At the Arboretum: Relax, Explore, Learn, and Be Amazed
By Carolyn Battista
Photos by A. Vincent Scarano
For decades people have come to the Connecticut College Arboretum in New London. They’ve come to stroll, hike, cross-country ski, observe wildlife, study, conduct research, paint, picnic, or just relax. Some have been coming nearly all their lives. Glenn Dreyer, Arboretum director says, “We get people who say, ‘I grew up here, and every summer I was out running around in the woods.’” Others eventually discover what they’ve been missing. Taking an arboretum walk with Dreyer, they say things like, “I’ve been driving by for 30 years and never came in before.” Dreyer urges everyone to keep coming to this remarkable place.
The Arboretum was established in 1931 on about 60 acres to serve not only the college, but also the community. Over the years it has grown to more than 750 acres, led many students into science study and careers, and provided a place for everyone to come, look, learn, and enjoy. “It’s always been open to the public every day for free,” Dreyer says.
Even regular visitors may view the Arboretum as simply a nice spot with plant collections, an outdoor theater, and a pond across Williams Street from the college campus. But there’s much more to the “Arbo,” including the campus itself. West of the campus lies a natural area with a deep ravine and a bog. To the east there are such treasures as a tucked-away garden, a salt marsh, and a rocky outcropping on the Thames River. Dreyer says, “Explore!”
From the Williams Street entrance, visitors head down the Laurel Walk to an area of about 25 acres with easy walking paths. In this main part of the Arbo, Dreyer points out, “The focus is on native trees and shrubs.” The collections include azaleas, mountain laurel, conifers, and a wildflower garden with its own little winding paths around 77 varieties of northeastern wildflowers and a dozen species of ferns. “We weed it to keep the invasives out, to let the wildflowers flourish,” Dreyer says.
The Flock Theater of New London gives popular seasonal performances in the outdoor theater where the stage is nicely defined by red cedar arbors with native vines climbing on them. The four acre pond is home to lots of painted turtles, along with a few snapping turtles. This spring one snapper, searching for a dry place to lay her eggs, chose the outdoor theater. (The staff found the eggs and left them, safely buried.).
Some Arbo areas are managed for long-term projects, like controlled burning experiments. Natural areas, like those beyond the pond and theater, are left for observation and relaxation. People can roam trails in the woods, hike along the ravine, and view the bog. “It’s kind of far south for a traditional bog with sphagnum boss,” Dreyer says. They can also try nearby trails on the north side of Gallows Lane. All the natural areas “are for research and teaching, for observing and learning about natural processes,” Dreyer says. For many, they provide welcome relief from such stuff as job stress and highway traffic.
The Arbo is home to assorted creatures besides turtles…among them birds (including a red-shouldered hawk), coyotes, foxes, and deer. “At least three broods of turkeys hatched this spring,” Dreyer says. “We just saw some kind of weasel, and we spotted a mink swimming across the pond.” Fences keep deer out of cultivated areas, Dreyer notes, but there are many Arbo acres where they roam freely.
East of Route 32 lies Mamacoke Island. “It’s a 40 acre rock outcropping across from the submarine base,” Dreyer says. “You’re kind of out in the Thames River.” The island has an unmarked trail around it which offers great views, draws artists as well as hikers, and is “geologically interesting.” It’s attached to the mainland by an approximately 40 acre salt marsh, which—unlike most marshes in the area—was never “ditched” to control mosquitoes or promote agriculture.
Native people lived along the banks of the Thames long before European settlers arrived, and the Arboretum has archeological sites, including remains of a shell midden on Mamacoke, where faculty and students have worked and learned.
Also east of Route 32 is the beautiful, almost hidden Caroline Black Garden, across from the main campus entrance. The garden was begun by, and later named for, a botany professor who, in the 1920’s, saw great “promise” in what was then a mess of sumac and poison ivy. Today the five acre garden features landscape plants and a Great Lawn. There’s also an area with a red cedar gate, a little waterfall, and a stream passing through mossy rocks to a small pond. “It has sort of an Asian feel. It’s a fun thing to discover at the bottom of the garden,” Dreyer says.
The main campus became an official part of the Arboretum in1998. “It has fantastic trees and shrubs from all over the world,” Dreyer says, reeling off such examples as Katsura trees from Japan, dawn redwoods from China, and a gigantic tulip tree. There are also four American elms, carefully kept alive with injections of fungicide. These four are all that remain of hundreds originally planted on campus; the others succumbed to the disease that pretty much wiped the iconic tree from the American landscape.
Dreyer notes that “back in the 1930’s, the idea was to bring in plants from all over,” to see what could grow, what could be used. The campus would acquire a fine assortment. However the main focus of the Arboretum has always been on native plants. “It’s interesting historically,” he says. Now, there’s more “ecological thinking,” more widespread interest in native plants. “But we had people who thought that way 80 years ago.”
Today, one aim of the Arboretum “is to inspire people to use native plants, the cornerstones of our ecological systems,” he says. Each year the Arbo sponsors two conferences devoted to natural landscaping, one for homeowners and one for such professionals as landscape architects and designers.
School groups have always visited the Arbo to explore and learn. Recently the Arbo hosted some 250 students from 38 Connecticut schools, as they took on the challenges of the Envirothon, an environmental science competition in which winners represent their state or province in the North American contest. In coming months, the Arbo hopes to train more ConnCollege students to assist with school trips and projects in the Arbo.
Dreyer points out that the Arbo is maintained by a tiny, devoted staff, with volunteers helping “in a variety of ways.” He notes especially “the docents who lead free tours of our plant collections on weekends from May through October.”
Public programs at the Arbo, offered free or for modest fees, include classes (landscape painting, for example), workshops (like “Finding Your Way With Map and Compass”), and walks devoted to assorted topics including spring flowers, autumn color, archeology, and geology. There’s also a popular annual photo contest. The Arbo’s “bulletins,” inexpensive booklets with such titles as “Salt Marshes of Long Island Sound,” are packed with information and illustrations. (Listed with brief descriptions on the Arbo website, the bulletins are available at the Arbo office or by mail).
Plans and fund raising are underway for a new Arbo feature, a boardwalk along the edge of the pond, and perhaps through the bog. Dreyer figures it will be yet another reason to for people to come, explore, learn, and “be amazed at how beautiful and interesting the Arboretum is.”
For more information: The Arbo website is www.arboretum.conncoll.edu; email is: firstname.lastname@example.org; phone is 860-439-5020; mailing address is Arboretum, Connecticut College, 270 Mohegan Ave., New London, CT 06320. The Arbo office is in the Olin Science Center, Room 103.