1934

The Washington Park Arboretum


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"One of the main reasons urged for the dedication of this land to University purposes was that in addition to all the other needs of the institution, there could be established here a scientific arboretum for the cultivation, care and study of all kinds of trees and plants that will thrive in this climate. There are now on the grounds large groves of the original forest trees and many of them are being preserved. Many others have been planted and are now thriving."

--UW Regents, 1899, upon adopting a plan for the development of the present campus groundsfootnote 1

It has been called a "200-acre art museum," and a "symphony of plants." The Washington Park Arboretum (WPA) in Seattle, officially established in 1934, is dedicated to growing, studying, conserving, and displaying some 40,000 specimens of trees, shrubs, vines, and other plants.
[Fountain in the WPA]
  Fountain in the Washington Park Arboretum

This public land trust is one of the oldest public gardens west of the Mississippi River. The Arboretum is utilized widely by community and educational groups and is enjoyed by many visitors each year. The UW, its major educational user, offers some 40 courses each year using the Arboretum collections in fields such as urban horticulture, botany, forestry, and landscape architecture. Moreover, horticulture programs at Edmonds Community College and South Seattle Community College have made extensive use of the facility, in addition to hundreds of UW students.

Management of the Arboretum is coordinated between the UW and the City of Seattle. The UW owns the plant collections and manages the functions of the Arboretum and its public programs and activities. The Center for Urban Horticulture, an academic unit in the UW College of Forest Resources, is charged with overall administration of the Arboretum. The City, on the other hand, is responsible for all infrastructure support, turf, security, the Waterfront Trail, Japanese Garden, and native plant areas. A non-profit organization, The Arboretum Foundation, which has some 3,000 members, has supported the Arboretum with nearly $3 million in donations since 1935.

"Some authorities consider WPA's woody plant collection to be one of the two most important in the United States, the other being the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts," notes John A. Wott, director of arboreta at the Arboretum and professor of urban horticulture at the UW. "WPA has the largest public Japanese maple collection in the U.S. and the second largest collection of firs, hollies, and maples. The maritime Northwest's Mediterranean-like climate, with mild winter rains and somewhat stressful summer drought, allows WPA to grow and exhibit a wider variety of plants than almost any other non-tropical area in the United States."footnote 2

The Arboretum that we enjoy today--truly a gem in the array of public open spaces in the Puget Sound region--is a legacy of the vision of Edmond S. Meany (see Edmond S. Meany) and others who worked during the 1890s to move the UW campus from its old quarters downtown to the present site on the northern peninsula of land between Lake Union and Lake Washington. Apparently, as chair of the legislative committee concerned with acquiring a new campus for the University, Meany promoted the current site in part by billing it as an arboretum for the State in addition to a campus for the UW. It was a successful campaign. When the UW commenced a new school year in the fall of 1895 at the new site, the campus was described in the University catalog that year as "Grounds and Arboretum."footnote 1

The UW Regents put the arboretum on more official footing in 1899, incorporating it as part of a plan for the development of the site, and for the occasion the Seattle Parks Department donated over 2,000 trees to the effort. In 1924, the Regents selected Washington Park in Seattle as the Arboretum's permanent location. Then, ten years later, they formally agreed to "establish and maintain it."

By means of funds donated by the Seattle Garden Club, the Olmsted Brothers firm of Brookline, Massachusetts, was retained to develop a Master Plan that would guide the future growth of the facility. The Olmsted firms developed designs for approximately 5,500 different projects over the course of some twelve decades of practice, predominately in the United States and Canada. Cities all across the U.S. owe the design of their parks, state capitols, residential areas, hospitals, churches, and schools to the Olmsted Brothers.footnote 3

"In a sense, preparation of the Olmsted plan was a milestone in the development of the Arboretum," wrote Henry Schmitz in his book, The Long Road Travelled, an account of forestry at the University of Washington.footnote 1 "Olmsted Brothers was perhaps the most distinguished firm of landscape architects in the country at the time… A plan prepared by this firm had both status and stature. Clearly the initial contribution made by the Seattle Garden Club in making it possible to retain this firm to develop the original plan for the Arboretum was a most significant one."

By the 1940s, considerable progress had been made in developing the Arboretum. "Thousands of trees and shrubs had been planted following in general the Olmsted plan and many thousands more were growing as seedlings in the Arboretum nursery for future planting on appropriate sites," wrote Schmitz. Many people donated plants. Azalea Way, for example, approved by the UW in 1939, was planned and sponsored by the Seattle Garden Club. It was planned to have some 11,000 azaleas representing 140 different varieties, 700 flowering cherries and 150 eastern dogwoods.

"[S]ince the Arboretum was established, some of Seattle's leading and most public spirited citizens have devoted their time, their talents, and their money to make the Arboretum a reality. Although they, perhaps, never considered the possibility, the University of Washington Arboretum will be a perpetual monument to the quality of their citizenship, their idealism, and indeed their tenacity," Schmitz concluded.

The Arboretum was declared an official State Arboretum in 1995.


  1. The Long Road Travelled, Henry Schmitz, Arboretum Foundation, University of Washington, Seattle, 1973.
  2. "A Northwest Treasure," John A. Wott, Guide to Washington Park Arboretum: An Official Arboretum of Washington State, 58 (1&2), 7 (1995).
  3. "The Olmsted Taxonomic Arboretum and its Application to Washington Park, Seattle," Scot Daniel Medbury, Master of Science Thesis, University of Washington, 1990.

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