The Barnes Arboretum, a Main Line Treasure

There are very few true rags to riches stories. Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872 – 1951) was one of those rarities. Born into a working-class neighborhood in Kensington, Philadelphia, he later amassed a fortune so vast that he established an art collection worthy of its own museum. In 1922, he and his wife Laura Leggett Barnes purchased an arboretum. This botanical garden was originally known as the Wilson Arboretum, after its founder, Civil War veteran Captain Joseph Lapsley Wilson. Naturally, when the Barneses acquired it, it was renamed the Barnes Arboretum.

Mrs. Barnes became director of the arboretum in 1928, founded a horticultural school in 1940, and was responsible for acquiring new plants for the gardens. She was an instructor at the horticultural school and taught classes in botany, landscaping architecture, and more.  The Barnes Arboretum is her legacy.

I’ve been visiting the Barnes for years, but today’s blog post will be mostly focused on my visit on July 1, 2023. I went with my sister and friends who were visiting me from out of town. We explored all 12 acres of the Barnes Arboretum together. The building that once held Dr. Barnes’ art collection still stands on the grounds, but the art collection now lives at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. Horticultural classes are now held at the building in Merion Station, where the arboretum is.

IMG_0227.jpgIMG_0184.jpgWe saw a family of deer that sunny July day, which was pretty exciting. They were quietly eating in the bush.

The arboretum is organized into over 10 different gardens, including the Great Lawn, the Magnolias, Woodland Walk, the Rose Garden, and more. When I first visited the Rose Garden in the summer of 2019, it was epic. My jaw dropped when I entered – it was a feast for the eyes! I couldn’t wait to get home and paint this garden.

Barnes Arboretum Rose Garden, Summer 2019

Watercolor by Julicia James, Barnes Rose Garden, 2019

But in summer 2020, it looked quite different. I reached out to the team at the Barnes to learn more about what had happened in 12 short months. At the time, the spotted lantern fly was a new pest in Pennsylvania, there was an early summer drought, deer issues, and an abundance of aphids.  In order to reduce the incidence of Black Spot fungus and other diseases, the Head Gardener proactively started a serious soil remediation and intense pruning plan.

Barnes Arboretum Rose Garden, Summer 2020

She told me that the soils were heavily lacking in potassium, which is a key nutrient for both disease and drought resistance. Over the course of a few years, this nutrient will be fully available to the plants.  And indeed, the Rose Garden is looking a lot livelier now than it was in June 2020. Here it is, in July 2023:Barnes Arboretum Rose Garden, Summer 2023

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Gardens are constantly evolving, changing, growing. You can visit the same arboretum twice, but something will always be a little different. I think that gardens can teach us a lot about life. Sometimes you have to be the phoenix, fearlessly setting fire to the deadweight in your life so that you can be born again – renewed, replenished, and stronger than ever.

IMG_0277.jpgIMG_0270.jpgMy sister and I took a lot of fun pictures at the Macguire Gallery.

IMG_0317.jpgIMG_0318.jpgIMG_0325.jpgIMG_0330.jpgThere are many rare trees in the arboretum, some of which were cultivated as far back as the 1880s, when Captain Wilson was the owner. I wish I could tell you their names, but here are a few that caught my eye.

IMG_0287.jpgIMG_0291.jpgIMG_0292.jpgThis arboretum is very hilly, and there is not a walkway. For those reasons, I wouldn’t consider it accessible unless you had an all-terrain wheelchair. However, there is a trail that they call Hawk’s Trail that has no steps and minimal topographic change.This garden is free to visit. There are trash bins and restrooms near the service building, and map guides at the Welcome Center. Check their website for their opening hours, as the hours of operation do change throughout the year. The website will tell you that the Arboretum’s address is on 50 Lapsley Lane, and your GPS may try to direct you to the entrance off of Latches Lane. That entrance is rarely open in my experience. You’ll have to access the arboretum via City Line Ave and turn into Lapsley Ln. Lapsley is a narrow, easily overlooked street that often has many pedestrians, so drive carefully.Basking in the sunshine with my friends

The Barnes Arboretum is featured in the America’s Garden Capital passport book. Here’s my passport that was validated in 2019. Back then, the passcode was “fogg.” Of course, I can’t tell you the secret code word for 2023 – you’ll have to find that out yourself! 😉 But I’ll give you a clue – this year, the last letter of the passcode is “n.”

You can see a clip of the deer that we saw at the arboretum here: see the deer.

If you love museums, you may also be interested in taking a trip into Philly, about a 25 minute drive from the Barnes Arboretum, to see the Barnes Foundation and the collection of artwork that Dr. Barnes amassed. I absolutely love to traverse the rooms in the Barnes Foundation, admiring the paintings of the great impressionists. Pierre-Auguste Renoir is one of my favorite painters, and the Barnes Foundation has the largest collection of Renoir paintings in the world. If you’d like to know more about other artwork at the Barnes, check out my blog post about the Berthe Morisot exhibit in 2019.

Have you visited the Barnes Arboretum or the Barnes Foundation before? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.

To read more about other gardens that I’ve visited in the local Pennsylvania/Delaware/New Jersey area, check out my Ultimate Guide to America’s Garden Capital. I add new gardens to that list every month.


  1. You do such a great job of bringing the Barnes Arboretum to life. I think even without the lovely accompanying photos, it’s so easy to understand why this would be a wonderful place to visit: beautiful, peaceful, surprising.

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