What is an arboretum? Some might think it’s a fancy word for park. Others might think it’s a forest. If one thinks it might be a garden, then they’re on the right track! An arboretum is a botanical garden that hosts collections of trees and other woody collections. Many describe it as a “living tree collection” of various species of trees, shrubs, and plants. This living tree collection is often created for scientific as well as aesthetic purposes. Many arboretums are arranged in an intentional way, focusing on characteristics such as shared properties, uses, or even natural likeness or common ancestry of trees and plants.
Why are trees so important? Trees positively affect the environment as well as human lives. Especially essential for urban environments, trees cool down urban areas that are more often than not concrete jungles. They are significant in stormwater management (their roots hold back soil erosion and absorb water). Trees increase property values and decrease energy bills. They encourage community ties and even decrease crime rates. Trees have also been proven to aid in people’s mental and physical health, even improving children’s attention spans and test scores.
Jesse Bennett and the Creation of the Arboretum
Jesse Bennett, the Arboretum’s namesake, created and grew the Arboretum as we see it today. Bennett was the Wayne County Parks and Forestry director during the 1920s and 1930s. Not only was he instrumental in breaking ground on the Arboretum, he was also a leader in southeast Michigan’s roadside development.
In 1922, the Wayne County Road Commission hired Jesse Bennett to be the director of Wayne County Parks and Forestry. While in this role, Bennett transformed southeast Michigan, creating spaces for both natural wildlife as well as roadside development. Under his helm the Road Commission became the first in Michigan to institute a program involving planting trees as roadside development.
As Wayne County Parks and Forestry director, Jesse Bennett saw his arboretum project not only as a living museum but also as a testing ground to determine whether trees could thrive in urban settings and roadside planting. He oversaw the planting of approximately 200,000 trees along southeast Michigan roads and parks. In addition to this work, Bennett penned several books that described roadside planting and beautification, further cementing his national notoriety. Jesse Bennett’s pioneering spirit gave southeast Michigan renewed natural life.
Tree Species in the Arboretum
Today, Bennett Arboretum is home to several tree collections, both native and foreign to southeast Michigan. The Arboretum initially had 500 trees however today 103 trees remain. The Oak tree collection includes Red Oak, White Oak, Pin Oak, and Willow Oak Trees. Included in the Evergreen collection are White Pine, Douglas Fir, and Canadian Hemlock trees. The arboretum also has a Beech tree collection, Maple tree collection, Hickory tree collection, and other assorted trees. Ginkgo, Horse Chestnut, and Ironwood are just some of the numerous trees that also populate the area.
The Red Oak tree can be found in the Bennett Arboretum as well as throughout Michigan, including your neighborhood! It thrives in humid areas and tolerates colder seasons, making Michigan the perfect place for Red Oak trees to grow! Their leaves have a pointed end and the bark can be likened to the marks of a cross country skier as they glide over snow. The Red Oak tree also has acorns, however, many animals prefer the taste of acorns from the White Oak tree.
The Bennett Arboretum also hosts White Oak trees, which can also be found in your own backyards! Unlike the pointed leaves of Red Oak trees, the leaves from White Oak trees are rounded. Its bark is a light gray color and has visible scaly, thick ridges. Like the Red Oak tree, White Oak trees also have acorns, but why do animals prefer White Oak acorns? Their acorns have less tannis in them, making them less bitter to the wildlife that depend on them.
Michigan’s wildlife collectively enjoy White Oak acorns including birds, deer, and bears, and the Autumn season is the perfect time for a certain animal to eat one of its favorite snacks. As humans enjoy the apples, cider, and donuts that come with Fall, Michigan’s bears enthusiastically eat White Oak acorns. Bears especially like to eat White Oak acorns during the Fall season because these acorns are high in protein and fat content. These along with berries help bears prepare for hibernation.
Bennett Arboretum is not only a collection of Michigan and American trees. It hosts trees from places as far away as Europe and Asia! One such tree is the Fern Leaf Beech tree. Native to central and southern Europe, the Fern Leaf Beech can grow as high as 80 feet tall and 50 feet wide. A quick tip: if you’re looking to keep deer away, Fern Leaf Beech trees are deer resistant!
Fern Leaf Beech tree leaves are pointed and a dark green color. Once fall approaches, the leaves turn a golden yellow color. Its bark is gray and has a smooth texture, especially poignant during winter. With the arrival of spring comes small, yellow-green flowers. Fruits soon after begin to grow and by fall are ripe. Fern Leaf Beech trees are a stunning display of natural beauty during all four seasons.
Cass Benton Park
Just across the way, on the west side of Bennett Arboretum, is Cass Benton Park, which also has a unique history of its own. Usage of the park evolved over the twentieth century. In the 1920s, Cass Benton Park was a favored picnic spot in southeast Michigan, and by the 1950s, winter sports dominated the area, with the tobogganing hill making it the “it” place to hang out. A decade later, Cass Benton Park became a primary venue for local high school cross country runners, particularly due to its diverse and hilly terrain. In 1972, Cass Benton Park hosted the Class-A (Division I) final meet. Today, Michigan high schools still flock to the area for cross country meets, invitationals, and competitions.