From humble beginnings, Jenkins Arboretum has matured into one of the region's great gardens.
By Nicole Juday | Photographs by Rob Cardillo
The arboretum offers many tranquil spots for communing with nature.
Harold Sweetman, Director of the Jenkins Arboretum in Devon, Pennsylvania, is articulate and passionate about the 40-year-old institution he’s headed for the past 30 years. A trim man of 63 with snapping blue eyes, Sweetman is also a scientist (with a doctorate in biology) who is usually direct and no-nonsense in conversation, rarely prone to hyperbole. So when he told me during our interview that “Jenkins Arboretum is a miracle,” I wondered if he meant the statement to be taken literally. Besides my conversation with the director, I spoke with a number of other people who love this tranquil place of beauty overlooking Valley Forge National Historical Park and who said many complimentary things about the garden and its staff. I learned that the creation of the garden had been a long shot and that its future, until recently, was never certain, but still, I thought, isn’t “miracle” a bit too strong a word?
Nonagenarians And Debutantes
Most of the public gardens in the Philadelphia region began as private estates, and their lives as institutions can be measured in human terms. The oldest gardens—among them the 18th-century relics Bartram’s Garden and Wyck—could be compared to delicate nonagenarians you’re afraid to hug too tightly, their fragile beauty all the more breathtaking for surviving against the odds. The youngest—including Chanticleer and Grounds for Sculpture, both opened in the 1990s—are just out of their teens, gorgeous places exuberantly bursting with easy confidence and lighthearted vitality. Using this metaphor as a yardstick, Jenkins Arboretum at 40 still has its original good looks, though tempered by the maturity and gravitas that only come with age and success.
While many other public gardens in the area began as well-funded debutantes—estates cultivated by scions of some of the wealthiest families in the United States—Jenkins Arboretum has decidedly more humble origins. The initial 20-acre parcel was a bequest in the will of H. Lawrence Jenkins in 1971. He gave vague instructions that the property was to become a public park, arboretum, and wildlife sanctuary in honor of his beloved late wife, Elisabeth. At the time, the sloping property wasn’t landscaped at all; it was a keystone-shaped chunk of woodland that was probably logged in the early 20th century and allowed to regrow untouched. Although some money was earmarked to carry out Jenkins’s posthumous wishes, it wasn’t enough to do the job properly.
In the early 1970s, a bank-appointed group of advisors assembled to discuss how to best execute Jenkins’s will. After deliberating about various practical issues and conducting a site analysis of the steep hillside—which determined that its soil was acidic—they decided what Jenkins Arboretum would become: a specialized collection of acid-loving ericaceous plants, primarily rhododendrons and azaleas from around the world, and also a place to view native plants. “At the time, there were no area gardens with good rhododendron collections,” recalls longtime board member Roger Whiteman, “so we thought that this would be our niche.”
Interestingly, while talking with Whiteman and others who have been associated with Jenkins over the long haul, I didn’t hear much about plants. Instead I was told about trusts that were transferred from bank to bank, articles of incorporation, complicated indentures, and petitions to orphan’s court. Jenkins was like many startups, whether gardens or small businesses or large tech companies: It faced daunting odds against its long-term success. Money has always been a hurdle; lean years were followed by more lean years. The first director was Leonard Sweetman, and after he retired, his son Harold took over leadership of the nascent garden.
“It was an experiment,” Sweetman recalls. He had planned to return to a career in biology if the garden turned out not to be a good fit, but over the decades, he has remained at the helm despite offers to teach and to lead other gardens. “I’ve always found this position so creative and fulfilling that I’ve decided to stay at every turn,” he says. “Even though it’s taken 30 years, I’ve seen my vision come to life.”
The Woodland Walk comes to life in early May as rhododendron species mingle with diverse native plantings, including redbuds, dogwoods, and the rare redtwig doghobble (Eubotrys recurva).
Naturalistic, Not Wild
The landscape at Jenkins is naturalistic, but according to Steve Wright, director of horticulture and curator of plants, this is more an interpretative homage than an example of woods gone wild. Woodland areas are magnets for many troublesome invasive plants, and the Jenkins gardeners remove Norway maples, Japanese honeysuckle and Oriental bittersweet vines, and other weeds to keep them from overtaking the more desirable species.
