Contributed by Lucy Dinsmore, Azalea Meadow Horticulturist 

Morris Arboretum’s mission has always championed staff development, and its leadership has encouraged and supported opportunities for staff to grow. There are two endowments that fund staff development, and there is a robust program that enables individuals across departments to pursue their professional goals which in turn furthers the goals of the Arboretum. Staff have opportunities to pursue conferences & symposia, higher education, plant collecting, staff exchanges, and international travel. Focusing on the last three, here are some examples that have enabled staff to advance their careers.

  1. Higher education – Many staff have achieved their graduate degrees at Penn while working full-time. Three horticulturists have received or are working towards their Masters of Environmental Studies. While the Arboretum’s endowments don’t fund these endeavors, the tuition benefit offered through the University of Pennsylvania is encouraged.
  2. Plant collecting – Plant collection trips go beyond the Executive Director and Director of Horticulture/Curator who’ve taken trips to China and Japan for plant research. Recently, Vince Marrocco, Chief Horticulturist, collected plants in Azerbaijan and Jess Slade, The McCausand Natural Areas Horticulturist, was encouraged to go on a collecting trip to North Carolina, joining representatives from a number of other institutions, including Longwood, Mt. Cuba, and Natural Lands. Plant collecting is an incredible way to see native plants in their habitats and create collections to add to the Arboretum’s portfolio. That experience is important in so many ways: it’s an introduction to other professionals and a chance to grow one’s network. And the outcomes of seeds collected are multi-faceted. When that seed comes back to the Arboretum, it becomes the goal of Shelley Dillard, Morris Arboretum Propagator, to grow them in the Greenhouse and then share them with other institutions. It’s a learning, teaching, and networking experience for Shelley and the Martha J. Wallace Plant Endowed Plant Propagation intern. Collecting trips involve a lot of sharing of information, positioning the Morris Arboretum as a leader in plant exploration.
  3. Transformational Staff Development - The Morris Arboretum supports staff exchanges and travel opportunities for staff and welcomes foreign colleagues alike. Here are a few examples. 

Botanical Scientist Cindy Skema will be traveling this summer to complete work researching the evolutionary history and systematics of an under-studied group of tropical plants, the Dombeyoideae (a subfamily of Malvaceae, particularly the genus Dombeya). The Arboretum is funding her travels to Paris to work at the natural history museum (Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle) with her colleague Dr. Timothée Le Péchon of Meise Botanic Garden. Cindy will maximize her collaboration to develop new research skills, particularly new lab techniques, which she’ll apply to the work on the flora of Pennsylvania. 

Assistant Director of Continuing Education & Penn Student Outreach Bryan Thompson-Nowak is doing professional development through a combination of funding from Morris Arboretum and the Chanticleer Scholarship (of which he was a recipient of in 2018). Last year, he completed a week-long executive education course with the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University where he learned about data analytics. Being in Chicago also allowed him the opportunity to meet with colleagues at the Morton Arboretum and Chicago Botanic Garden and discuss how they use data analytics in their business practices. He’s planning to extend these conversations this spring to colleagues in the UK with visits to Kew, Oxford, Cambridge, and the Royal Horticultural Society. He’s hoping to parlay this knowledge and utilize it at the Morris Arboretum.

In addition to Morris Arboretum sending staff on trips, it also hosts international institutions and individuals. One such example in 2018 was a visit from Japanese delegates from the Kobe City Government who, along with their host, Shofuso House and Garden in Fairmount Park, toured the Arboretum’s Japanese features with staff experts. Through a translator, they learned about some of the Arboretum’s history and features, and they in turn offered their experience and knowledge.

Lastly, several staff have benefited from the staff exchange program the Morris Arboretum has with Windsor Great Park. The Royal Landscape Exchange is a reciprocal staff exchange between Morris Arboretum and the Royal Landscape in Windsor, England. Now in its 7th year, the exchange allows horticulturists and staff from both institutions to travel and work alongside each other and share information, study plant collections, histories, learn about different tools and techniques, and immerse in another culture, climate, and landscape. I spent three weeks at Windsor Great Park in 2014, Jess Slade went in 2018, and in 2019, horticulturist Erin Conley will represent the Arboretum there.

During my rotation through the gardens, I worked alongside different horticulturists in the Savill and Valley Gardens, and visited numerous gardens, including a rose trial garden and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where I received a behind-the-scenes tour of their production and greenhouse facilities. Here, greenhouse staff showed us a unique contraption that they designed for woody plant propagation. For me, it was a paradigm shift learning their management and planting methods and preferred tools. Since then, we’ve modified our tool purchases toward more battery-operated styles.

Jess Slade with the Anckerwycke Yew, the National Trust's oldest tree. This 2,500 year old iconic tree stands at Runnymede in Windsor, England.


One of the highlights of Jess’ time in Windsor was visiting veteran trees with the park’s arboriculture team, including a 1,300-year old English oak, and learning how to read fungi growing on them as signs for management.  Jess shared that while much of the work was the same in England as in Philadelphia, for her, “meeting other professionals with a shared passion for the plant world and ecology was an unforgettable experience that shaped practices at home following the trip.”

As part of the exchange, Conor Langley, Horticulturist at Frogmore Estate on Windsor Castle’s grounds, spent time at the Morris Arboretum this past summer to see how public gardens are managed in the US and how native trees are cared for. He reported that he especially enjoyed helping to install the scarecrow exhibit along the Oak Allée, (commemorating Halloween in the US, which they do not have in England).

Travels like these are important ways of staying abreast of advances in the field. There is much to be gained from an exchange with another institution, whether it's in the Queen's backyard or midway across the country in Illinois. The information gained is key, both for Arboretum staff to disseminate what they’ve learned while traveling, and for sharing the wealth of knowledge that Morris Arboretum has with other institutions. Lastly, there is personal growth. These opportunities are about branching out, gaining perspective, and getting outside of one’s daily routine. Much like a sabbatical for an academic professor, these opportunities are also a way of pushing the reset button and recharging staff’s batteries.