History of the Arboretum
The following words are found in the 2008 Arboretum Collection Catalog, authored by Ken Arnold, the founder of the Arboretum.
We are the Unitarian Univeralist Church in Cherry Hill have the singular good fortune of having 17.7 acres of land for our use and enjoyment. We have chosen, as one way to utilize it yet keep its naturalistic character, to develop it as an arboretum.
This project started in 1962 with a congregational tree planting program and has developed during the intervening years into the present plan. Thus, our arboretum is still in an early stage of development. It provides satisfaction to our congregation now. We trust its future to those who will follow. It is pleasant to contemplate that trees which we have planted and enjoy today can still be growing vigorously when our grandchildren’s grandchildren stroll beneath their branches.
– Kenneth Arnold
History, Purpose, and Plans for The Arboretum
Shortly after UUCCH acquired its property, the Grounds Committee was formed to develop and maintain the church grounds. At that time our 12 acres consisted of a 4-acre peach orchard on the hill facing Kings Highway, nearly an acre of lawn at the top of the hill in the vicinity of Unitarian House and about 7 acres of long-neglected woods infested with Japanese honeysuckle, poisonivy, Japanese rose and weed trees. Later the church received two gifts of land which increased the size of its property to 17.7 acres: in 1947 the 1-acre Edward Kohman Memorial, and in 2006 the 4.7-acre Salvatore A. Zerbo, Esq. Memorial.
The initial plan for development of the property provided for a campus-like setting, with scattered buildings connected by walks and drives. The Grounds Committee’s first concern was to clean up the woods and to make the grounds attractive and easy to maintain. Some of the woods had to be cleared to prepare the site for our new buildings, and much of what remained consisted of undesirable species of trees. More important, the property lacked evergreen trees and shrubs as well as many species of deciduous plants. The Committee’s first major project, therefore, was to plant trees. To get the project underway, the Committee organized a family tree-planting program to enable members to buy and plant trees at designated locations. Since an existing main entrance driveway appeared to be a desirable permanent feature of the landscape, two rows of scarlet oaks were planted flanking the existing old silver maples which already had begun to die, but at a wider separation to form, eventually, a broader approach. These trees were planted in the spring of 1962.
During the following years, many trees were planted through the annual planting programs. The church also received trees and shrubs as special gifts and memorials. After several years, over a hundred species and cultivars had been planted. The acquisition of such a variety of plants within a short time demonstrated to the Grounds Committee that our church had an opportunity and also, perhaps, an obligation to use its property for a more organized horticultural development, one which could serve the surrounding communities as well as the church. After considering which kind of development could be undertaken within the resources of the church, the Committee recommended that the grounds be developed as an arboretum. The Executive Board of the church approved this recommendation on April 8, 1971.
An arboretum is a plot of land on which different trees and shrubs are grown for study or popular interest. It is appropriate to develop an arboretum on the church grounds because it demonstrates and serves the Unitarian Universalist approach to religion. The scientific elements within the organization of the arboretum demonstrate that Unitarian Universalists do not experience any conflict between science and religion. The conservation of a naturalistic landscape designed to include food plants and cover for the small wild animals which share the property acknowledges our spiritual as well as our biological relationship to the other species which inhabit this planet. The arboretum serves as a marvelous religions resource for the nature-related classes in our religious education program and it provides an outdoor environment to encourage fellowship and meditation and to nourish our aesthetic spiritual sensibilities.
Of special significance are the increasing number of memorial plantings, some of which mark sites of ash burials. Many of these plants were favorites of those in whose memories they were planted, while others were selected to diversify the collection.
The arboretum serves the community in two ways. Its more obvious function is to provide a horticultural facility for the benefit and pleasure of the interested public. This function, of course, will become more valuable as the plant collection increases and matures. Equally important, the arboretum preserves a significant open space in an area containing too little land reserved for recreational use and where private areas are being developed for other purposes.
There are limits inherent in church sponsorship of an arboretum. Grounds work is done by volunteers, so progress is slow. The church grounds are used for a variety of functions, so plantings must be designed to facilitate these many uses. Although varied soil conditions, from gravely hilltop to swampy low land, are suitable for a wide variety of plants, there is sufficient land to accommodate only a representative collection. Also, the church simply does not have resources (nor, indeed, is this its purpose) to undertake educational and scientific programs as are conducted by many arboreta. Yet within such limits, our arboretum undertakes practices to increase the significance of the plant collection. Plantings are displayed in an attractive landscape to encourage the use of better varieties. To strengthen the arboretum’s function as a gene bank, plants are obtained, when possible, from local sources so that these represent the product of local evolution. The collection can also include South Jersey species which appear to be threatened by the continuing development of land. Each year additions are made to the modest collection of nature wildflowers. Eventually our arboretum will include a representative collection of the wildflowers which were once so abundant in this region.
An arboretum is a long-range project, one that requires decades to approach completion. In a certain sense it can never be complete because growth, loss and replacement of plants continuously alter the composition and character of the collection. Yet, each year our arboretum becomes more beautiful. As its development continues, it will become an increasingly valuable facility for the programs of the church and for the horticultural benefit of the public.