Paul W. Meyer, executive director of the Morris Arboretum (Photo by Nick Kelsh)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Paul W. Meyer, executive director of the Morris Arboretum, has been credited with transforming the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania from an estate garden into one of the best public gardens in the country. In May, Meyer received the American Public Garden Association Award of Merit at the 2013 APGA National Conference held in Phoenix, Arizona.

The award recognizes APGA members who have excelled in the public garden profession and whose accomplishments include a combination of botany, horticulture, gardening, research, extension education, development or administration. The award is given to an individual during the latter part of an illustrious career.

Meyer, who has been executive director since 1991, credits his success to the hard work of the Morris Arboretum’s Board, staff and volunteers.

“The point I want to make about the award is that these are not my personal achievements,” Meyer said. “They are collectively all of our achievements. Without a hardworking staff and generous and hardworking volunteers and our board, none of these things would have happened.”

When the Morris Arboretum opened to the public in 1933, visitors saw a majestic, elegant, cultured and flawlessly maintained garden, but by the 1970s the gardens were neglected and overgrown – fountains and historic structures were decaying and in danger of collapsing.

In 1978, the Morris Arboretum launched a master plan to restore and transform the historic gardens and structures. Meyer said the goal of the arboretum was to “transition from a private estate to a public garden.”

Meyer said that in the 1970s the Morris Arboretum had about 25,000 visitors a year. Since the implementation of the master plan and generous donations, he noted that the arboretum now gets about 125,000 visitors a years.

Meyer said prior to the implementation of the master plan “the estate was pretty much the same as it was in John and Olivia’s [Morris] time, except that it was more run down.”

He said there was no driveway or parking lot.

“There was no easy way to traverse paths through the arboretum that made any sense,” Meyer said. “There were just bits and pieces of paths. The education center was a garage.”

The garage Meyer was referring to was the former carriage house for the Morrisses’ mansion, which was used by the grounds crew as a garage. The carriage house was converted into the George D. Widener Education and Visitor Center in the 1980s.

“Access and circulation were important steps forward,” Meyer said. “The loop path wasn’t completed until 1995.”

Meyer said by 1995, the arboretum had a path system, a driveway and a parking lot, but attendance at the time was still just over 30,000.

“We needed something to blow the lid off,” Meyer said.

Creating a family destination

In 1996, Meyer met Paul Busse, of Applied Imagination, while leading an intern field trip to the New York Botanical Garden. Busse was installing a railroad and told him what a great marketing tool it was. Just 18 months later, the Morris Arboretum opened its first garden railway exhibit on July 4, 1998.

“It was a landmark year,” Meyer said. “That year our attendance nearly doubled to over 70,000 and membership grew by 65 percent.”

He said it enabled the Morris Arboretum to reach a younger audience. Meyer said the Garden Railway has helped to make the arboretum a family destination.

“Not only does it (Garden Railway) get kids outside and encourage them to connect with nature, but the arboretum is a wonderful place for family to connect with one another,” Meyer said. “As people walk, they can talk and connect in ways that may not do at home with all the distractions.”

“One of our concerns here at the arboretum is that kids are unconnected with nature these days,” Meyer said. “They spend their life tethered to their electronic devices. Whether its television, computers or iPads, kids don’t spend enough time engaging with nature.”

He said the arboretum plays an important role in helping kids and their families connect with nature.

“We use every little tool we can think of to entice them,” Meyer said.

He said the treetop walk Out on a Limb, which opened in July 2009, was directed at attracting families.

“It’s something that everyone will enjoy – not just kids but their parents and their grandparents,” Meyer said.

According to Meyer, since opening the exhibit attendance has gone up 30 percent.

More than just a public garden

Meyer said not only is the arboretum a historic public garden – it’s also a research and education institution.

“There are many aspects to the Morris Arboretum’s work that this award recognizes,” Meyer said, referring to the American Public Garden Association Award of Merit he received in May.

He said the arboretum maintains an online database on Flora Pennsylvania.

“Our staff are ‘the keepers’, if you will, of all the data on Pennsylvania’s plants,” he said.

Recently, the arboretum published “Aquatic Plants of Pennsylvania: A Complete Reference Guide.”

“The arboretum is a museum and the objects in our museum are plants,” Meyer said. “When we acquire a plant, we don’t go to Home Depot,” Meyer said. “We go to China or sites in North America, and we collect seed, and when I say ‘we,’ it’s not just the Morris Arboretum staff but typically we are working with other botanical gardens both in the U.S. and abroad. The Morris Arboretum is really among the best arboretums in the world. We have some plants that are the oldest and biggest of their kind in North America and others that may only be a few years old, but are among the rarest of our plant species.”

The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University recently published an article by Meyer describing the arboretum’s research and findings from an exploration to China.

Meyer initially entered Ohio State as engineering major but discovered his passion for horticulture after getting a summer job at the university’s arboretum.

“Growing up, I was in a family who enjoyed gardening,” Meyer said. “But, I really never thought of it as a profession.”

In the fall of his sophomore year, he took Introduction to Horticulture 101 and said he “instantly switched his major.”

Looking to the future

Since then Meyer has worked to reconnect people with nature, this year the arboretum plans to discuss ways to grow its youth education programs. He said currently the arboretum has conceptual plans for a new education building at the 67-acre Bloomfield Farm, which is on Northwestern Avenue across from the arboretum.

The new education center, which is part of the original 1978 Master Plan, will accommodate 200 people for lectures and seminars. Currently, the arboretum’s maximum lecture capacity is 67. The new education center will also contain three classrooms.

“The new education building is sort of the crown jewel of the arboretum’s master plan,” said Meyer. “It will be part of the Horticulture Center Complex that we opened three years ago.”

The Horticulture Center Complex is a 20,840-square- foot LEED Platinum certified facility.

“It’s a functional building, but it’s also an exhibit on sustainability features,” Meyer said.

The facility features green roofs, photovoltaic panels for electricity, solar water heaters, geothermal wells, and above and underground cisterns to provide water for toilets and irrigation.

The $13 million Horticulture Center is the first new building at the arboretum since the property was bought in 1887. The building, which was designed by architects from Overland Partners of San Antonio, Texas, Muscoe Martin of Philadelphia’s M2 Architecture, and Andropogon Associates, was awarded the American Architecture Award, which recognizes the best new building design produced by leading American architects, urban planners and landscape architects.

“We need to make sure whatever we do represents the highest quality,” Meyer said. “In all the things we do – whether its plant exploration, historic preservation, disseminating knowledge about plants, growing and nurturing the arboretum’s volunteers and staff, creating compelling visitor experiences or expanding our educational impact through creative marketing – we try to make it fun and exciting but substanitive.”