Part of the Morris County park system, Willowwood Arboretum’s 131 acres are partially tended, partially wild; there’s always something blooming along its 5.2 miles of trails as they meander through open areas and woodlands.
“It’s easy to spend a day here,” says Ann Fahey, superintendent of horticulture education for the Morris County Park Commission.
The arboretum is renowned for its variety of trees—567 species, at last count. Visitors can stroll through willows, oaks, lilacs, maples, cherry trees and more. Among the most impressive: a towering 98-foot-tall dawn redwood, representative of a magnificent tree species once thought to be extinct. It’s believed to be one of the largest redwoods in the state.
Beyond trees, the grounds show off nearly 3,500 types of native and exotic plants, some extremely rare. “For me, it’s all about the horticulture,” says Fahey. “Everything is labeled, so people can come in and see all sorts of different species and learn what they are.” The property, originally farmland, also includes a 1792 clapboard farmhouse, a picturesque red barn, a stone barn (now used for classes) and a stone cottage.
Amateur arborists and brothers Henry and Robert Tubbs, Manhattanites eager for a country home, purchased the Chester Township property in 1908 for $10,000. They named it Willowwood for the five weeping willows they spotted along a brook. In time, the brothers expanded the farmhouse to accommodate their parents and sister, transforming it into a splendid Colonial Revival home.
It’s on the land and in the gardens, however, that the brothers did their best work. They collected unusual trees, planting them in clusters around their land. They spent decades toiling in the gardens, cultivating thousands of native and exotic plants, many shipped by freight car to the nearby Gladstone railroad station. For many years, the entire Tubbs family worked the land. Much of what’s seen today results from their labor.
In 1936, horticulturist Dr. Benjamin Blackburn, a lecturer at the Rutgers University, College of Agriculture, was introduced to the brothers. He eventually became a full-time Willowwood resident. By 1958, with Robert and his immediate family gone, the aging Henry left Willowwood to Blackburn as a place to live and work. Blackburn established the Willowwood Foundation in 1960; the group supports the park to this day. Blackburn died in 1987.
Now, Willowwood attracts more than 50,000 visitors each year. Following a months-long shutdown due to the pandemic, the arboretum reopened August 3 with limited hours: Monday–Friday, 10 am to 3 pm. (Wear masks and practice social distancing.) Self-guided cell phone tours, with designated spots to listen to short audio clips, remain available. Visit willowwoodarboretum.org for a downloadable trail map and additional information.