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Autumn splendor is on display at Applewood Arboretum in Amherst

  • Anne Cann with a Sassafras tree in the Arboretum in Amherst.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Bark on a Stewartia in the Amherst Arboretum.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Visitors are welcome to visit the Applewood Arboretum in Amherst.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Arboretum in Amherst.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Dawn Redwood in the Arboretum in Amherst  lost its top in last years October snow storm.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • American Larch tree that got bent over in last years October snow storm in the Arboretum in Amherst.<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Oak Leaf Hydrangea  in the Arboretum in Amherst<br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Oak Leaf Hydrangea in the Applewood Arboretum in Amherst<br/><br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • <br/><br/>CAROL LOLLIS

It’s the season to appreciate trees. Whether you admire the changing foliage of deciduous trees in yellow, red, pumpkin or burgundy or the contrast of deep-hued evergreens, trees and shrubs are especially prominent in the fall.

An unusually peaceful place to enjoy the foliage is at the Applewood Arboretum, which is conservation land owned by the Town of Amherst off Bay Road near Atkins Farms Country Market. Officially known as Orchard Arboretum, it is a former Atkins orchard, and is located behind Applewood at Amherst, a retirement community.

“I’m a strong believer in the healing power of getting outdoors,” said Anne Cann, an Applewood resident, who chairs the six-member arboretum committee. “Having this land has meant so much to me.”

Cann urges other residents to stroll among the trees, even for a few minutes.

“We look at the arboretum as a neighborhood asset,” said Pete Westover, the retired town conservation director who helped establish the arboretum in 1994.

Pretty pathways

The 6-acre area was purchased in 1994 by the Kestrel Trust for $175,000, with part of that amount from a bequest from Janet Dakin, a founder of the trust. The trust then donated the parcel to the town. Two acres are maintained as an arboretum and mowed regularly, but the adjacent areas, with walking trails, are kept wild. The entire area is open from dawn to dusk daily, free of charge. Pets, however, are excluded.

There are a few asphalt walkways through the arboretum, ending with an English-style wooden bench. Cann said she would like to extend the pathways so that people using walkers or canes can go farther.

“You like to complete a circle, not just turn around and go back,” she said.

As the leaves start to fall there is a lovely view of the Pelham hills, especially from rustic seats at the top of a slope overlooking the area.

The 90 species planted in the arboretum are gradually replacing the aging apple trees from the original orchard. A few volunteer oak trees established themselves years ago but the arboretum committee prefers to plant smaller ornamentals, with a maximum height of 20 feet.

Some of the trees were planted as memorials by family members. The most recent is a Nootka false cypress (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis), a needled evergreen with a weeping habit and an Oriental ambiance.

“The family was contemplative so they wanted a place to sit and enjoy the peace,” Cann said. They also donated a wooden bench. The tree was selected as “tree of the month” with a description and photograph featured in Applewood’s October newsletter.

Cann and the committee are working on a policy about donations and a master plan for the arboretum. There is a rule against invasive species and the committee encourages specimens that provide seasonal color and winter interest.

Memorial donations can be tricky, Cann said. “Someone may want a lilac like what mother had or suggest a Norway maple, which is an invasive. Ultimately we would like to have a master list of what we would like and then people can choose from the list.”

Impressive array

Already there is an impressive variety of species in the arboretum, including some unusual plants, including a Formosa juniper (Juniperus Formosan), a ‘Hally Jolivette’ cherry (Prunus), a Korean mountain ash (Sorbus alnifolia) and a Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioica). An Eastern redbud (Cercis Canadensis) was in full yellow foliage last week, a ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) was ready to shed its golden leaves and a ninebark shrub (Physocarpus opulifolius) and oak leaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) both had dramatic purple foliage. In the adjacent conservation area, sassafras trees (Sassafras albidum) with their mitten foliage in various shades of red, yellow and orange were quite dramatic.

As winter approaches, some of the deciduous trees can also be admired for their bark. The stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia) has exfoliating bark that exposes the orange tint beneath. Kousa dogwoods (Cornus kousa) and birches (Betula platyphylla) also have exfoliating bark and the purple beech (Fagus sylvatica) has a smooth gray trunk that looks like elephant skin.

Many of the trees have colorful fruits. On a fall morning, hordes of birds were flitting about, devouring the tasty crab apples and hawthorn berries. There are bird baths, bird houses and bird feeders in the arboretum.

Westover said the group has been working with the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which developed a plan indicating the anticipated space each specimen would occupy when mature. This helps in siting new plantings so the arboretum doesn’t become an unmanageable forest.

“Pete was there from the start,” Cann said. Among the original Applewood resident organizers were Robert Gage, Alice Mertz and Ruth Pratt. The arboretum committee has been revived only recently.

“We are keeping tabs on what we have, setting policy, such as how to decide to cut down an old tree, creating a master plan and assuring the sustainability of the arboretum,” Cann said.

Ongoing effort

Cann spends time working in the arboretum, regularly weeding, extending the mulch area around each specimen, devising labels and pruning where needed. The group employs an arborist, Dave Hawkins, to do the more complicated pruning.

Hawkins provided “emergency first aid” after last year’s October snowstorm, which inflicted heavy damage on the arboretum, Cann said. One tree that suffered dramatically was a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). The top half of the evergreen snapped off, Cann said. The nearby American larch (Larix laricina) was bent completely to the ground. Gradually it is righting itself, but still is barely beyond a 45-degree angle.

Even with the mulch, purchased each year from Wagner Wood in Amherst, weeding is ongoing. Sour grass is Cann’s particular bugbear.

Kelly Wheeler, a graduate of the UMass Department of Plant, Soil and Insect Science, helps Cann with the heavier work. “She’s great with the wheelbarrow,” Cann said. Jack Norton has also been a great help, she added.

Watering is another maintenance chore although not all the trees and shrubs get watered regularly.

“You can’t water every tree,” Cann said. During the drought this summer, however, she noticed that a katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) was especially affected by the dryness and she had to water it, lugging a hose up the slope. Ruth Owen Jones grew the tree from seed from the once-magnificent specimen outside Grace Church which had to be removed for safety reasons 10 years ago.

Most of the trees are planted as individual specimens, but a few, such as crab apples, blueberries and other small shrubs, are in groups. Many are labeled, some with metal plates affixed to branches but newer ones with in-ground labels. The label includes the botanical Latin name, the common English name, the year planted and an inventory number. Cann said each label costs $10.

Funding for the arboretum comes from Applewood residents and a fundraiser every spring. Applewood administration provides the water — spigots and hoses in several strategic locations — and “muscle power” when needed. For instance, maintenance staff set the new bench in place recently.

The arboretum committee is in charge of maintenance and policy but the town has ultimate control over the site and Cann said the current conservation director, David Ziomek, is very supportive.

Westover urged readers to visit the arboretum.

“This is town property,” he said. “I hope people in town appreciate it.”

Cheryl Wilson can be reached at valleygardens@comcast.net.

Visitors are welcome at the arboretum. There is a small wooden container holding descriptive brochures at the entrance. Park along the driveway or in the parking lots.

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