By Mike Ryan, OCJ field reporter
What began as a successful, influential Ohio politician and businessman’s 140-acre rural retreat has grown over the past century to become a nearly 2,000 acre preserve highlighting a unique array of plant life at The Dawes Arboretum in Licking County.
Beman Dawes and his wife, Bertie, first purchased the original tract in 1917. By 1929, when Dawes Arboretum was established, the grounds had doubled in size and over 50,000 trees had been planted. In present times, the immense arboretum, home to an enormous index of different plant species, is one of only 20 fully accredited arboretums in North America.
The Dawes family obtained trees from across the globe that could thrive in central Ohio and planted them around the property. They established the arboretum to both educate and inspire.
When Beman and Bertie created the private foundation, they wanted “to encourage the planting of forest and ornamental trees…to give pleasure to the public and education to the youth.”
Luke Messinger, executive director of The Dawes Arboretum, said that the location was well-chosen for this purpose and that this collection of trees continues to grow and prosper over 100 years after the Dawes family’s initial purchase of their central Ohio grounds.
“With its diversity of forests, Ohio is a great place to preserve the trees of the Ohio River Valley. Beman Dawes always had a love of forestry and did a lot of research about how to reforest Ohio, and what trees would be best for that purpose,” Messinger said. “Today, we keep records on 17,000 plant species here at the Arboretum and we are actively involved with plant conservation and research. We usually collect these plants from the wild and most of our collection consists of plants from the Ohio River Valley. We also partner with other groups and gardens around the world for more exotic plants, trying to find species that will grow well in Ohio. Many of the plants that you see growing here at the Arboretum are the plants you will see at local garden centers and nurseries in the future.”
The Arboretum’s aim is to preserve native landscapes and the destination features a variety of forest, grassland, and wetland ecosystems. Many trees and shrubs are planted in groves of like species, which, depending on the seasonal cycles can make for incredibly photogenic sightseeing for visitors. Gracing the grounds are group plantings of crabapples, magnolias, Gingkos, Buckeyes, flowering shrubs, rhododendrons, beech trees, redwoods, conifers, and other interesting tree plots.
Other notable features include a Japanese garden, a picturesque lake, a cypress swamp, and tours of the founding family’s home, the Daweswood House. A pioneer cemetery, a Visitor Center, picnic areas, and monuments and memorials dot the landscape of this property as well.
This tree haven draws visitors for a variety of reasons.
“Whenever you put landscape plants together, you create beauty and people interact with the natural beauty of plants in a variety of ways. People enjoy this park in different ways, but they are all mostly drawn to the Arboretum for the beauty and diversity of the plants and for an interaction with nature,” Messinger said. “We are presently conducting research on apple trees and, in partnership with the American Chestnut Foundation, we are studying to find out if we can bring the American chestnut back. It is a long row to hoe for the trees, but we are keeping our fingers crossed that they can once again be a viable part of the Ohio landscape in the future.”
Not only a sanctuary of trees providing humans a place of respite, the Arboretum is also a sanctuary for wildlife and it is an important center for research. Much of the fauna native to Ohio inhabit this property and the Arboretum partners with several federal agencies and state universities in the tracking and study of some of its more unique wildlife. For instance, according to the organization, there are 89 bluebird nest structures on the property and they have 40 years of extensive bluebird observation records. Dawes Arboretum has an expansive ongoing inventory of dragon and damselflies. They study the six bat species that hunt the preserve and there are nine species of salamanders that call the Arboretum home.
Dawes Arboretum is also an important educational resource for the community.
“In keeping with our mission to collect, evaluate, and research trees, we are a source of environmental education and natural history education,” Messinger said. “We often entertain school field trips and offer a variety of programs and workshops throughout the year on trees, history, and nature — on everything from landscape development to bird and tree identification, to youth programs and guided seasonal walking tours. Many of these programs aim to educate participants about what trees look and thrive best in certain seasons and in different situations in this geographical area.”
Agriculture figures big in The Dawes Arboretum’s future plans.
“Agriculture was a key component of Beman Dawes’ mission. He first purchased the property as a farm. He had a dairy, feed crop operation, apple production, and maple-syruping on-site. We are continuing that legacy today and into the future. We are interested in using agriculture as a land management strategy and currently lease out approximately 250 acres of land for agricultural production, Messinger said. “As part of our future educational program, we plan to create a demonstration conservation farm and use it as an educational tool for everyone from school children, to college students, to lifelong learners: people interested in modern conservation farming practices. The farm will focus on the farming heritage of Licking County and the state of Ohio while illustrating the diversity of agricultural crops grown in the region.”
Visitors to this woody refuge can enjoy it afoot or by car. A paved driving tour takes motorists around the sprawling acres of unique tree plantings. Over 11 miles of walking paths and hiking trails weave their way through the groves, offering opportunities for fresh air, exercise, and a slow-paced chance for reflection.
Just this year, The Dawes Arboretum began charging admission to the preserve at a cost comparable to other arboretums of its size across the nation.
“The decision to charge admission was made to provide the stability necessary to manage our plant collections, gardens, and natural areas at an appropriate level for current visitors and future generations. We want to continue to be able to offer the educational programs that we do and want to make sure that we can remain focused on our education and research components. We do not want to be complacent as merely a pretty place, but to maintain our role in plant conservation, research, and education,” Messinger said.
Admission cost is $10 for adults and $5 for children 5 and over. Annual membership costs for individuals are $40 and a family membership costs $60. Members of the Arboretum enjoy free admission and reciprocal benefits at other participating arboretums across the country, among other advantages.
The Dawes Arboretum is located at 7770 Jacksontown Road outside of Newark. Their hours change seasonally and are different for members and non-members. More information can be found at dawesarb.org and they can be reached by telephone at 1-800-44-DAWES.