A botanical repository

A botanical repository

On a balmy afternoon, when I ushered myself into Chicago’s aesthetic landscape Morton Arboretum, I knew more about Morton than about the arboretum.

The rounded Morton Salt packs that sit invariably on every dining table in America as elsewhere, however, do not tell all that could be told about Morton family. Two men from successive generations of this illustrious family, who founded their business empire by selling salt, served as Secretary of Agriculture under two presidents. Yet, Morton Arboretum in Chicago has done more to keep their memories evergreen for an average American.

To most of us who have grown learning about botanical gardens, arboretum may sound unfamiliar. So when I drove into the sweeping, swanky woodland, the query uppermost in mind was where lay the line of demarcation?

According to a dictionary, an arboretum is a place where trees, mainly woody ones, are cultivated for scientific purpose, whereas a botanical garden is a place for the exhibition and scientific study of collected growing plants, usually in association with greenhouses, herbariums, laboratories etc. Research is the common bond between the two. Most work on the botanical classification was done in arboreta set up in the Americas by the European explorers. Invariably, every state in the US has a dozen or more arboreta, and each city a couple of them.

Sights were bewitching: Shafts of sunlight poured through the branches; wood rustled and twitched with wind, birds and scuttling creatures. The tracks rise steeply, skirting deep hollows and steep slopes of dense undergrowths. The arboretum ground was ablaze with a riot of colours — deep red, gold yellow and orange. Prairie grass glowed bronze-red and yellow in the afternoon sun.

The ground was filled with the familiar scent of fallen leaves. Kastura trees, known for their form, foliage and relative freedom from insects and disease, issued the delightful smell of burnt candy. Weighty fruits dangled from trees and brushy tufts from the prairie grass kissed the skin.

Morton Arboretum was set up by Joy Morton in 1922 after he thought of investing his fortune meaningfully on a project that served the cause of knowledge. He himself planted nearly 2,000 trees. Today, spread over 1,700 acres, harbouring 2,22,000 plants including 50,000 trees belonging to 4,200 species, it is a veritable herbarium, conservatory and botanical archive and lab, all rolled into one. It is said to be the largest repository of plants from 40 countries in northern temperate zone of the world. The collections are displayed in beautiful landscape settings and are designed for both enjoyment and educational purposes.

Mazes have often triggered imagination, myth and legend throughout history. The Morton’s Maze Garden spread over an acre could be a tricky puzzle for the young and the old alike. For a better perception of the intestinal enigma of its interior, one could have a bird’s eye view from a 12-feet-high platform, built around a stunning 60-feet-tall Sycamore tree.

My volunteer guide constantly unleashed prodigious botanical facts: Yellow Tulip tree is popular with Indians, i.e., Red Indians, not the modern day hyphenated ones. Yellow Wood tree is favourite with carvers; 836 Paper Bark Maple trees, native to central China, were planted in 1958; sap from the gorgeous Sweet Gum tree goes into production of chewing gum; Spindle Tree for Cork is favourite for artistic patterns; Southern Black Haw is a four-season tree, donning an entirely new hue every season; Peking Lilac from China is favourite of snow time and sends out luxurious, showy plumes of large creamy white flowers in late spring with a wonderful fragrance.

The Arboretum has a good collection of Eastern White Pine trees, tallest trees in North America. It can grow to a height of 60 feet in only 40 years and can reach a height of 200 feet. Due to its excellent woodworking properties, most of them were carted away to England in early centuries of settlement under a Royal decree from King George I. Resistant to rot and useful in houses, ships, businesses, bridges and countless other structures, it lent the Great Britain dominance over the seas.

Dotted with delectable gardens, trees turned into artworks, studded with lush rolling meadows, the Arboretum had all the pleasant sights, sounds, shades and scents of nature to offer. While landscaped areas beckoned the visitors, the herbariums and greenhouses have attracted a steady stream of researchers from around the world. Arboretum scientists also roam all over the world for unusual trees, sometimes collecting seeds and other times, branches.

It was founder Joy Morton’s father Sterling Morton who founded the Arbor Day on April 10, 1872, to encourage planting trees. It originated in Nebraska, and one million trees were planted that day. It is designated as a holiday.

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