The undisputed beauty and size of the University of Wisconsin Madison Arboretum (UWMA) is a well-kept secret in the State of Wisconsin. It boasts of 1,200 acres featuring a whopping 513 acres in outlying properties. The acreage is made up of the following impressive statistics: seven prairies and savannas, four deciduous forests, three conifer forests, five wetland and marsh habitats and over 2,000 plants in its display gardens, which include a horticultural garden, viburnum garden and native plant garden. The range of different habitats here is astonishing–two different prairies, swamps, evergreen forests and the aforementioned horticultural garden.
UWMA has many good intentions: to showcase the variety of trees, shrubs and vines that are Wisconsin-hardy and to inspire gardeners to use native grasses, sedges and forbs on their land. Regardless, the horticultural collections here are educational and a delight for the senses. Until the mid-1800s, prairies and savannas covered most of southern Wisconsin. Today, thanks to many decades of intensive restoration work at the Arboretum, a succession of more than 300 species of native plants bloom on the property from April through October. Oak savannas are a species-rich ecological community characterized by frequent fire and open-grown trees. They once dominated the landscape of southern Wisconsin. The Arboretum has many savannas for visitors to enjoy; these sightly vistas incorporate hundreds of species of plants, trees and animals and a sustainable environment for the many grasses and viburnum as well.
There are many can’t-miss attraction at UWMA: the viburnum garden features more than 80 species and varieties of viburnum and 110 species and varieties of arborvitae; Teal Pond Wetlands is encircled by wood and its associated wetlands are near the center of the Arboretum. There are also boardwalks to lead visitors through the sedge meadow. The deciduous forests feature woodland flowers bloom in spring, followed by shady summer foliage and brilliant autumn color. Wingra Woods and Gallistel Woods specifically contain ancient burial mounds, relics of a Native American culture that flourished here between 650-1200 years ago. And the conifer forests are a work of art as well; these pine and boreal forests are representative of the plentiful Wisconsin Northwoods.
Don’t miss the duck pond off of Nakoma Road–the ducks are there all year–and the Lost City in the eastern end of the Arboretum, where streets were laid for an ill-fated, never-completed subdivision in the 1930s. And then there’s Gardner Marsh: part of that failed residential development in the early 1900s. It’s now dominated by cattails, reed canary grass, exotic shrubs and other woody vegetation. Gardner is located in the northwestern portion of the Arboretum and is now used for research, too.
Should you be visiting The Arboretum in Madison anytime soon, and whether you have a whole weekend or just a Saturday afternoon, take along the following Top Ten Fan Favorites list. You can use it as a “to-do” or “to-see” list of sorts, and as an adjunct to any maps, brochures or information you receive upon entry. Don’t miss the following ten features whatever you do!
1. Wingra Woods
Encompassing 52 acres, this large block of oak woods on a hill south of Lake Wingra has been under planted with sugar maple, basswood and beech — trees that can grow in the shade of the oaks. It is gradually changing to a shady forest with sugar maple as the dominant species. Foresters planted northern species here, such as hemlock and yellow birch, so that the area would resemble the sugar maple forests of northern Wisconsin.
2. Longenecker Horticultural Gardens
With more than 2,000 plants on display, this 50-acre area is the Arboretum’s premier collection of trees, shrubs and vines in Wisconsin. Recognized internationally, the Gardens hold major displays of lilacs (one of the nations largest), flowering crabapples (one of the most up-to-date in the country), viburnum, conifers (including a very large collection of arborvitae cultivars), and dozens of other plant groups. More than 100 of Wisconsin’s native woody plants are represented in the collections. This major resource for the study of landscape plants is available to educators, the public and the nursery trade. Specimens in the gardens are labeled, usually with a tag attached to a south-facing branch.
3. Green Prairie
This 50-acre prairie restoration lies along the southern boundary of the Arboretum. The prairie wildflowers are especially showy against the background of shorter prairie grasses, including little bluestem and prairie drop seed.
4. Wingra Marsh
These relatively undisturbed wetlands are southwest of Lake Wingra. The two ponds nearby, Stevens Pond and Spring Trail Pond, are frequently visited by waterfowl. UWMA does not allow feeding of the wildlife but its still fun to watch and enjoy these lovely birds in their natural habitat!
5. Wingra Oak Savanna
At this site, near the northwestern shore of Lake Wingra, there is a magnificent grove of open-grown bur oaks. The savanna grades into the Marion Dunn Prairie to the southwest. This savanna is currently being restored by replacing the understory of non-native trees, shrubs, and weeds with the grassland species likely to have grown in the original savannas.
6. Sinaiko Overlook Prairie
This is a 5-acre, mesic to dry-mesic prairie that is dominated by Indiangrass. It is located immediately north of McCaffrey Drive, and just west of Wingra Woods. This prairie has relatively few weedy plants, but is quite patchy due to its origin as experimental plots.
7. Noe Woods
With 41 acres of white oaks and black oaks, Noe Woods is typical of many woods that developed on former savanna sites after settlement put an end to the fires that had maintained the savannas. Most of the larger oaks are now about 150 years old, but the diversity of wildflowers has greatly diminished since the natural fires ceased. It is located near the southeastern entrance to the Arboretum.
8. Leopold Pines
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) crews planted most of the red and white pines in this 21-acre stand between 1933 and 1937, along with small numbers of red maple, white birch and some northern shrubs and ground layer plants of the northern Wisconsin pine forests. By cutting selected trees as an experiment, Arboretum ecologists hope to create an “old-growth” structure in a relatively short time. A similar conifer forest, the Evjue Pines, is along the northern edge of the lovely Grady Tract.
9. Earth Focus Day Camp
This one’s for the little ones! The annual event, which is in its 20th year, runs from June through August. The Camp creates outstanding summer nature programs for children ages 3-14. With many different ecosystems including the oldest restored tall grass prairie in the world, the Arboretum provides hands-on experience with native Wisconsin plants, animals and habitats. The research and restoration taking place here teaches children that they can be a positive influence on their world. The naturalist teachers are enthusiastic and experienced, but the real teacher at Earth Focus Day Camp is everyone’s most treasured resource: the land.
10. Wisconsin Native Plant Garden
This four-acre garden surrounding the Visitor Center houses a collection of approximately 500 native Wisconsin plants and serves as an introduction to ecological restoration and the restored and managed plant communities throughout the Arboretum. It’s a shining example of how to incorporate native plants into home landscapes.
The Arboretum is set against rolling green hills and lush plant life, making it one of the most beautiful natural settings near campus. So check it out at 1207 Seminole Highway in Madison. For specific details on events and exhibits, or if you want details on group tours or something else, call (608) 263-7888. Please note, the Arboretum is NOT available for weddings or events unrelated to its mission.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum
1207 Seminole Highway
Madison, WI 53713