U of G’s Living Lab

AT 50, the arboretum fosters research and teaching, provides green respite

Even for a self-described nature geek, the University of Guelph Arboretum still holds surprises. Case in point: One summer day, Chris Earley was leading a tour group, just a handful among the tens of thousands of people he’s ushered around the grounds as interpretive biologist and education coordinator. Partway through the walk, one student invited him to look at her cellphone picture of a caterpillar. Earley has seen many of the 800-plus kinds of moths and their larvae found in the arboretum, but this was a species never recorded there. Where did you find that? he said.

Full Of Surprises

Gesturing to a cucumber magnolia tree, one of many kinds of endangered plants nurtured on the grounds, she said: Under that leaf, about five seconds ago. “You never know what’s going to pop out,” says Earley, who has worked at the arboretum since finishing his zoology studies here in 1992. Laughing at the recollection, he says, “All the students got to see me all excited. It’s fun not only to be surprised but it’s extra fun to be surprised when you’re with a group of students who can see that surprise and realize: Oh, this is awesome.”

Fifty years after it was established through U of G’s Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) on former farmland, wetland and forest at the east end of campus, the arboretum has become a place for discovery and learning about the natural world. This year, COVID-19 has curtailed or altered many of the activities and programs that normally occur on the grounds, including events planned to celebrate the arboretum’s first half-century of existence. But in many ways, the pandemic has also underlined our need for fresh air and green spaces, says Justine Richardson, appointed earlier this year as the new director. During the shutdowns, essential work on living collections continued and walk-through access was allowed, she says. “People were coming – grandparents, dog walkers, families walking in the morning or evening. That trails were kept open is a recognition of one of our important roles and the need to be outdoors for mental well-being and physical activity.”

“The founders had amazing foresight to have thought about developing an arboretum. It provides an opportunity for research to be sustained over time”

Richard Reader

Walking through the grounds offers more than just a green respite. As one of fewer than a dozen university-based botanic gardens and arboreta (collections of trees and other woody plants) in Canada, the U of G arboretum is variously called “the green heart of Guelph” and a “living laboratory.” The 400-acre expanse with its mix of open spaces, old-growth forests, provincially significant wetlands, cultivated gardens, woody plant collections – oh, and a disc golf course – offers an experimental site for campus researchers, an outdoor classroom for learners and a natural sanctuary for some 100,000 visitors a year. That mix of research, teaching and outreach was already envisioned by members of the University-wide committee led by OAC from 1964 to develop plans for the arboretum. The arboretum was established under its inaugural director, Prof. Robert James Hilton, in 1970 (see sidebar).

Photo montage of The Arboretum

That fall, Alan Watson arrived as a marine biology undergraduate. One of his classes trekked through the nature reserve, a 100-acre portion of today’s arboretum lying south of Stone Road and containing an old-growth forest and wetland. Watson, who later joined the faculty in the School of Environmental Sciences (SES) and eventually became the arboretum’s longest-serving director, remembers his professor explaining that the reserve would become part of a planned nature sanctuary that would eventually green up the entire east end of campus.

From Sparse To Thriving

Recalling the sparse, young plantings in the early years dotting much of the area formerly occupied by farm fields, Richard Reader says some campus members called the area “a field of sticks.” After joining the former U of G botany department in 1974, he regularly used the arboretum over the next 20 years for studies of old field ecology and routinely took plant ecology classes to the nature reserve. Now retired, he’s one of about 70 arboretum volunteers who work along with the arboretum’s roughly 12 full-time staff and an army of students; he now helps maintain the cultivated gardens and has donated funding for renovations to its rose collection. “The founders had amazing foresight to have thought about developing an arboretum. It provides an opportunity for research to be sustained over time,” says Reader.

Echoing that idea, Watson says many of the arboretum’s trees afford a living record of climate variations over the past half-century – and even over the past two centuries for three old-growth stands: the nature reserve, Victoria Woods and Wild Goose Woods. “The great value of an arboretum within a university is that it provides such an opportunity for long-term research and teaching and opportunities to go back and look at what was happening in the past,” says Watson, who stepped down in 2012 after two decades as director. Besides its utility in tracking climate change, he says, the green space is effectively a 400-acre carbon-sequestering facility. “It’s a huge carbon sink. The University could really highlight that in its quest to become a green university.”

The U of G arboretum contains more than 1,700 kinds of trees and woody shrubs, including nearly all species native to southern Ontario. Specimens include common deciduous trees – beech, maple birch – and many familiar conifers. Maybe more important, says Sean Fox, curator and manager of horticulture, the collection contains about 90 per cent of provincial natives listed as endangered or threatened. “Very early in our history, we started to focus on rare flora in Ontario,” says Fox, a U of G graduate who has spent 19 years at the arboretum.

the arboretum, then and now
Then and now: The arboretum’s cultivated gardens, including the Italian Garden with its
signature pool, fountain and hedges, have evolved over the decades.

