Lovely Discoveries at the “New” Penn State Arboretum

The only constant is change, and that’s never more apparent than when you revisit a place you lived and loved for four years. I graduated from Penn State 30 years ago, and although the bones are all still there, new buildings and new features jar the walk down memory lane. The field hockey fields and open lawns I remember are filled with parking garages and new buildings — all excellent improvements, I’m sure. But it’s not quite the campus I remember.
“Purple Sensation,” ornamental onion

One of the best improvements is the new arboretum, adjacent to the campus just opposite Park Avenue. It seems like a great place for students and community members to escape the hustle and bustle of the main campus life, or the stress of impending assignments and exams for a few moments. This is a great place as well for returning alums to bring their families. I visited on a stormy day, which unfortunately cut short our exploration of the arboretum.

The idea of having an arboretum at Penn State has been lurking around, inspiring generations of students, faculty and community members, since 1914, when PSU first set aside land adjacent to the campus.

“Hakushin,” a Japanese tree peony
Finally, in 1999, the arboretum became part of the University’s Master Plan, with the designation of 370 acres along Park Avenue as the new arboretum. It inched closer to realization. All the necessary components were there: institutional will, faculty expertise, community interest and support, the space. But it still needed funding, and it wasn’t until 2007 that a “seed gift” of $10 million made it happen. In 2007, Charles H. “Skip” Smith stepped forward with this incredible donation, stipulating that the gardens would be named the H.O. Smith Botanic Gardens, honoring his father and fellow Penn State alumnus. 

Since then, other donors have stepped up, and now there’s a prominent esplanade, with gardens arranged on both sides. A tall, evergreen hedge behind the beds lends it definition from the rest of the site, while helping showcase the changing array of colors. The planting plan is changed annually, the better to inspire home gardeners, and the plants themselves are rotated spring, summer and fall to showcase plants for each season. 

One of the more magical areas is the Childhood’s Gate Children’s Garden, a unique space for exploring nature, fostering wonder, and celebrating the plants, animals, and geography of central Pennsylvania. Interesting for adults, it’s magical for children, with flowers and shrubs, hardscape displays, and sculpture appealing to all the senses.

The Pollinators’ Garden brings together a combination of plants, nest sites, and other resources essential for a productive pollinator community, promoting a better understanding of pollinators and their vital contribution to the health and welfare of society. Many outstanding Pennsylvania native plants are featured in the garden, including blue mistflower, New England aster, and clustered mountain-mint.

Another Japanese tree peony; I did not note the specific name
In the rose garden, I was fascinated with the collection of peonies, in full bloom. The roses were just beginning to bud, but they were overshadowed by the more flamboyant peonies.
“Shimadaljin,” Japanese tree peony
As with all such gardens, each season brings new discoveries and delights — a great excuse, I think, to head back up to visit Penn State and walk down memory lane.
Know before you go: It’s easily within walking distance of the “new” (new to me) Berkley Creamery. And yes, the ice cream is every bit as good as it used to be in the late 1980s!

Getting there: E Park Ave & Bigler Rd, State College, PA 16803

Hours: Dawn to dusk.


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This stay was provided by Comfort Suites and the Central PA Convention & Visitors Bureau.