History of the Arboretum


Rose Garden, circa 1940s–1950s
Rose Garden, circa 1940s–1950s. The Barnes Foundation Archives

In 1880, Joseph Lapsley Wilson, a Civil War veteran and railroad executive, purchased land in the Philadelphia suburb of Merion. Over the next 40 years, he planted more than 200 specimen trees on the grounds of the property. When Dr. Barnes and his wife Laura purchased the land in 1922 for the purpose of building the Barnes Foundation, Wilson stayed on to assist with the development of an arboretum.

Laura Barnes, who assumed the arboretum directorship following Wilson’s death in 1928, added thousands of rare plant specimens to the Foundation’s living collection. In addition to her contributions in the gardens, Mrs. Barnes corresponded with several of the nation’s leading arboretums, compiled an extensive horticultural library, and recorded detailed plant notes. These items are now found in the institutional archives and special collections.

Dr. John M. Fogg, a dean and botany professor at the University of Pennsylvania who helped Mrs. Barnes launch the Foundation’s Arboretum School in 1940, became the arboretum’s third director in 1966. He expanded the practice of partnering with other institutions, an initiative that played a large role in the formation of a herbarium in 1968. Today, the Herbarium contains over 10,000 plant specimens, many of which were contributed by Fogg’s colleagues. His influence is also felt in the collections of vines, willows, and ferns located throughout the property.

Since Fogg’s retirement in 1979, there have been six arboretum directors: John S. Penny (1979–1981, 1983–1985); Elizabeth B. Farley (1981–1983); Timothy Storbeck (1985–1994); Chela Kleiber (1995–1997); Martin Kromer (2000–2001); and Jacob Thomas (2002–present).

In the Garden

Monkey-puzzle tree, dogwoods, lilacs, horsetails, winter jasmine, and coastal redwood: these are just a few of the rare and beautiful plants in the arboretum. Learn more about our living collections.


Whether you have a blossoming interest in botany or are simply looking to get your hands dirty, consider becoming an arboretum volunteer. Learn more.