A Garden is Always Becoming - Never Complete

“...this piece of land, this arboretum, is dedicated to stabilizing and balancing the lives of those who visit it. This space is also dedicated to the needs of ordinary people who seek renewal and who simply need an infusion of nature to better handle their days.”

--Dr. Ronald Carrier, JMU President Emeritus, at an Arboretum ceremony in 1997

The Present

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 (http://www.usanpn.org/) 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.

The Past

The Arboretum is named for Edith J. Carrier, the wife of JMU President Emeritus, Ronald E. Carrier. During his presidential tenure from 1971 to 1998, Mrs. Carrier served the university tirelessly as a hostess for academic, political, and corporate dignitaries visiting JMU, and as an event planner and event administrator for university executive events, but without pay or public acknowledgement. Naming the Arboretum in her honor was an acknowledgement of gratitude by the James Madison University Board of Visitors to officially recognize Edith J. Carrier's years of service to the university. Since its founding, a goal has been set to maintain as much of the natural environment as possible while achieving the maximum use of this resource for the benefit of the JMU community, the City of Harrisonburg, Rockingham County, and the Shenandoah Valley region communities and tourism visitors. Previous efforts in the Arboretum's creation included the acquisition of lands, the development of the overall layout of the site, the design of the gardens and walking trails, and the planting of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers with a focus on native plants.

Photo of Dr. Norlyn Bodkin, founding Director of the EJC Arboretum

In 1964, JMU Botany Professor, Dr. Norlyn Bodkin, began using the "College Woods" for educational purposes, along with other natural sciences faculty Dr. Gilbert Trelawny and Dr. James Grimm. Dr. Bodkin started advocating in earnest for a campus arboretum in the early 1970s and by 1977 was pushing hard for a living botanical laboratory at newly-renamed James Madison University. In that year after receiving President Dr. Ronald E. Carrier's approval, plans were begun, surveys were conducted, and for an arboretum the first allotment of 26 acres were set aside, most of which are named in his honor, the Norlyn Bodkin Oak Hickory Forest.

In October of 1986, a Board was created. They were charged with guiding the Arboretum's development, operations, and fundraising. In 1988, water features, including a pond, were created with the help of the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. Erosion and run-off that impact the pond continue to be a challenge to the staff, but the pond habitat is one of the most endearing features of the Arboretum as well as a visual center of the gardens. The forest acres, obtained in 1993, hold 90-100 year-old oaks and hickories (with at least three identified century trees protected within the Arboretum's boundaries).

Recognition came when the Arboretum was designated a Living Legacy by the Commission on the Bicentennial for the U.S. Constitution on September 19, 1987. The designation required JMU to have a long-term maintenance plan, access for the general public, and plantings that featured trees and plants from the 13 original colonies. This award helped ensure the Arboretum would be a lasting legacy for JMU and the community.

In a nod to a legacy figurehead, an Arboretum donor society, created in 1990, was named The John Clayton Botanical Society. An English native, John Clayton, who came to Virginia in 1715 and became a self-taught expert in Virginia botany, discovered many woodland wildflowers that the Arboretum currently cultivates. Clayton was praised by Thomas Jefferson as having “contributed more than any other botanist who lived.” The famed Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus, named the Virginia plant “Spring Beauty” Claytonia virginica in honor of his friend and fellow botanist. To honor Clayton, the Arboretum has a John Clayton Trail, as well as the plants that bear his name.

As evidenced by their naming of The John Clayton Botanical Society, the staff at the Arboretum takes their role as keepers of botanical history seriously. The staff has rescued wildflowers from encroaching development, helping to conserve, propagate, and expand the native Virginian plant ecosystem. In addition, the Arboretum's former director, Norlyn Bodkin, was inducted into the Linnaean Society in London, England, in December of 1991. The Arboretum is a member of numerous botanical organizations including the American Public Gardens Association, the American Horticultural Society, the American Rhododendron Society, the Herb Society of America, and the Virginia Native Plant Society. The Arboretum serves as a component site of the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. These associations and organizations offer accreditation to specific areas of botanical knowledge.

The Arboretum strives to offer to its constituents knowledge of areas of botanical and environmental interest during its brown bag lunch lecture series held in the open-air Pavilion. The Pavilion was built in the 1990s, and, until an education center opened, it was the only roofed structure available to the public. In 2007, an education and office building was constructed. That building, the Frances Plecker Education Center (Education Center) facilitated and heightened access for more visitors of the Arboretum. The Education Center made possible public and private gatherings and a space to hold educational events, regardless of inclement weather. With this newest building, the Arboretum fulfilled its potential as a community educational resource. The indoor learning, public reception and office space transformed the Arboretum into a year-round destination public garden. The Education Center provides indoor handicap accessible restrooms as well as handicap accessible ramps and parking. These were accessibility firsts for the Arboretum. Interestingly, providing this limited initial accessibility revealed to the staff and Board that persons with mobility issues were limited to experiencing the Arboretum from the sole vantage of the Education Center.

