved both gardening and wildlife. Her father, a Pennsylvania Railroad executive, bought the property in 1926 – situated high on a ridge in what was then an agriculturally-rich area.

Today, the Jenkins Arboretum covers 48 acres and has been developed to showcase azaleas and rhododendrons, including more than 5,000 specimens from around the world. Jenkins is nationally-recognized for this world-class collection.

A Unique, Complex Ecosystem

“Jenkins is unique in many ways,” says Horticulture Director Steven Wright, “But if I had to focus on one, I would say the terrain is quite varied allowing for various microclimates… Most of the garden is upland with rocky, acidic soil and great drainage, but there is a stream at the bottom of the hill with a floodplain. All of this, together with a pond, and open, meadow-like areas, means the plant collections are very diverse and provide enormous ecological value.”

There are 1.2 miles of paved paths bordered by carefully maintained plantings that wind through a multi-layered woodland. Dozens of gigantic trees form a natural canopy that filters the sunlight to the plants below. Starting along the path to an area called Azalea Hill, the varied colors, shapes, and sizes of thousands of azaleas and rhododendrons are spectacular.

Fortunately, their blooming season is very long, starting in late March with purple Rhododendron dauricum and pink Korean azaleas (R. mucronulatum) and ending in late July with the red-orange plumleaf azalea (R. prunifolium).

 

Photo: Katja Schulz/Flickr

Native Pinxterbloom Azaleas

Among the rhododendrons, azaleas, and hybrids from around the world, there are many varieties native to the northeastern U.S. including the rosebay rhododendron (R. maximum) , sweet azaleas (R. arborescens), flame azaleas (R.calendulaceum) and pinxterbloom azaleas (R. periclymenoides).

The most successful and prevalent native azaleas are the pinxters, according to Wright. These are the pink azaleas, blooming in late April/early May, that grow wild throughout the garden. “There is a remarkable amount of genetic diversity just within these pinxters,” he says. “Some are very fragrant, some are short, ground cover types, some are nearly white, some are very dark, almost purple, and there is even one that is very dark pink with a white top petal. I’ve nicknamed this one “stiff upper lip.”

Wright became the Curator of Plant Collections in 2011and Director of Horticulture in 2013. He oversees a very small on-the-ground staff usually consisting of just three people–a head horticulturist and two Hamilton Fellows, plus two summer interns. This dedicated team cares for the shrubs, wildflowers, ferns, and many mature hardwood trees, creating a peaceful, naturalistic landscape.

Exceptional Trees

Large areas of the arboretum are set aside as conservation woodlands. But there are dozens of very tall trees throughout the garden areas. One amazing tree is the huge Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) that stands majestically at the side of a large pond. Its fragrant, lilac-colored blooms appear before there are any leaves on the tree. The eye-catching flowers hang down from dark branches. More than 50 other tagged tree specimens – including many native oaks, hickory, buttonbush, franklinia, and pawpaw– are located for visitors in a “Tree Discovery Guide” available at the Visitors Center.

 

“Green Ribbon” Native Plants

A key goal of the arboretum is to encourage the use of native plants. To generate public awareness of their advantages, each year the staff and Horticulture Committee select native plants (a tree, shrub, fern, or wildflower) that thrive in the region and designate them as Green Ribbon Native Plant® selections. Any of the species selected would be great additions to a residential garden in the northeast region. (A list of recommended natives with images is provided here.)

An Eco-Friendly Education Center

In 2009, the garden opened the John J. Willaman Education Center, which is a gold certified “green” building Under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. The center has a lovely visual design that fits into the landscape; it was built using recycled materials and features a variety of renewable energy and water-saving resources.

There are more than thirty public gardens, college and university arboreta, and large private estate gardens in the Philadelphia area.

Several whimsical sculptures of giant watering cans greet visitors to the center. They were designed and painted by local artists, then donated as part of a fundraising auction in honor of the 30th anniversary of the arboretum. Today, programs at the center reflect a commitment to sustainable environmental practices with lectures, workshops and tours focusing on native plants and conservation efforts.

 

Photo: Joyce Newman

Other Gardens To See Along the Main Line

There are more than thirty public gardens, college and university arboreta, and large private estate gardens in the Philadelphia area.

Close to the Jenkins Arboretum is Chanticleer, which is perhaps the most unique garden along the Main Line. (See our previous coverage.) Chanticleer’s website provides nearby restaurant, lodging, and travel advice.

Other highly-regarded gardens in the area include: Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College Arboretum, Henry Botanic Garden, Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, and the Arboretum at the Barnes Foundation. Given the rich biodiversity of this often underrated region of the United States, a weekend visit to Jenkins is worth the trip for certified green thumbs and casual nature lovers alike.

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Jenkins Arboretum is located at 631 Berwyn Baptist Rd, Devon, Pennsylvania. For more information, visit their website

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