The Arboretum Now

The Edith J. Carrier Arboretum (Arboretum) is a 125-acre urban botanical preserve located within the city of Harrisonburg and the campus of James Madison University (JMU). It provides an ideal combination of naturalized botanical gardens (33 acres) and forest (92 acres), complementing each other and serving the purposes of research, teaching, and demonstration. This green space is home to a diverse ecosystem featuring native plants of the mid-Appalachians (woodland wildflowers, azaleas, and rhododendrons); a collection of non-native trees, shrubs, and bulbs (magnolias, Kousa dogwoods, hollies, daffodils, etc.); an Oak-Hickory Forest; a lowland swale; a shale barren; herb and rose gardens; a pond habitat; and a wetlands garden. An outdoor amphitheatre, terraced gardens, a Pavilion, a Monarch Way Station, and the Frances Plecker Education Center (Education Center) enhance the complex further.

photo of the Poet Tree basket The only arboretum located on a public university campus in Virginia, the Arboretum is a haven in the middle of urban growth and development, a place where nature can be honored, appreciated, protected, and studied. The Arboretum is a center for the conservation, enjoyment, and interpretation of plants and ecosystems of the Shenandoah Valley, and serves as an outdoor biology laboratory and environmental educational center with tours, lectures, seminars, workshops and other public programs. Four full-time staff, five part-time staff, and work-study interns help keep the Arboretum thriving.

The Arboretum's philosophy embodies an appreciation of nature as part of intellectual development. JMU faculty members, in disciplines ranging from the arts to physical education to the biological sciences, use the Arboretum as an outdoor classroom and laboratory for research and study. Students from nearby elementary and secondary schools visit the Arboretum and can enjoy educational tours, designed to progress both their science knowledge and interest in flora and fauna. Staff dedicated a Poet-Tree (a tree with a poem basket attached for leaving poems just written and/or taking poems left within the basket) as an arboretum feature intended to encourage the appreciation of nature through writing and offering publicly shared poetry. In addition, the staff manages the Monarch Way Station to teach migration and butterfly habitat needs.

photo of Redback Salamander on a leaf Thanks to JMU faculty and staff, research at the Arboretum has helped to protect flora and fauna. For instance, JMU professor Dr. Reid Norman Harris and his research students have isolated a bacterial strain from the skin of resident salamanders; their studies may protect amphibian species from a fungus pathogen that has globally decimated many amphibian populations and resulted in species extinctions. In another instance, a tree species, Betula uber (Round-Leaf Birch), which is listed on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Species Threatened List because of habitat loss and other contributing factors, is being studied by JMU professor Dr. Michael Renfroe and Arboretum staff in order to understand how to protect Betula uber specimens within the Arboretum and to strengthen the overall population. The Arboretum is also a critical living laboratory where scientists identify and work to understand environmental trends resultant from climate change. JMU professor Dr. Heather Peckham Griscom and her students have collected statistical data from a one-hectare test plot of 300 native species trees found within the woodland of the Arboretum. Through this data, they can study the timing of leaf and flower flush in the spring, and they may also track bird migration and arboreal diseases. This set of data will be entered into to the USA National Phenology Network ( to help document the phenological response to climate change and will be available to the research community and the general public.

Additionally, JMU prides itself on the Arboretum's availability and use by the public. The variety of groups using the Arboretum vary from participants in the Governor's School, local science camps, regional garden clubs, regional high school cross country teams, local public elementary and middle schools, the Shenandoah Music Guild, and many more. Due to the year-round, no-charge practice, the Arboretum does not count visitors. However, with a programs and events count, the Arboretum estimates that there are approximately 12,000- 15,000 visitors annually. Necessary to helping visitors enjoy their experience, the staff relies on numerous volunteers. Helping with maintenance, plant sales, events, tours, educational programming, plant inventory, and planning, the Arboretum has over 50 volunteers a year dedicating more than 700 recorded hours.

photo of Pavillion bridge and pond in the fall
Photo by Christine Anderson
A 2001 article in Southern Living magazine termed the Arboretum “an exit for serenity,” and a “hidden gem ... a welcome oasis less than 5 minutes off the interstate.” The Arboretum has made itself dear to both the educational community as well as the broader residential and business community. For instance, the citizens of the Shenandoah Valley, through the Daily News Record newspaper, over several years have voted the Arboretum best place categories, the “Best Place to Relax,” the “Best Place to Bring Visitors, ” the “Best Place to Propose Marriage,” and “Best Place for Outdoor Weddings.” In addition, each spring, the Arboretum begins a calendar of events and educational opportunities. These include guided tours, a brown bag lunch/lecture series, concerts, children's art camps, letterboxing activities, geo-caching, workshops, bulb and plant sales, and weddings. The staff also has developed new ways of exploring the Arboretum; when implemented, self-guided tours (via phone or web application), interactive maps, improved educational signage, and additional interpretation events will inspire even more support and interest in the Arboretum. The ever-growing yearly agenda of events confirms the number, variety, and value of community participation.

The growing popularity and increasing significance of the Arboretum spurred the Arboretum Board (Board) to approve a four-phase Master Plan revision. Phases II, III, and IV, in the future, will focus on serving families and creating a draw for more visitors. The highlights for these phases include a Visitors' Center, a Children's Garden, improving the herb and rose garden, and developing new garden features. Phase I, the current focus, is directed toward the as yet unmet needs of the Arboretum and the community. These needs concentrate on three core areas: modernizing maintenance features, improving landscape infrastructure, and creating arboretum accessibility.

Grounds open free to the public, dawn to dusk, 365 days a year.
The Arboretum offices in the Frances Plecker Ed Center are open weekdays. Calls and emails are answered from 8:00 am to 4:00 pm, except holidays. Check the website calendar for holiday closings.

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Directions to the EJC Arboretum
Edith J. Carrier Arboretum at James Madison University
(540) 568-3194
780 University Blvd, MSC 3705
Harrisonburg, VA 22807