Q&A with Paul Meyer


The F. Otto Haas Director of the Morris Arboretum soaks in the beauty of the fernery, just one of the many renovations he has overseen.

Photo by: Candace diCarlo

Doubling. Tripling. Multiplying. These are the words that come to mind when you think about Penn’s Morris Arboretum under Paul L. Meyer. Since becoming F. Otto Haas Director in 1991, Meyer has jump-started and revamped the Arboretum’s endowment, educational programs and status in the public sphere.

Once a secret tucked away in Chestnut Hill, the Arboretum is now a place of tranquility for thousands of visitors from as close as Center City to as far away as South Jersey. As Meyer described it, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedy, individuals retreated to the botanical garden to find calm. Acquaintances and random visitors approached him and told him that amid the grisly destruction, they found sanctuary in the landscape.

And there is plenty of beauty and greenery to take in, with more than 13,000 labeled plants from North America, Asia, Africa and Europe.

But Meyer says the Arboretum isn’t defined only by the flora found on its acreage. He and his team go on plant collecting expeditions around the world.

In a recent expedition to China, they searched for hardy plants which can be introduced to the stresses of the city.

With so much on his plate, it’s of little wonder that Meyer recently received a professional citation from the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta.

Having just wrapped up a successful weekend of fall festivities at the Arboretum, he took us on a tour of Penn’s historic garden.

Q. What is an arboretum? A plant museum?
Our collections are living plants that are curated just in the same way an anthropology museum curates its collection and an art museum curates its collection. The difference is that our collections are living. We document our collections. We know exactly where a particular plant has come from, when it came here, what it is [and] the environmental conditions it was growing in.

Q. The Arboretum is described as a Victorian landscape garden. What does this mean?
Our curators curate our living collections, but also they are the curators of what’s really a very significant historic landscape. The overall landscape itself is an object which needs to be
curated. I believe that the Morris Arboretum is the best remaining example of the Victorian eclectic garden. The arboretum itself is really a collection of garden styles. The overall layout is in the English romantic style but within that garden we have Japanese style gardens, Italian Renaissance style gardens.

Q. What’s new or different since you’ve been here?
You could look at the gardens themselves. The gardens, the buildings — the infrastructure was really in a terrible state of disrepair back in the mid- ’70s. You could wander in—it was open to the public—but you really had to find your way in and you had to find your way around. There really wasn’t much attention to the general public. The Arboretum didn’t really become a museum in the sense of a modern museum until really in the last 15 years or so.

Q. What do you look for when you introduce plants?
Certainly aesthetics is an important consideration, but one of the things I’m especially interested in is stress tolerance, urban tolerance. It’s really essential that we re-green our cities. One of the things that we’re seeing in America is that people are leaving the city, moving forever further outward in the suburbs. Hence we have sprawl. It’s really one of the biggest environmental problems that this country is facing.

One of the ways to fight sprawl is to make cities desirable places. Certainly, that’s a complex problem. It requires that public safety be addressed. It requires that public schools be addressed. But also a critical component is the appearance of our cities. And parks, gardens [and] street trees are very cost-effective ways of making cities much more desirable places. We can draw upon the Arboretum as a source of plants that can be helpful in greening cities, not that we dig them up from the Arboretum and take them. But we’re the genetic reservoir. We work as educators to reach professional nursery people, landscape architects, city planners, [to teach them] ways of using plants effectively in cities.

Q. Do you think people come away from a visit with something more than a brief appreciation of beauty?
My gut feelings is yes. If we went out around 11 o’clock, you’d see lots of mothers with strollers and toddlers. Say these mothers come once every two weeks and their kids come [too]. How do you measure what impact that has on the psyche of the child as they’re growing up? It’s hard to say. I gotta believe that it has positive influence.

My parents and grandparents were just suburban gardeners, but it was a very important part of their life. I can remember having my own tomato plants—not their tomato plants—when I must’ve been only 5 or 6 years old. And I would water and stake and tie [them] up. To this day, I get great pleasure growing my own tomato plants. Again, I think it’s that early exposure.

One of the ways that we can help ensure that every visit is a learning visit, maybe a passive learning visit but still a learning visit, is through interpretation. We want to do more in the way of labeling, more in the way of brochures that people can take home with them and read about their experiences at the Arboretum and help assimilate that. We are building our volunteer guide program and our guide training programs so that we have more guides available not just for the children but for our adult program.

Q. What’s ahead?
We really need to focus on facilities. In terms of programs, because it’s the programs that drive the facilities, we have a strong commitment to building our children’s education program. We need to better do that program and our other educational programs. We need classroom space and indoor exhibit space. We need more restrooms. We’re running a public institution. The bus arrives and the first thing people want to do is use the toilet facility. So we need to expand physical facility. There are still parts of the garden that need to be restored.

Q. Name a highlight.
To see the Arboretum emerge in the public scene in Philadelphia. Certainly, we had a strong, loyal, close following, but you get beyond our circle of friends and people say, “Morris Arboretum? What is that place anyway?” And in the last five years we really redoubled our marketing effort to get the word out. As I travel around the city and meet with different groups, more and more people say, “Oh, Morris Arboretum, It’s a wonderful place. I was just there.” It’s not this look of bafflement anymore. In the past, people couldn’t even pronounce it, much less know what it is. People are much more aware that the Arboretum is here, and they are using it.

Originally published on October 25, 2001