“Art is a harmony parallel with nature.”

—Paul Cézanne

Post-impressionist artist Paul Cézanne expressed these thoughts in France more than a century ago, but he would nevertheless recognize how well they are explored today at Adkins Arboretum on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. And rest assured—you don’t need artistic talent to enjoy it.

Adkins Arboretum, a member of the Chesapeake Gateways Network, is a 400-acre showcase of blooms and textures native to the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain. Throughout the visitor’s center, trails and demonstration gardens, a talented team of staff, artists and volunteers has interpreted and accented the landscape to emphasize both the beauty of the moment and the elegant play of seasonal change.

Their efforts manage to complement the natural setting, rather than compete with it.

“We have a passion for making Adkins Arboretum a true community center, drawing on all different disciplines to help people appreciate nature and the environment,” said marketing director Amy Steward. “Art is one more way of doing that—it helps people see nature the way an artist does, disclosing its beauty in a unique way.”

Steward spoke from the arboretum’s art gallery, an airy room where a series of prints by Martha Oatway celebrate the patterns of leaves and limbs. Exhibits in the arboretum’s visitor’s center rotate throughout the year. From Feb. 13 through March 24, the gallery will feature top entries in the arboretum’s annual art competition.

“The competition draws entries from up and down the East Coast, with a whole array of nature-related art, in all mediums,” Steward said.

During summer months, visitors will discover playful and provoking environmental sculpture tucked into nooks of fields and forests. During the summer of 2005, pieces by Howard and Mary McCoy highlighted the web of life in nature that is not always visible to the public eye. The annual outdoor sculpture exhibit is especially popular with children, who take to the woods as if hunting for treasure.

Family poetry workshops, a film festival, and nature journaling help to enrich the arts experience at Adkins Arboretum, along with saxophone music, percussionists, choral performances and a conservation book club. But the arts, according to Steward, play a supporting role for their primary mission: conservation of the native landscape.

“We’re losing native habitat throughout the region,” Steward said. “Adkins helps remind people how important these plants are to the ecology of the Eastern Shore.”

Adkins Arboretum, located just 25 miles east of the Chesapeake Bay bridge, is the only arboretum focused exclusively on preserving and promoting plants native to the Eastern Shore. Conservation curator Sylvan Kaufman said that it is important to highlight the region’s plant life not only because of threats from development, but also because geography has gifted the Delmarva Peninsula with a marvelous diversity of species.

“We are at the center of the Coastal Plain, which stretches from Florida to Maine. So species that prefer the north and species that prefer the south both tend to overlap here. We even have some overlap with Piedmont habitat, which is farther to the west,” Kaufman said.

More than 600 species of plants, shrubs and trees exist on the grounds of the arboretum, all are native to the Delmarva Peninsula. Original plans, though, were for something much more contrived.

“In 1972, the land was set aside to become Maryland’s state arboretum. The plan was to create samples of ecosystems from the whole state, whether or not they existed here naturally,” Kaufman said.

When momentum for the state’s plans stalled, the Friends of the Arboretum devised a new way to manage the site. Propelled by a gift from a local benefactor, they established Adkins Arboretum as an independent organization and began to manage the land through a long-term lease with the state. The most important change was an exclusive focus on native Delmarva plants and the wildlife that depends on them.

Most of the arboretum’s 400 acres had been farmland, mixed with patches of upland and wet, bottomland forests that were harvested for timber. Today, the forests at Adkins Arboretum are about a century old, with scattered examples of greater seniority. They are filled with oaks, tuliptrees, pawpaws, river birch, holly, magnolia and ironwood trees. In warmer months, the understory swells with native azaleas, mayapples, laurel, pink lady slippers and cranefly orchids.

Two expansive meadows have provided exceptional educational opportunities, as well as a tranquil backdrop for walkers.

“The south meadow has been restored from a crop field by seeding it with warm season grasses and wildflowers,” Kaufman said. “We burn a section each year to maintain it for meadow habitat. Otherwise, it would return to forest. It’s important to have the variety because of how much habitat we are losing to development.”

The north meadow, which was used for pastureland, harbored a greater seed base and grew back naturally. Visitors will find it billowing with goldenrod, aster and native grasses. A section is mowed each year to preserve the meadow.

Both meadows host a variety of wildlife, such as bobwhite quail, bluebirds, turkeys, foxes, deer and field mice.

