Amy Dixon: Burlington Arboretum offers plant collections that help local ecosystems | Home & Garden

When you take a moment to think about it, water is at the heart of our existence. Globally and locally, we rely on clean water sources to keep the cogs turning in our everyday lives.

The places we live, work and play are all intrinsically tied to local watersheds in some form or another, highlighting the need to focus on healthy waterways. Our home and public gardens are key players in maintaining healthy watersheds, as they can help or harm local ecosystems.

Several years ago, the city of Burlington set out to address a problem with an eroding stream in Willowbrook Park. Specifically known as Brown Branch, this stream was lined with invasive plants, it had become prone to flooding, and was dangerously encroaching on nearby streets and homes during periods of heavy rain.

The City Stormwater Division conducted a stream restoration project, which was completed in 2018. The project included removing invasive species, repairing degraded streambanks and installing a riparian buffer of native plants, which helps shade and partially protect the stream from the impact of adjacent land uses. The project improved the water quality and ultimately gave new life to the park, which had caught the eye of New Leaf Society, a local nonprofit.

People are also reading…

In 2017, New Leaf Society partnered with the city of Burlington to transform Willowbrook Park into the Burlington Arboretum. The result of this union has been an incredibly successful marriage of resources, one which has greatly benefitted the citizens of Burlington and surrounding areas.

“The New Leaf Society does beautification projects throughout Alamance County and Burlington,” said Jason Barnhill, arboretum manager. “They wanted an arboretum and were looking for a location for it. This stream restoration project came up, and they decided this would be a perfect place for it.”

The arboretum is now known as the Burlington Arboretum at Willowbrook Park and is in the heart of Burlington’s Willowbrook neighborhood. The arboretum consists of 17 acres, including a commons building, children’s play spaces, a veteran’s memorial, wetlands, paved pathways and multiple plant collections.

The arboretum is a little over a half mile of linear greenspace, hugging Brown Branch at its core. Because the stream restoration was the impetus of the arboretum, maintaining the water quality was very central to the city of Burlington.

Amy Barber, Burlington stormwater manager, explained how the planting design of the riparian buffer served multiple purposes — most importantly to decrease erosion and to filter pollutants. Native plants were chosen based on their natural capacity to decrease nitrogen and phosphorus from reaching the stream.

“With the riparian buffer, we had a planting list that was approved for shorter growing native wildflowers and grasses,” Barber said. “They’re planted in different zones. Zone 1 is really close to the stream, zones 2 and 3 are more upland plants.”

Zone 1 plants include rushes and sedges, which can take more wet conditions, as well as fast moving water. Zone 2 and 3 plants include native wildflowers like rudbeckia, echinacea, asters, sweetspire, silky dogwoods and bald cypress. These plants thrive in streambank areas and are very tolerant of wet conditions.

The bones of the arboretum began in 2019, when sidewalks were installed throughout the greenspace. During this process, the construction exposed a spring, which created a wetland garden space for the arboretum. Barber and Barnhill aimed to work with this unexpected force of nature and were able to collaborate on a vision for this wetland.

“My idea of a wetland is seeing what comes up naturally based on the amount of water that’s there,” Barber said. “But it wasn’t very diverse in the plant species that were coming up. Jason suggested it needed to be more like a garden, something that’s more maintained.”

“It needed a horticulturalist perspective to come together with a field ecologist perspective. You can have something that’s aesthetically pleasing for visitors but is also serving an ecological purpose. It’s filtering the water before it’s going out to the stream.”

In addition to the educational aspect of the wetlands, water continues to play a central role throughout the whole footprint of the arboretum. The riparian buffer intentionally restricts visitors and arboretum staff from getting too close to the water, but there are multiple access points to the stream, all throughout the arboretum. These points allow visitors (children especially) to interact with the stream and touch the water to explore and learn.

The city of Burlington and the arboretum staff place great emphasis on the health and educational components of the arboretum. It is a fantastic greenspace to get kids and adults outside, encourage them to move more, and help them learn about plants and the local ecosystem.

A new children’s garden is in the works. It will include a playground, labyrinth maze and plant displays. A massive treehouse sits central within the arboretum, which is a huge draw for children, evoking the whimsy in visitors of all ages. Built by Beanstalk Builders, the treehouse surrounds a mature willow oak, inviting people up into the air to get great site lines of the whole arboretum.

“We had a tree assessment done before we had construction start,” Barnhill said. “Bartlett Tree came out and did some cabling to stabilize some of the larger branches. They did an interior scan of the tree to make sure there wasn’t interior decay and that the tree was structurally sound. Everything has been done to take into account the health of the tree.”

Multiple plants live in the arboretum, including collections of daylilies, hostas, azaleas, roses, hydrangeas and camellias. They serve dual purposes, as they offer both botanical interest for the landscape and serve as excellent specimen examples to pique public interest. During my visit, I was intrigued by the hydrangea and camellia collection, which are planted together in the same area. I can’t wait to visit again to catch another surge of color.

“The camellias are planted in a color wave, so it goes from deep reds down to pinks and whites,” Barnhill said. “And the hydrangeas are reversed — they go whites back into pinks, blues and some reds. The hydrangeas go all the way through the summer, and the camellias come back into bloom in October. So there’s something blooming in this bed all year round.”

The Burlington Arboretum at Willowbrook Park is evolving and rediscovering its roots by marrying ornamental horticulture and the restoration of native plants along Brown Branch. It’s the perfect place to play and learn, all within the same space.

“We’re here not only for plant collections, but to inform the public on proper tree pruning, what to plant where, plant selection and invasives,” Barnhill said. “This place is a great opportunity to show what happens when you remove invasive plants and plant plants that are native to the area, that are there for stream stabilization, wildlife food, habitat and for beauty. You can have a park where people enjoy that and learn about it. What a great thing to have in your community.”

Amy Dixon is an assistant horticulturist at Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University. Gardening questions or story ideas can be sent to her at or [email protected], with “gardening” in the subject line.