Staff Q&A: Bob Gutowski

STAFF Q&A/Bob Gutowski shares his love of nature as head of Morris Arboretum’s public programs.

“You’ve never seen an evening gown that’s as beautiful as a cedar waxwing.”

STAFF Q&A/Bob Gutowski

Bob Gutowski paid his first visit to Penn’s Morris Arboretum in the 1960s when he was making ends meet with landscaping jobs. “My employer came out here to ask some questions of the rose gardener,” he recalls. “It was like going into a Dickens novel. I have a dim memory of huge overgrown honeysuckles.”

More than a decade later he was back, this time as part of a federally sponsored training program that taught, among other things, the art of pruning. Gutowski says that opportunity set him on track toward his current post, as director of public programs for the Arboretum. Back then all he knew was that he “really wanted to know how to prune.” Plus, the program let him take classes at Penn, where he would end up earning his graduate degree in horticulture.

Now, 20 years later, Gutowski oversees every aspect of the “people side” of the Arboretum’s operations, including educational programs, consulting, admissions and the gift shop. Ultimately, he says, he and his colleagues on the “plant side” are all working toward the same goal: better stewardship of our natural resources.

Q. You’re 10 miles from the campus. Do you feel connected to Penn?

A. Absolutely, and that’s a good feeling. The university association with botanic gardens is a classic one, so we’re carrying on a tradition that’s been going on since the 1400s, since Padua and Oxford. We depend on science to make good decisions … so the University connection is significant to us. Yes we’re a public attraction—we were just ranked by Philadelphia Business Journal as one of the top 25 tourist attractions in the region—but that’s not the sole reason that we’re here. We’re here for research, education and conservation, as well as display.

Q. Tell me how you go about educating the public.

A. We do over 100 continuing education classes each year. We have classes on rose growing and pruning and we have classes on botanical illustration and nursery selection. A lot are geared toward professionals but most toward citizen gardeners.

Q. What do you have for kids?

A. We do things with kids like Beginning Birding. You know in our wetland we have at least 100 species of birds recorded, even a bald eagle. Today, coming in I saw a great blue heron just float overhead and perch in a tree. That’s not a sight you see every day, but you could see it here every day. Studies show that if you want to engage people in science … they have to be engaged very young, basically before the 5th grade. If you’re not, you’re going to get all your science learning from the newspaper and TV and you won’t engage it as a career. We’re at risk of raising generations who are removed from the systems that keep us alive. In Ben Franklin’s time, 98 percent of the population was engaged in or had daily contact with food production. You would see produce coming into town, you’d be growing it, or your neighbor would have a cow. Now it’s less than 2 percent. There’s been a total flip. You ask people if they had any plants for breakfast and they say, “No, I had a bagel.” That’s why our youth programs are so important. It’s about helping people connect to nature. And when they make that connection they learn they need to change their behavior or take action.

Q. Do you teach any of the classes?

A. I’m doing a class on growing irises because I just happen to love irises.

Q. Does the Arboretum have any good iris displays?

A. Our parking lot has one of the best irises for the area. Caesar’s Brother. It’s a Siberian iris, which isn’t really from Siberia of course. They’re tall and a brilliant purpley blue with grass-like leaves. A very tough excellent urban plant. We have one of the most beautiful parking lots you’ll ever see.

Q. Tell me three other favorite places in the Arboretum.

A. Right now one of my other favorite spots is where this Chinese witch hazel is in bloom on the corner [of Gates Hall]. It is so fragrant and so colorful. Another favorite spot is under the Kobus magnolia. The Kobus is a wonderful Japanese magnolia and it has the fragrance of paradise on earth. We have one that’s probably 60 years old down near the Pennock Walk. It smells like the bubble gum from the baseball cards you collected when you were a kid. I love the woodlands, especially during bird migration times. One day my wife and I bicycled over here and we sat by the wetland where the cedar waxwings were feeding on the insects. They do this sallying out where they’re perched on a tree and they’ll flutter in midair for a while and gobble up some bug. And they’re gorgeous birds. You’ve never seen an evening gown that’s as beautiful as a cedar waxwing.

Q. What can visitors see at the Arboretum in March?

A. You’ll see hellebores, you’ll see the early dogwoods, the yellow flowered ones in March. And we have a big bulb display. Tens of thousands of bulbs. We also still have a lot of witch hazels blooming as well as some of the later winter flowering shrubs. You get to see things emerging at this time of year. Stuff wakes up and the chartreuseness of spring is upon you. You have a combination of color and transparency so that you can see structure and color, form and the landscape in a way you won’t see any other time of year. You see through shades of color as the buds are opening.

Originally published on March 16, 2006