Those specimens are grown in the arboretum’s tree gene bank, begun in the 1970s. That genetic archive consists of DNA contained not in lab test tubes but in numerous trees collected in the wild and rooted in orchard-style blocks on the north side of College Avenue, near the arboretum’s R.J. Hilton Centre and Henry Kock Propagation Centre. In turn, the arboretum shares seed and germplasm with other organizations for research and conservation.

Sharing plant material, especially rare specimens, is vital for efforts in rehabilitating endangered species and restoring landscapes. Equally important, the arboretum’s collection records the origin of every specimen planted over the past five decades – where it came from, who collected it, whether it came from seed or a sapling. That’s invaluable for ecologists studying long-term effects of anything from climate change to insect infestation.

Reintroducing The Elm

The arboretum’s signature rehabilitation effort is its Elm Recovery Project, begun in the late 1990s to save and reintroduce white elm trees decimated by Dutch elm disease. Arboretum staff have collected material from more than 600 surviving elms in Ontario, tested responses to the disease-causing fungus and planted resistant specimens in the gene bank. Fox says he plans to share seed with other centres for reintroduction across Ontario in the next few years.

Widening the lens, the arboretum also serves as a kind of outdoor laboratory for campus researchers and teachers. Those connections are fostered by Aron Fazekas, an educational developer in U of G’s Office of Teaching and Learning who is also a part-time research coordinator for the arboretum. Among researchers mostly from OAC and the College of Biological Science, scientists have visited the arboretum for studies of everything from perennials and pollinators to plant-fungi interactions to bee movement. Research conducted here has resulted in more than 100 peer-reviewed publications.

Fazekas also helps to connect faculty members looking to use the arboretum for undergrad courses. For a fourth-year SES project course, dozens of students have undertaken projects such as enhancing wildlife habitat and encroachment and control of invasive species. These collaborations give the arboretum access to student researchers, while students and teachers benefit from a campus green space to study various topics. “That close access makes things easier for instructors and students,” he says. “It also fosters a connection to place that you can’t replicate elsewhere.”

Normally, the arboretum plays host to about 100,000 visitors each year for everything from conferences and wedding receptions, to nature workshops and interpretive tours, to indoor and outdoor arts programs, to an environmental leadership program that has brought high schoolers to spend an entire semester learning at the arboretum’s nature centre. Over the years, staffers have led groups on owl prowls, maple syrup days, and plant and animal identification treks.

A Perfect Place For Social Distancing

Although the arboretum has remained open to visitors, this year’s pandemic has prompted a shift to virtual learning, including a family nature program that Earley ran online this past summer. Under a pilot program this past spring, he and Richardson partnered with experiential learning leaders at local school boards to send multilingual tree resources home to all Grade 6 students and classroom teachers for the biodiversity curriculum. They expect to broaden that virtual outreach to other topics and other boards. “We want to provide inquiry-based materials that parents, teachers and students can use to connect to the natural world,” says Richardson.

Naturalist interns Kitty (left) and Jenny Lin continue to provide virtual tours of the arboretum during this year’s pandemic.
Naturalist interns Kitty (left) and Jenny Lin continue to provide virtual tours of the arboretum during this year’s pandemic.

That’s also happening through social media being shared by naturalist interns Jenny and Kitty Lin, hired by the arboretum in 2019 following their biology studies at U of G. The twins initially helped lead tour groups around the arboretum; this summer, they have provided weekly virtual tours through videos available on YouTube, Instagram and other channels. In recent episodes, they’ve explored everything from parasitic wasps to plant defences against insect predators. “We’ve seen a huge increase in our social media following,” says Kitty, pointing out that virtual programming now brings the arboretum to viewers anywhere in the world. Closer to home, says Jenny, the arboretum continues to attract pandemic-closeted visitors looking for a dose of the outdoors. “It’s a place for people to come and enjoy nature,” she says.

“People are not going to protect the planet without being aware of what they need to protect”

Chris Earley

Fostering research, teaching and public connections is where the future lies for the arboretum, says Richardson. Referring to a pending update of the arboretum’s master plan, she says, “At 50, this arboretum has relevance to major issues of our day, from climate change, to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, to mental health and well-being. We want to look back and celebrate how we’ve grown and look forward to strengthening the role of the arboretum in research, teaching and connecting people with nature. That connection is the first step to valuing nature.”

Matured from those early plantings, the arboretum now nurtures extensive biodiversity, a key focus for a University that is home to internationally heralded researchers and global networks of scientists, conservationists and agencies. “People are not going to protect the planet without being aware of what they need to protect,” says Earley. “This is an amazing green space in the city. We have an incredible diversity in 400 acres that’s all part of a cityscape. It allows people to realize you don’t have to go to Algonquin Park or a big national park to learn about nature. Nature is all around you: you just have to get there.”