Contributed by Guest Blogger Rick Sellano 

The term "living collection" tells us that plants in an arboretum are works of art—like paintings in a gallery. The Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) in the Morris Arboretum are prime examples. At the Arboretum, you'll find these beautiful trees among other specimens surrounding the Out on a Limb exhibit. There, the Japanese maples combine with umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) and more trees to build an elevated happening that has to be experienced. (See my blog from June 2017.) As if the synergy of the trees and the emotion of being above it all weren't enough, a color change is happening out on those limbs. As the days move closer to November, the leaves of the Japanese maples are beginning to turn to vibrant shades of red.

Color has always been fundamental to art forms. It's about a little, a lot, or the lack thereof in whatever media suits. For these maples, the dramatic color change serves as my guidepost for an imaginative journey—through time and to the evolution of Japanese gardens. The concept for Japanese gardens began in the Asuka Period (538 to 710 AD). The gardens were grown from Japanese religion and philosophy and also owed their composition and presentation to fundamental principles of the "Japanese aesthetic." Key among the garden protocol is to avoid manufactured ornamentation and rely mainly on natural elements. It's not art inspired by nature. It's nature as art.

Combining natural elements and other curated items in discreet ways is the foundation of Japanese gardening. The list of standard components includes water, sand, rocks, small bridges, lanterns, low fences, trees, and flowers. Often gardening artists include something old or worn. These items scarred by the days serve to remind visitors that the passage of time is inevitable and that the aging transformation is beautiful and worth respecting.

Still, if you’d prefer not to use your mind’s eye to appreciate Japanese gardens, head to the Hillcrest Avenue boundary of Morris Arboretum. There, you’ll find the Japanese Overlook—a unique melding of a Japanese garden and an English rock garden. The surprising mix of Victorian and Japanese elements is the result of the 1912 design teamwork of John Morris, Frank Gould (with a Kew Gardens heritage), and the Arboretum’s Japanese gardener, Mr. Muto. At the Arboretum, you have the opportunity to consider the Japanese maple as a vital component of a Japanese garden—or to explore the Overlook, a one-of-a-kind experience inspired by Japanese gardening. One of the Arboretum’s unique attributes is how it serves its visitors on many levels.

Admiring the flora of Morris Arboretum is an experience that’s rich, but effortless. Take in one petal or one leaf at a time. Or step back and take in the beauty of the plant's form. Inhale its aroma. Then, look around and take in the various gardens and presentation areas. Also, occasionally think about a plant's history and relationship with people, like the iconic Japanese maple. By experiencing the Arboretum’s offerings as multi-faceted treasures, it quickly comes into focus that each specimen is a work of art.