Seasons of the Barnes

by Anne Taulane

Summer 2021

barnes arboretum garden

As her husband, Albert, amassed a world-renowned art collection, Laura Barnes turned her focus on the outside world. When the Barneses purchased their Merion home from Capt. Joseph Lapsley Wilson in 1922, they agreed to maintain the arboretum that he began planting in the 1880s. The 12-acre property blossomed under Laura’s care as she expanded the collection by bringing in trees, shrubs and plants from around the world. In 1940, she decided to share her knowledge and opened a horticulture school, an intense three-year program that used the arboretum grounds as a living classroom. Today, Laura’s legacy lives on at the Barnes Arboretum and, through its partnership with the Barnes Foundation, Saint Joseph’s University continues to expand on her educational mission. Whether taking a class or workshop or simply touring its grounds, the arboretum is a beautiful destination year-round.

Living Classroom

Built in 1924, the greenhouse allowed Laura’s plant propagation program to expand. Reconstructed in 2001-02, it serves as an educational facility and haven for tropical plants. The arboretum is also home to the Delaware Valley Hosta Society hosta collection with more than 135 varieties purposefully arranged to showcase the plant’s range of colors and sizes. Certified a National Display Garden in 2015, it can be found in the understory of the Wilson tree area.

The greenhouse at the Barnes.

The Delaware Valley Hosta Society's hosta collection.

1 of 2

Beauty in Balance

The arboretum offers variety in both its plantings and its layout. Students and visitors can enjoy the well-manicured formal rose garden, which blooms in summer. Or, they can meander the wooded paths to admire Laura’s fern collection. Planted back in the 1920s and ’30s, today it is the largest collection of hardy ornamental ferns for teaching and research in the mid-Atlantic region.

Rose garden at the Barnes.

Roses at the Barnes.

Fern collection.

1 of 3
students outside the barnes building

Student Sessions

A canopy of white wisteria cascades over the terrace of the Barneses’ former home. Today, the building serves as a classroom for students in the horticulture certificate program and some University classes.

Fall Foilage

An explosion of color transforms the arboretum in the fall as green leaves turn to shades of orange, red and yellow. The arboretum boasts an impressive 30-plus State Champion trees, many earning the award for their rarity, like the Chinese pistache, which was acquired in 1960. Laura experimented with planting trees and plants from around the world, including Asia. She had success with the Sakhalin cork tree from Japan, which was acquired in 1927.

Chinese pistache.

Sakhalin cork tree.

1 of 2
The Barnes in the fall

Educational Endeavors

Laura assembled valuable teaching collections to foster her students’ learning experience. The arboretum continued her educational legacy through additional projects like the medicinal garden, with more than 170 species, and the 10,000-species herbarium, part of the Global Registry of Biodiversity Repositories.

Hidden Gems

Winter brings its own charms to the arboretum, including enchanting snow-day scenes. Tucked away on the property is a quaint teahouse and pond, a perfect spot for quiet contemplation year-round. The teahouse was Laura’s office and was designed by Paul Cret, architect of the main building.

The Barnes in the winter.

Teahouse at the Barnes.

1 of 2
stewartia trees

Winter Delights

A highlight of the winter is the eye-catching bark of the stewartia trees (left). When the bark sheds, it reveals a camouflage of colors ranging from reddish-brown to gray.

Anne Taulane is the director of creative services for Philadelphia magazine.