An Interview with Anthony Aiello | The Gayle E. Maloney Director of Horticulture and Curator of Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania

Contributed by Ashley Angell, Morris Arboretum Social Media Strategist

We are here today to speak with Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania's Director of Horticulture and Curator, Anthony Aiello, about a recent collaboration between the Arboretum and the University of Tennessee Knoxville's Institute of Agriculture, Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology.

Cornus bretschneideri

Ashley Angell: Hello, Anthony. Thank you for sitting down with us today. Would you mind telling us a little bit of your background, including how long you have been working at Morris Arboretum?

Anthony Aiello: Sure, my background is in both botany and horticulture. I’ve worked in horticultural research at a university but have been at the Morris Arboretum in my current position for the past 18 years.


Angell: That's wonderful. So, onto the collaboration with the University of Tennessee's Institute of Agriculture. How did it begin?

Aiello: It was cold-call so to speak, or rather a cold email. Our plant catalogue is online and Marcin Nowicki and Robert Trigiano, the researchers from the University of Tennessee, contacted me to inquire about our dogwood collection. They are conducting research on the native flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and wanted to expand their work to include the closely related kousa dogwoods (Cornus kousa), that are native to Asia. He was especially interested in our kousa dogwoods because we have plants of know wild origin from Japan, South Korea, and China. Because of this he could get a sense of variations among different populations from across their native range.


Angell: Is it a common practice among gardens and institutes to shares species of plants with one another? How does the sharing process work?

Aiello: Yes, we do it frequently and that’s the beauty of having information about our living collection available online. We are a living museum and it is important to make sure that our holdings are available to a wide audience. Often I receive requests through Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), where our plant catalogue is listed, but I also have people contact me directly. With prior permission, horticulturists and researchers will come here to collect seed, cuttings, or leaf samples. All that we ask is that they let us know what they collect, and in the case of published research projects, acknowledge that they received material from us.


Angell: Very interesting. What plants is Morris Arboretum sharing with UTIA? What is significant about these specimens?

Aiello: As part of this project, we sent leaf samples from 48 plants of Cornus kousa. These include plants grown from seed collected in Korea (including three collections from the 1984 expedition), Japan, and China (six accessions, including four from our expeditions to Shaanxi and Gansu). In addition, we sampled 11 unusual species:

Cornus australis

Cornus bretschneideri

Cornus controversa

Cornus foemina

Cornus macrophylla

Cornus mas

Cornus officinalis

Cornus paucinervis

Cornus racemosa

Cornus walteri

Cornus wilsoniana

The assemblage of unusual species, coupled with depth in our holdings of Cornus kousa of known provenance make the Arboretum one of the few (if not the only) arboreta in North America positioned to help with this project.


Angell: Oh I see. And what length of time, from genesis to completion, does a project like this take? How many people are involved in the collaboration?

Aiello: It all depends. Some projects can take a year or two, while others can go on for several years. Usually if there is a graduate student involved it’s a shorter project, but other research efforts can take several years to complete. For example, a conservation project that we have been doing with paperbark maple (Acer griseum) has taken several years, mainly because we had to travel to England, China, and the West Coast of the U.S. All of that travel could not be completed in one year so we completed it over three years, from 2014-2016.


Angell: Could you share a little with us about the goal of the Cornus kousa collection for UTIA? How will the information be used once they have collected the data?

Aiello: The researchers at the University of Tennessee requested the leaf samples as part of their program to develop molecular (DNA) markers to study species diversity among populations of ornamental plants, in this case with dogwoods. Because the kousa dogwood samples come from geographically distinct regions (South Korea, China, and Japan), they are better able to understand the differences among the different populations of Cornus kousa. That is why our samples were so important–we are probably the only Arboretum with such broad representation of kousa dogwood.


Angell: Wow! Is there anything else that you would like add about the significance of this project and Morris Arboretum's role in the collaboration?

Aiello: It speaks to the value of our living collection, the importance of plant exploration, plant records, and the long-term effects of building and taking care of a collection. Very few places have this type of long-term view and it’s a pleasure to be part of this organization.


Angell: What a unique collaboration in the field of horticulture! Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania's execution is incredible. Thank you again for speaking with us today. We hope our readers will enjoy this interview as much as we have.

Aiello: My pleasure. I hope that this gives visitors a different perspective on the value of the Arboretum’s plants.


Photo credits:

  1. Cornus sanguinea subsp. australis (C. A. Mey.) Jáv. (Corniolo sanguinello)Dipartimento di Scienze della Vita, Università di Trieste - Progetto Dryades - Picture by Andrea Moro
  2. Cornus bretschneideri L.Henry© Dipartimento di Scienze della Vita, Università di Triestepicture by Andrea Moro
  3. Cornus officinalis Siebold & Zucc.2002 NACPEC Expedition, c/o Anne Barber, Morris Arboretum Research Project Coordinator
  4. Cornus kousa Buerg.1984 Herbarium U.S. National Arboretum, Washington D.C., c/o Anne Barber, Morris Arboretum Research Project Coordinator
  5. Cornus foemina P. Mill.2014 Herbarium of the Morris Arboretum (MOAR) University of Pennsylvania, c/o Anne Barber, Morris Arboretum Research Project Coordinator
  6. Cornus sanguinea subsp. australis (C. A. Mey.) Jáv. (Corniolo sanguinello)Dipartimento di Scienze della Vita, Università di Trieste - Progetto Dryades - Picture by Andrea Moro
  7. Cornus controversa, Cambridge University Botanic Garden - photo by Magnus Manske
  8. Cornus foemina, Northern Forest Atlas - photo by unknown
  9. Cornus macrophylla - Wall.,, author - Wall.
  10. Cornus mas, Flickr - photo by enviroteacherbob
  11. Cornus officialis, Oregon State University, College of Agritculture Sciences - Department of Horticulture, author Patrick Breen
  12. Cornus paucinervis, U.C. Botanical Garden at Berkeley - Berkeley, California - photo by unknown
  13. Cornus racemosa, University of Connecticut Plant Database,, Mark H. Brand, Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, Storrs, CT 06269-4067 USA.
  14. Cornus wilsoniana - Wangerin.,, author - Wangerin.