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What is an Arboretum?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 October 2014
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An arboretum is an area set aside for the cultivation of trees, shrubs, and woody plants. It could be considered a form of botanic garden which focuses specifically on woody plants. Arboretums can be found all over the world, and many of them are quite old, with very rich and varied histories. Many arboretums are open to the general public, with guides who can help people navigate the arboretum in order to learn more about the plants and trees grown on the site.

A number of functions can be served by an arboretum. In addition to being a pleasant and ornamental space, an arboretum can also house plant and tree specimens for study and scientific research, and it can be used for education. Many arboretums are attached to herbaria, facilities where dried plant specimens are studied for further research and study, and quite a number are also affiliated with universities and colleges.

The oldest arboretums appear to date back to the 1400s, with the term “arboretum” appearing around the 1800s. During the age of exploration, many arboretums were used to house and attempt to cultivate foreign plant specimens, especially specimens of value. Learning to deal with plants and trees from a wide variety of regions and environments was an important part of running a successful arboretum, as explorers and members of the community expected to see exotic plants on display when they visited their arboretums.

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Scientific research has also been historically a very important part of the mission at arboretums. Researchers might study plants to see if they have medicinally valuable compounds or other potential uses, and they also historically looked at how plants reproduced and grew, studying the ways in which trees react to their environments and form relationships with other trees and plants. Some famous arboretums even have areas dedicated to extensive replications of entire natural environments, such as rainforests and woodlands.

When an arboretum focuses specifically on fruit trees, it is sometimes known as a fruticetum. Arboretums which specialize in conifers are pinetums, while arboretums with a large collection of vines are viticetums. More general arboretums may also have collections of plants which would not normally fall under the purview of an arboretum, in the interest of diversity, ornament, or scientific research, especially arboretums which focus on the interconnected lifestyles of rainforest plants.

People who wish to visit an arboretum can generally do so without needing to make an appointment, although it can be a good idea to call ahead to get information about hours and rates. If a guided tour is desired, making an appointment is strongly recommended to ensure that a guide will be available.

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