Just a short drive down the New Jersey Turnpike and across the Pennsylvania Turnpike had my family arriving at the Morris Arboretum in late May. The Morris Arboretum, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is an interdisciplinary center for arts and sciences, education and research. A not-for-profit, tax-exempt organization of the University of Pennsylvania, it is one of the few botanical gardens in our country to be accredited as a living museum by the American Association of Museums. The Morris Arboretum is renowned for, among other things, its collection of over 13,000 rare plants exhibited to complement its various sculptures, fountains and historic structures. Purchased in 1887, the Morris Arboretum is the legacy of siblings John and Lydia Morris. “Their vast estate known as “Compton” and its surrounding property were bequeathed by the Morrises to the University of Pennsylvania in 1932 and incorporated as the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania as a public botanical garden and center for education in 1933” (Morris Arboretum).
There is little effort to get my attention with anything plant related and our seven-year old daughter, Olivia, seems well on her way for an appreciation for plants as well. However, when I recently learned of a sort of ‘catwalk in the trees’ I immediately had her attention. Morris Arboretum’s Tree Adventure, Out on a Limb is a bold, fresh, quantum experience allowing you to walk high within the trees. Designed by Metcalfe Architecture and Design, Out on a Limb’s structure does not touch the trees, cognizant that that could cause harm. “Their structure is comprised of recyclable metal and wood, is a “lightweight structure” of steel and six inch diameter “micro pile” foundations. A semi-permanent structure that can be rebuilt without totally starting over should something ever happen to one of the trees” (Metcalfe Architecture & Design). Intended to be a ‘tiptoe’ through the trees’, this 450-foot walkway exhibit crosses you through a museum collection of the arboretum’s trees. Their Chestnut Oak, Quercus Montana, a 250-year old tree is the centerpiece of the exhibit and is surrounded by structure and decking. Absolutely nothing touches this tree except our hands as we gently go by this horticultural ‘Giant’ in the woods. Suspended some 50 feet in the air our family took notice of the immense branching that was now just several feet above our heads. My explanation to our daughter of the trees rather corky-like texture with deep ridges, I explained that could only happen after many years. A seven year olds quick response was “oh, just like nana’s skin, it’s crinkly too!” Anyone who has children can appreciate the innocence and directness they possess. Impressive signage throughout the arboretum and particularly in the ‘Tree Adventure’ was descriptive, educational, horticulturally accurate and above all, for this exhibit, playful and engaging assuring future gardeners alike. Along our journey we walked through such specimens as an American Beech, Fagus grandifolia, an American Yellow-wood, Cladrastis kentukea, and a Red Maple, Acer rubrum all extremely impressive to me. However what ‘stole the show’ for our daughter were the Tuliptree, Liriodendron tulipifera, and a Black Tupelo, Nyssa sylvatica, not so much for their botanical achievement, but rather because they were both surrounded by squirrel scramble netting. A huge hammock- like net where you can crawl, walk or just sit and look down at the forest floor beneath you, a scary, exciting and completely safe experience that had me racing my daughter towards it. Aside from the playfulness the squirrel Scramble afforded us, Olivia did comment on the Tulip trees flower. Yellow-green cup shaped flowers giving this tree its common name. An attribute she surely would have missed from ground level, however some 50 feet in the air she nearly walked into them. Finally, the other highlight of this ‘Tree Adventure’ was the giant Bird’s-Nest complete with giant robin’s eggs that she could sit on and try and hatch. Patterned after a Baltimore oriole nest, this structure was thoughtfully woven complete with peepholes for the kids. You did however; need to cross a suspension bridge to get to it. A feat no child and most parents could resist.
Metcalfe Architecture & Design did an outstanding job of connecting us to the natural world. The Boardwalk planks that connect this entire experience consist of sustainably harvested black locust wood decking locally cut (within 500 miles per LEED requirements). Naturally bug and rot resistant, it has gained new popularity because it is locally available and does not need chemical treatment like other pressure treated lumber. Their deliberate zigzag pattern helps you to focus, linger, learn and just imbibe your natural surroundings.