Tony Aiello is a patient man. He has just returned from his first botanical specimen-hunting trip to China with a cache of seeds from six species of oaks, two of which have never been seen by botanists before, a rare species of maple and a relative of the elm tree. He will plant them in the greenhouse at the Morris Arboretum and he will wait. Some seeds take up to two years just to germinate. It will be years before they can be moved outdoors.
“That’s what we are here for,” says Aiello, curator and director of horticulture at the Arboretum, “to grow things that we won’t see mature.”
So did John Morris and his sister Lydia. The Morrises toured the world, including an 1894 trip to the Far East, collecting design ideas and unusual plants for their 175-acre Victorian garden and looking to the future. Their estate at the top of Chestnut Hill has been a part of the University of Pennsylvania since 1932. Today, Aiello can look back on a century-long tradition of bringing Asian plants to Philadelphia and look forward 100 years to when his oaks and elms will shade the garden.
Q. Why go plant hunting in China?
A. China has much richer flora in terms of its size and relative to our flora. It has been called the mother of gardens. In fact, in a not very elaborate garden in Philadelphia, a large number of the plants in that garden will be Chinese—peonies, hostas, even some azaleas. We can grow many Asian plants because the latitude is very similar. Beijing is at 40 degrees north latitude and we are at 40 degrees north latitude.
Q. Where in China did you go?
A. Shanxi Province, bounded by the Yellow River on the west and south and the Great Wall on the north. We were in three different areas, all mountainous. It is heavily forested with a mixture of conifers and deciduous trees. The climate is relatively dry. China has very dry winters compared to ours. Most of their rainfall is in the summer and fall. It was a very intensive three weeks of hiking and collecting in some very rural and remote places that you would never visit as a tourist.
Q. What were you looking for?
A. We were looking for plants that were very, very tough. Plants that could take cold winters and hot dry summers, which is what we’ve been getting these days. It was also our mission to find plants that could adapt to urban environments. We have been very involved in greening and tree selection and tree planting in Philadelphia. Another goal is to bring back plants that haven’t been brought into this country in many decades to get a new infusion of blood, so to speak.
Q. Did you have a guide?
A. I was there with three colleagues from other American arboreta. We had a host from the Beijing Botanic Garden, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Science. He was our translator and sort of our mother for the trip. We only knew a few words of Chinese so it was critical to have someone who could translate for us. We were so far off the tourist trail that it seemed like the people had never seen Westerners before. It was harvest time. It was very interesting to see how people harvested.
Q. What kind of crops did they grow?
A. They were growing corn, sunflowers—which is kind of ironic since those are both from North America—but they were also harvesting millet, peanuts and beans. What was interesting was on the small roads, they would put the crops on the road and we would drive over them and that is how they husked them. For instance, as the beans got knocked out of their shells, they would separate them out and then collect all the beans off the road. So we were literally part of the harvest, which is pretty amazing.
Q. Do scientists from Asia come and collect specimens in North America?
A. Not too much. Not as much as we go to China.
Q. Are there noteworthy trees in the garden today that began as seeds in the greenhouse?
A. The most famous is our 100 year-old Katsura—it is really the signature tree of the Morris Arboretum. At this time of the year the leaves are yellow and apricot and when they drop they have a sweet smell like cotton candy. Another is an Asian beech called the Engler beech. They are designated “champion trees.”
This is a great time to visit the Arboretum. The maples may have lost their leaves by the time this is printed but there is still a lot here to see. Our Holiday Garden Railway will be up and running beginning on November 23. Penn cardholders get in free.
Q. The fall color seemed a little delayed this year. Is it because the weather had been so strange?
A. It is about a week late, we think. It needs cold nights and bright sunny days to really get good color. The plants tell us a lot. Problems with the plants tell us a lot. We’ve had some disease problems with bugs and fungi that in normal winters would have been killed. There is a cycle. The plants get stressed in the hot, dry summers we have had for the past five years. And then we have mild winters and so insect populations live through the winter in these distressed plants. There are plants that we know historically aren’t hardy in Philadelphia that are doing pretty well.
For more information about the Morris Arboretum, visit www.morrisarboretum.org or call 215-247-5777.
Originally published on November 14, 2002