“In some ways it’s more work to maintain a natural landscape than a formal garden—you’re just working for a different effect,” Wright says. “We prune constantly, always with the goal of creating uniquely shaped plants that don’t look perfect.” In autumn the gardeners also manually remove the fallen leaves from the beds, chop them up, and then reapply them as mulch. Branches and other debris are managed the same way, with the goal of keeping most of the garden’s biomass on the property, as would occur in a natural woodland. Small details are attended to, and maintenance standards are high. Says Whiteman with a smile: “If Harold sees a leaf in the parking lot, he goes out and picks it up.”
The Secret Ingredients
Anyone who wanted to make a really good public garden from scratch probably wouldn’t start with a recipe that included a deceased founder, vague directives, nowhere close to enough money, no previous landscaping, and no existing audience. But these things are exactly what Jenkins was made from. The secret ingredients, as in any great garden, seem to be the skill of the staff over the decades, and patience. Only recently has the arboretum’s landscape lost its appearance of being slightly underdone. “It’s just in the last 10 years that the depth and breadth and maturity of the display has been achieved and that we’ve become a first-rate botanical collection,” Sweetman says. “We started with small plants, and gardening is the slowest form of art.”
If one definition of a miracle is a highly improbable development that brings welcome consequences, then maybe Sweetman is right, and Jenkins is a miracle. By all measures it shouldn’t exist, and yet it does.
If You Visit
Jenkins Arboretum encompasses 46 acres of sloping woodland, 15 of which are accessible to the public. Visitors are required to stay on the grass or follow the paved paths (both stroller and wheelchair accessible) that wind down the wooded hillside from the visitor’s center to a sunny pond garden at the bottom. The paths offer many vantage points for admiring beds overflowing with acid-loving ericaceous plants, including 5,000 azaleas and rhododendrons. An additional collection of native perennials hugs the margin between paths and woodland, allowing close-up viewing. Every plant is labeled, making Jenkins an excellent place to study native and ericaceous flora. 631 Berwyn Baptist Rd., Devon, PA; jenkinsarboretum.org; 610-647-8870. Open 8 a.m. to sunset, 365 days a year. Admission is free.
Nicole Juday, a regular contributor to Grow, lives and gardens in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood.
10 Native Plants for the Home Landscape
Steve Wright, Jenkins Arboretum curator and director of horticulture, recommends the following plants for home gardeners. All are native to the United States and should be available in the nursery trade.
American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) does not produce showy flowers or fruits, but this small tree is worth growing for its interesting rippled bark and great orange fall color.
Bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) has lovely fernlike foliage and numerous dangling pink flowers. Unlike the more common D. spectabilis, this species holds its foliage and continues to flower through mid-November.
Creeping phlox (Phlox stolonifera) spreads readily and sends up purplish-blue flowers on 8-inch stalks in spring.
Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) is a shade-loving creeping groundcover with loads of spiky white flowers in spring; numerous cultivars with interesting leaf variegations are available.
Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) grows into a 6- to 8-foot-tall shrub with distinctive leaves that turn bright orange in the fall. The ground-hugging dwarf variety named ‘Gro-Low’ reaches only 2 feet high and has an 8-foot spread.
Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) is a small- to medium-size tree with branches that grow in whorls straight out from the trunk, creating an enchanting layered effect suggestive of the lines of a pagoda.
Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) has dusty-gray-blue foliage and small white pompon flowers with yellow centers; it does best in full sun.
Seersucker sedge (Carex plantaginea), an underused plant for moist shade, features evergreen puckered foliage and beautiful fountains of black spikelike flowers in spring.
Smooth witherod (Viburnum nudum) grows quickly to 8 to 10 feet and is a great species for wildlife. The shrub’s flowers attract pollinators of all kinds, and its fruits serve as food for songbirds.
Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea) has smooth bark, long chains of fragrant white flowers dangling from its branches in spring, and unbeatable yellow foliage that lights up your garden in fall.