Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania: The Morris Arboretum
100 E Northwestern Ave, Philadelphia, PA 19118
Tucked away on the edge of Northwest Philadelphia lies a 175-acre garden so impressive you’d never believe it sits within the city. The Morris Arboretum, a collection of plants, sculptures, and historic buildings is open to the public year-round. This incredible plot of land dates back over 100 years and, interestingly enough, has its roots in an iron manufacturing company.
The arboretum was founded as the estate of siblings John and Lydia Morris. The two used this property, which they named “Compton”, primarily as a summer home. The Morris’ wealth came from the I.P. Morris Company, a successful iron manufacturing firm founded by their father and later run by John. In the late 1880s, the two used their wealth to begin purchasing the land on which the arboretum still resides.
The Quaker siblings began to surround the home they built with a wide variety of plants. John was a noted plantsman who served as one of the earliest presidents of the Chestnut Hill Horticultural Society. Lydia was no stranger to nature either. The two traveled the world collecting plants, artwork, and inspiration. They acquired uncountable specimens, many of which remain in the gardens to this day.
While it would’ve been easy for the two to withdraw into their private sanctuary, they refrained. They were very focused on the community around them. They worked diligently to preserve and restore historic buildings such as the Valley Green Inn. John was a noted community leader, and the two were very active in civic life and advocating education. They made plans for a school and laboratory devoted to botany and horticulture to be created at Compton. They wanted to be deemed “worthy stewards” of the community, as well as the environment, and to leave behind a positive and lasting legacy.
After both Morrises passed away in the early 1930s, the land was taken over by the University of Pennsylvania. Compton became the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, as it is known today, and the estate was added to the National Register of Historic Places. As of 2015, the arboretum is open daily to the public with a small admission fee to help offset the costs of the estate.
The estate is home to over 12,000 plants from over 2,500 different species. There are numerous points of interest including the rose garden, swan pond, fernery, and sculpture garden. There is also a garden railway featuring train displays of primarily natural materials. Most recently, the arboretum added “Out on a Limb”. This 50-foot high canopy walk allows visitors to gain a bird’s eye view of the grounds. You can even lounge on huge hammock-like nets overlooking the ground below. Out on a Limb, as well as most of the features, is easily reached from the paved trail, making it handicapped accessible.
This wide variety of features and exhibits provide something for everyone. They encourage visitors to experience and learn from nature, something about which the Morris siblings cared deeply. Despite their ties to the environmentally detrimental iron industry, the Morris siblings cared greatly about nature, and hoped to share this passion with others. John and Lydia were modest, caring people who valued their community and environment. The Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania continues this legacy.