Moving Forward: Campaign for Accessibility

The Master Plan's momentum has taken hold with the Board's update and approval. Of the three core areas (modernizing maintenance features, improving landscape infrastructure, and creating arboretum accessibility), JMU will tackle the first two with its resources.

For information about the Arboretum Stream Restoration Project of Fall 2015, please read the story.

JMU will invest in water best management practices as well as in propagation of specific plants. With this investment, maintenance features will be improved through the consolidation of storage and vehicle sheds to one location. In the same location, a heated greenhouse will be built. This will allow Arboretum staff to more efficiently preserve and propagate native and other species on-site. The second core area, landscape infrastructure improvements, will tackle water and landscape limitations. Due to the grading of the land, the Arboretum struggles with water erosion and storm run-off. The JMU staff, faculty, and students will join together to create a best management practice solution via stormwater computer modeling. The grant-funded modeling will help create a string of catch basins (or ponds) which will then function as habitats.

The third, and perhaps most urgent, component of Phase I of the Master Plan allows the Arboretum and its botanical gardens and lovely views to be accessible to everyone. The Arboretum's Campaign for Accessibility proposed the creation of a new terrace, accessible garden trails, and a stage garden. With completion of these three new projects, a visitor with accessibility issues can explore the Arboretum in much more depth.

The new Ernst Tree Terrace (Terrace), was completed in March, 2012, and is a hilltop patio and pergola adjacent to the Education Center. The Education Center, built with an accessible ramp, is on a hill directly overlooking the open lawn area and the Arboretum's major water feature. The Terrace increases the educational and social workspace of the building, allowing activities to flow from indoors to outdoors, as well as providing a scenic overlook for all types of events. From the Terrace shaded with a pergola, visitors with mobility devices can overlook the Arboretum large lawn, pond, and woods. The Terrace provides space for working and relaxing in the outdoors. Several handicap-accessible raised-bed gardens and a work table will allow people of all ages and all mobility levels to participate in therapeutic gardening programs.

With the initial phase completed February, 2012, the new 0.3-mile-long Robert and Frances Plecker Pond Loop Accessible Trail (Accessible Trail) takes visitors from the Terrace, where with or without mobility devices they then continue to the new Ann O'Connor Jurney Stage Garden (Stage Garden), a stage site which can accommodate live performances or where visitors can pause and enjoy a breathtaking view of the pond and arboretum's iconic bridge. As they proceed, passing gardens suited for migratory butterfly habitat, visitors enjoy the wetlands gardens where dragonflies flit through rushes and aquatic plants before moving on to watch fish and turtles in the pond. Also on the Accessible Trail visitors pass the Poet-Tree, can pause and watch birdlife at a bird-feeding station, and absorb the beauty of the arboretum's pond waterfall. From there, visitors cross the arboretum's scenic bridge to continue their accessible arboretum visit on the opposite side of the pond, completing the first loop of the Accessible Trail which circles back to the Education Center.

In a subsequent future phase when another donation makes it possible to build a woodland garden loop, the Accessible Trail is planned to continue from the original pond loop upward to the arboretum's original parking lot, and from there to the Pavilion. The planned second phase naming opportunity of the Accessible Trail will allow a complete journey for those with mobility devices, where all visitors will be able to access the Pavilion to picnic in the woods and attend educational workshops and brown bag lecture lunches, and to enjoy beauty ranging from the forest floor ephemeral wildflowers in their spring bloom to spectacular fall colors of the deciduous tree canopy.


The Edith J. Carrier Arboretum provides an enriching botanical educational experience within a wooded sanctuary that offers respite from hectic life. Additional future donor financial support will allow visitors to experience more educational opportunities and better access to the beautiful gardens and landscapes. Several times, spring through fall, the Arboretum continues to witness visitors using mobility assistance devices who turn away when unable to physically navigate the gardens nearby the Pavilion. Everyone should be afforded the dignifying human experience of time spent in nature. All persons should be able to navigate through beautiful gardens and relax in a peaceful woodland setting, because all of us “need an infusion of nature to better handle our days.”

Costs for the Campaign for Accessibility

Phase I of the Arboretum's Master Plan was a priority with JMU. JMU dedicated funds needed to meet expenses above naming donations for new accessible features, and dedicated $100,000 to assist with all three accessibility projects. A remaining $300,000 investment was needed and has been met by recent donors, paying for the Ernst Terrace, the Plecker Pond Loop Trail, which is the first phase of the handicap-accessible paths, and the Ann O'Connor Jurney Stage Garden in order to make the Edith J. Carrier Arboretum a pleasure to visit for all. New naming opportunities now exist for expanding accessible access in the future to the Pavilion and its nearby gardens. And prepared for development with naming donations, are new designs for family feature gardens, At Home In The Woods, and new wildflower gardens including a Monarch Way Station garden, and a wildflower meadow display in the arboretum's large lawn viewshed area.

Mission Statement

The Edith J. Carrier Arboretum, a woodland sanctuary on the James Madison University campus, is a public urban garden and forested greenspace that preserves native plants species, provides opportunities for research, and promotes knowledge of the botanical and natural world for people of all ages.

JMU Arboretum Interview
Click here to watch on YouTube.

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