Four miles of trails loop through the grounds on flat to mildly rounded terrain. Leashed dogs are welcome, as are bikes and cross-country skis. The Blockston Branch Trail, which is handicapped accessible, winds through a narrow stream valley that was carved by the last ice age and is a great option for a self-guided tour.

Winter, Kaufman said, is a great time to visit. “This is when you can really see the structure of the forest, and the shape of the trees. The river birch has such pretty, peeling bark. The trees that still have leaves, like the pines, holly, and sweetbay magnolia, really stand out. And there are great views, going deeper through the trees than you can see at other times of year,” Kaufman said.

Winter is also an excellent time to witness how plants transform during colder months. Winterberry sheds its glossy leaves to showcase clusters of red berries along the full length of its branches. Milkweed sports hollow pods where, a few months earlier, seeds and silk escaped into the fall winds. The cranefly orchid has a tall, withered stalk, but extends broad green leaves onto the winter forest floor to absorb light while the tree canopy is thinned. When the canopy returns, its leaves will recede—but the flowers come out.

A look at the demonstration gardens in winter may help visitors broaden their landscaping options. Here, a pleasant combination of shapes and textures adorn plants that are often hacked to the ground by autumn, more out of habit than necessity. They also keep the garden active with winter visits from birds and small animals.

Any time of year, Adkins Arboretum offers plenty of resources to help visitors understand what they encounter and to use their knowledge at home.

“People don’t always know about native alternatives to plants they’ve always used,” Steward said. “Homeowners who’ve made the switch just can’t believe what starts happening in their yards.”

Guided walks, often led by Master Gardener volunteers, are free with admission on most Saturdays between April and November. For independent explorations, be sure to pick up “What’s in Bloom?”—a laminated, take-along trail guide that is rich with photos and plant information and is tailored to the season. The same information can be previewed online at the arboretum’s website.

An audio tour provides another option, blending several local voices for an entertaining tour of the natural and cultural history along the trails. The gift shop offers an extensive gardening library, paired with year-round workshops on native plants and garden design, capped with a spring garden symposium.

To be sure that everyone has ample opportunities to get those gardens growing, the arboretum sponsors native plant sales in both the spring and fall of each year.

Adkins Arboretum has also adopted plans to expand its visitor’s center in the near future. Steward said the new Arboretum Center will provide a lively orientation for the 15,000 people who visit each year and more opportunities to engage them. The changes will not only enhance the nearby gardens and boardwalks, but provide more space for education programs, community meetings and special events.

And, of course, the center will feature more exhibit space, where both the art and the ecosystem of the Bay’s Coastal Plain will be celebrated and help to inspire those who visit.

Upcoming Events

  • Guided Walks & Group Presentations: Guided walks are available for groups of 10 or more, if scheduled in advance. Fees range from $5 to $8 per person. Presentations are available at locations other than the Arboretum for groups of 10 or more. The fee is $50, plus travel costs for locations beyond the Eastern Shore. Requests should be made at least four weeks in advance, and well in advance for the peak periods of May-July and September-November.
  • Guided Nature Walks: 11 a.m. Saturdays, April through November.
  • Soup ‘n’ Walks: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 18, March 18, April 15 & June 17.
  • Nature Images & Stories of the Delmarva: 7 p.m. March 17. Writer Tom Horton and photographer David Harp will tell stories of the Delmarva through photographs of the natural landscape and anecdotes about their travels in the region.
  • Arbor Day 5K Run & One Mile Fun Walk: 9–10:30 a.m.April 29.
  • Spring Plant Sale: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 6.
  • Spring Garden Symposium: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 19.

Special fees may apply for these events.

Adkins Aboretum

Hours: Adkins Aboretum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, except major holidays.

Directions: It is located 25 miles east of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and can be reached from U.S. Route 50 and Route 301 from the west, or from Route 13 via Route 404 from the east. From Route 404, turn east onto MD Route 480. Take an immediate left onto Eveland Road. Adkins Arboretum is two miles ahead on the left.

Admission: $3 for adults, $1 for students ages 6 through 18, free for children 5 and younger and members. Admission is free for everyone on the 25th of each month through June 2006, in celebration of the Arboretum’s 25th anniversary.

For information: Visit www.adkinsarboretum.org or call 410-634-2847. Write to: Adkins Arboretum, 12610 Eveland Road, P.O. Box 100, Ridgely, MD 21660.