About the Arboretum
Just eight miles from the Philadelphia campus of the Barnes Foundation, you’ll find the Barnes Arboretum at Saint Joseph’s University, home to a horticulture school. From May to October, visitors are invited to explore the grounds and learn about our rare plants and breathtaking blooms.
In 1922, when Dr. Albert C. Barnes and his wife, Laura Leggett Barnes, bought the property, in Merion, Pennsylvania, it already housed a collection of specimen trees that its previous owner, Captain Joseph Lapsley Wilson, had started assembling in the 1880s. The site became the home of the Barnes Foundation, and Wilson stayed on as the first director of its arboretum.
While Dr. Barnes concentrated on his art collection, Laura Barnes devoted herself to the arboretum. Her legacy lives on in the beauty of the landscape and in the horticulture school that she founded in 1940.
The 12-acre arboretum is astonishingly diverse for its size, with more than 2,500 varieties of woody and herbaceous plants, many rare. The peony and lilac collections, which date from the early 1900s, are important genetic resources for conservation and study. An herbarium started in 1968 by John Fogg, a longtime instructor at the school and director after Mrs. Barnes, contains more than 10,000 specimens that supplement teaching and research.
Partnership with Saint Joseph’s University
In 2018, the Barnes Foundation launched an educational partnership with Saint Joseph’s University, expanding opportunities for students and the local community. The long-running Horticulture Certificate Program will continue, and Saint Joseph’s University will explore a new horticulture minor as well as academic credit for select horticulture courses.
The Barnes retains oversight of the arboretum and the historic buildings, while the operations and grounds are now managed by Saint Joseph’s University.
Plan a Visit
The Barnes Arboretum at Saint Joseph’s University is open to the public on weekends from May to October, 11am – 4pm. Free guided tours are held at 1pm, and an audio guide is available for smartphones.
The entrance is located at 50 Lapsley Lane in Merion, PA, and parking is free.
The arboretum is part of the new America’s Garden Capital Passport, a fun guide to exploring the Philadelphia region’s 36 public gardens.
Highlights of the Arboretum
Laura L. Barnes Fern Dell
Mrs. Barnes, who served as the arboretum’s director for nearly 40 years, was keenly interested in hardy ornamental ferns. In the late 1920s and ’30s, she planted almost 100 varieties of American and foreign ferns in the southeast corner of the arboretum. Many of these specimens survive to this day.
The arboretum’s original owner, Joseph Lapsley Wilson, planted more than 200 species of trees between the 1880s and 1922, when Albert and Laura Barnes purchased the land. Several of the rarer varieties, including many from Asia, were acquired after the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia. Under the directorship of Mrs. Barnes, the arboretum gained other rare trees and plants. The unusual appearance of the monkey-puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), native to the Andes, has made it a visitor favorite. The arboretum’s redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), typically found amid the coastal forests of Northern California, is a rare sight in these parts.
There are more than a dozen varieties of magnolias in the arboretum, and they put on an impressive show each spring and early summer. With cascading flowers in various shades of pink, they make a perfect backdrop to the arboretum’s main entrance. The flowering plants of the Magnolioideae family have a long history, dating from the days before bees, but seeing them in bloom never gets old.
When asked to describe the smell of lilacs (Syringa), many people simply say they smell like spring. Which means that in May, when many of the varieties at the arboretum come into bloom, the whole garden is awash in the scent of spring.
Medicinal Plant Garden
The arboretum’s medicinal plant garden is the first of its kind in the Delaware Valley. Plants are arranged according to the healing systems in which they are used, including modern allopathic medicine, homeopathy, aromatherapy, and traditional Chinese or Native American medicine. Discover specimens such as Acorus calamus (sweet flag), used in heart medicine, and Curcuma longa (turmeric), which can help people suffering from Alzheimer’s, arthritis, cancer, colic, diabetes, and hepatitis.
National Hosta Display Garden
Our hosta collection, established in 2012, is the largest in the region. In 2015, it was designated a National Display Garden by the American Hosta Society. Hostas, also known as plantain lilies, are shade-tolerant herbaceous perennials, cultivated primarily for their beautiful foliage. Native to Asia, hostas were first introduced to Europe in the late 1700s and to the US in the mid-1800s.
The herbarium is the hidden gem of the arboretum. With more than 10,000 preserved plant specimens, it is a vital resource for understanding a plant’s taxonomy, growing conditions, and history. Open by appointment for research purposes only.
The arboretum has several varieties of Paeonia, including one from a seed cultivated by Laura Barnes herself. Each late spring-blooming variety has its own distinct scent, and the flower types are as diverse as their perfumes. The peony collection shares a garden with the arboretum’s honey bees.
Our three-year Horticulture Certificate Program offers a comprehensive approach to the science and methods of horticulture and design. Coursework emphasizes aesthetics and the practical application of knowledge. The arboretum and its greenhouse serve as the program’s laboratories.
We also offer a number of hands-on workshops for amateur gardeners and horticulture enthusiasts.
More information here.
About Laura Barnes
If Albert Barnes expressed his passion through art appreciation, his wife, Laura, expressed hers through the cultivation of beautiful plants.
The daughter of a wealthy family from Brooklyn, Laura Leggett married Dr. Albert C. Barnes in 1901. Though the origin of her interest in horticulture is unknown, there is evidence that she managed the gardens at Lauraston, the couple’s first home in Merion, Pennsylvania.
Laura Barnes became director of the arboretum in 1928, and in 1940 founded the horticulture school, where she was also an instructor. Responsible for the acquisition of plants for the gardens, she corresponded and exchanged specimens with many other notable collections, including Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
She also maintained a personal library of horticulture books, which are now held in the Barnes Foundation’s rare books collection.