If you are a parent of a high school senior like me and find yourself with the prospect of driving down to James Madison University, you have to visit the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum. A week ago, I spent several hours walking through the wooded sanctuary, taking photos of the wildflowers and daffodils. Although it was a rainy day, the wood-chipped paths made it easy to transverse and the staff were delightful.
The Edith J. Carrier Arboretum is part of James Madison University, across from the JMU Convocation Center on University Boulevard. There is so much to see now in April and there will be even more with each season. After I dropped my daughter off at the Convocation Center, I parked at the Arboretum and walked into the Frances Plecker Education Center. Serving as the visitor’s center, this very modern looking building also houses the botanical library, staff offices, and rooms for meetings, workshops, and events. It opens out to an expansive deck with a pergola and picnic tables where they also have events such as plants sales.
As I picked up the self-guided walking tour brochure, Jan Mahon, the director, entered. She was very gracious about spending time with me even though I had not made an appointment. She explained that the Arboretum’s mission statement is to inspire outdoor engagement in a woodland sanctuary. It is a public (free admission) urban garden and forested greenspace that preserves native plant species. They are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year and to celebrate they have chosen the theme “Year of the Trees.” They will have tree-related programs, wellness activities, native trees for sale, and forest bathing and sound bathing classes. She even had bookmarks made from actual trees with the tree name on the backside. I picked up Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), which serves as “year-round cover and nesting space for wildlife.”
The JMU faculty can use the grounds for teaching, the local schools can bring children for field trips, and the public can either walk around on their own, take a self-guided tour, or participate in docent-led tours. Throughout the year, the Arboretum has workshops, lectures, plant sales, wildflower walks, children’s programs, volunteer opportunities and even weddings and private events.
The Arboretum is named after Edith J. Carrier, wife of JMU President Emeritus Ronald E. Carrier. However, the inspiration and vision comes from former JMU botany professor Dr. Norlyn Bodkin. In the early 1960s, Dr. Bodkin began to use the “College Woods” to teach botany to his students. In the 1970s, he advocated for an Arboretum. In the 1980s, then JMU President Carrier and the University Planning and Development Commission approved the plan and the Arboretum opened to the public in 1989. During Ronald Carrier’s presidential tenure, 1971-1999, Edith Carrier served as a hostess for visiting dignitaries and as an event planner for JMU thus the name honors her service to JMU. The Bodkin Oak-Hickory Forest, a woodland tract in the Arboretum, honors Dr. Bodkin who not only created the Arboretum but served as its first director.
Covering 125 acres, the Arboretum has developed tracts near the Frances Plecker Education Center and undeveloped forested areas further away. Near the Center are small gardens or collections punctuated by educational signs. When I finished talking with Jan, I walked out of the Center toward a very large lake.
I passed the Viette Perennial Garden where purple-red peony stems and green daylily foliage were emerging. Famed horticulturist and nurseryman Andre Viette donated the perennials for this particular garden. As I headed toward the Herb Garden, the bluebells (Mertensia virginica) were just about to bloom, with clusters of tiny, pink and purple pinched buds. The Herb Garden is quite large; the plants are on short, retaining walls. A variety of herbs were coming back to life in early April. I could see purple-tinged anise hyssop leaves and valerian’s lacy green foliage. Across the way daffodils were peeping through a band of gold and red-twigged dogwoods (Cornus sericea).
As I walked back down the path ribbons of yellow splashed across the April Walk Daffodil Garden. There must have been thousands of daffodils weaving in drifts under the leafless hardwood trees. I walked toward the wooden Pavilion and sat inside at a picnic table, taking a short break from the rain. Because of the rain, no one was outside so I had the pleasure of having the Arboretum all to myself.
I spent quite a lot of time in the Bodkin Oak-Hickory Forest and the Wood Wildflower Garden, taking photos of wildflowers. It was a treat to see the majestic trilliums with sessile, mottled leaves and mahogany-red flower buds. Most of the buds were not open yet but the leaves were large and gorgeous. The white blood root flowers (Sanguinaria canadensis) were closed but that might have been because of the weather. There were fields of Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) creating a fern green carpet with white, pendulous flowers.
As I walked towards the front of the Arboretum I passed the McDonald Azalea and Rhododendron Garden and the Mid-Atlantic Chapter for the American Rhododendron Society and Native Azalea Garden. I saw a few flowers, it is too early yet, but I can imagine how beautiful this place will be in a few months. There are flowers in every season here — even a large paperbush, (Edgeworthia chrysantha ‘Gold Finch’), had pendulous golden flowers left over from the winter.
The Edith J. Carrier Arboretum is a must visit next time you are at JMU or even in Harrisonburg. The next time I bring my daughter to JMU, I plan to see the labyrinth, the Fern Valley, the Monarch Waystation, and the blooming azaleas, rhododendrons, and perennials. Edith J. Carrier Arboretum, 780 University Boulevard, Harrisonburg, VA 22807; (540) 568-3194.