Journeys of Dr. G at Tyler Arboretum

The sabbatical project continues, exploring all that Tyler Arboretum has to offer

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A Rhododendron Stroll at Tyler Arboretum

Rhododendron gardener Jerry O'dell, pointing out features on one of the shrubs.

Rhododendron gardener Jerry O’Dell, pointing out features on one of the shrubs.

The rhodendrons are in full bloom, with gorgeous shades of white, pink, fushia, and vibrant reds.  I knew I only had a short time to experience this 13-acre site within Tyler Arboretum’s fence.  On Friday, I headed out to join the tour of the Wister Rhododenron Garden (and since I had just blogged about Wister last week, I was now ready to see the beauty of his hard work).  The walking tour description follows:

Revel in the beauty of 13 acres of azaleas and rhododendrons on an informative tour led by Jerry O’Dell, Tyler’s Gardener responsible for the care and rejuvenation of the Wister Rhododendron Garden. This amazing heritage collection contains hundreds of varieties and species with a bloom season that stretches from spring to early summer. Each week is different as new plants come into bloom so come back often to enjoy the show.

There were seven of us that joined Jerry on the tour, with 3 people coming back for second tour, and one person that had been on the tour every single week!  This hour-and-a-half tour was filled with enjoyable conversation and questions expertly answered by Tyler’s rhododendron gardener.

Jerry said that the peak of the blossoms is typically between May 10-16, but the plants are running a little late this year.  As we started walking, we quickly noticed that there are many more plants beyond rhododendrons and azaleas!  We learned that Tyler is moving this area away from a “collection” and having it as more of a “garden,” complete with “rooms” that will have unique plants and a focus.  For example, the impressive hostas, especially the blue hostas, were in beds donated by the Delaware Valley Hosta Society.

But first – a little more history on the Rhododendron Garden, from Tyler Arboretum’s website:

It took years before Dr. Wister was able to begin planting the extensive rhododendron collection adjacent to the Pinetum (collection of pines and other conifers). Cultivated fields in the 1930s and 1940s, by the 1950s Dr. Wister described the area as a thick jungle of weedy tulip and ash trees, many of which had blown down in a hurricane in 1954 and snowstorm in 1958. Compounded by inadequate labor, planting was impossible until 1959. Dr. Wister described the establishment of the Pinetum rhododendrons as the most important development undertaken at the Arboretum, and by the end of 1959 the collection numbered more than 500 rhododendrons and 200 azaleas. He wrote, “These quantities are not so important as the number of species, varieties and hybrid strains… these alone should make a collection second to none in Pennsylvania.”

Below are some photos from the tour – please enjoy!


I learned from Jerry that the garden contains cultivar and hybrid strains of rhododendrons.  Wistar only utilized a few hybridizers – primarily,  Joseph Gables, Guy Nearing, and Charles Dexter.  All three of these horticulturalists have fascinating histories and followed interesting naming rules for their hybrids.  For example, Gables named the Caroline after his daughter, and Dexter named several of his hybrids from towns on Cape Cod.

Jerry mentioned that the construction of the deer fence really helped the health of the rhododendrons. Before the 110 acres were protected by the deer fence enclosure, deer freely roamed the property and would “enjoy” these beautiful plants for themselves! A few of the shrubs are still bare from the deer grazing, but most have recovered remarkably.

In addition to not taking any photos of the fence (actually, I didn’t even notice it on the outermost edge of the garden), I also did not take any photos of the wonderful porous asphalt pathway that provides accessibility to anyone that wants to stroll through the gardens – and also plays an important role in stormwater management!


You have one more opportunity this year to join Jerry on a Rhododendron Stroll on Friday, May 30, from 10AM to 11:30AM.  The tour is free with admission, and no pre-registration is required.  And if you are looking for a more scientific introduction to rhododendrons, be sure to check out the online Journal American Rhododendron Society.

This is one of my favorite photos from the stroll.  This little visitor had her own digital camera and was snapping photos of all the pink blossoms, the leaves, and more!  I think Tyler has helped spark an interest in a future nature photographer!

This is one of my favorite photos from the stroll. This little visitor had her own digital camera and was snapping photos of all the pink blossoms, the leaves, and more! I think Tyler has helped spark an interest in a future nature photographer!


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Who was John Caspar Wister?

With a weather forecast of 100% chance of heavy rain tomorrow, I don’t think I’ll be able to make it to Tyler Arboretum tomorrow morning for the Rhododendron Stroll (maybe next Friday at 10AM, the weather will be better!).  So I decided to learn more about the Rhododendron Garden, starting with the name on a plaque I have come across many times when I’ve ventured off the Scenic Loop:


The name “Wister” is certainly visible around the Arboretum, and this plaque in the Rhododendron Garden gives a hint as to the contributions John Wister made to the Arboretum.  I knew prior to seeing this plaque that Wister was the first-ever director of Tyler Arboretum, but then my internet search led me to more titles for John Wister, such as “dean of American horticulturists,” “Mister Rhododendron,” co-founder and president of the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta (now the American Public Gardens Association), and secretary of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.

I won’t repeat here everything that can be found online about Dr. Wister – such as the fact that he was a private in World War I, had an honorary doctorate degree from Swarthmore College, did not get married until he was 73 years old, etc.  The Wikipedia page on John Wister has a nice listing of the books he published, and thanks to a tip from one of Tyler’s horticultural staff, I found some papers written by Wister that are archived online.

If you want to get a sense for John Wister (1887-1982) and his amazing depth of knowledge relating to rhododendrons, azaleas, and other horticultural topics, I encourage you to read through these short articles in the Journal American Rhododendron Society (feel free to search their archives for the complete record of Wister publications – well over 50 exist!):

Additional papers written in this journal about John Wister include:

In addition to the sites I linked above, please do take the time to look at the sections on Tyler’s website (the Tyler Topics Winter 2011-12 issue, and the About and Donor pages) to learn more about this remarkable, passionate man that literally laid the groundwork for us to have this Arboretum and amazing rhododendron garden that we have today.