He accompanied his sister, Lydia, on her travels around the world, joining her in collecting plants and other natural history objects. He built her a special stone seat to admire the view from her kitchen garden. He encouraged her fondness for entertaining by building her a log cabin built from native hemlock trees. He supported her artistic talents when she designed a weathervane depicting them with their farm animals. And he shared her interest in historic preservation, landscaping and creating public parks.
The sibings were heirs to the I.P. Morris
Company, an iron manufacturing firm. In 1887, they acquired land in Chestnut Hill, a neighborhood 19th-century Philadelphians sought for its clean air. George Washington had used the land as an encampment in the Revolutionary War Battle of Germantown. Here, they built their summer home, calling it “Compton.”
For the next 45 years, they transformed a barren place with poor soil into a spectacular idyllic escape from urban life. They acquired a neighboring working farm, Bloomfield, in 1913.
An allée of oak trees recalls the Morrises’ fascination with the chateaus of the Loire Valley in France. Inspired by the Renaissance-style loggias they admired during their travels in Italy, John and Lydia had a balustraded terracotta piazza and grotto built on a hillside above a waterfall originating from nearby Paper Mill Creek in 1899. A neighboring giant sequoia tree and a paper bark maple tree provide the perfect visual complement to the Italian terracotta the Morrises found so striking.
When the pond was dug, the displaced dirt was used to create mounds in the neighboring Japanese hill and water garden that Japanese garden designer Y. Muto built for John Morris in 1905. The Morrises’ travels in Japan inspired them to create a Japanese hill garden, in which each traditional Japanese garden element – hill, rock, water, tree, bridge, path, shrine, and lantern – is arranged according to rules and has a symbolic meaning.
In keeping with period tastes, they planted an abundance of “weeping” trees. In 1912, they established a Victorian fernery, considered the oldest freestanding glass structure in the United States.
The rose garden is home to the “Knockout” rose, introduced here because the arboretum’s horticulturist was involved in its development. The garden was originally created in 1888 as a garden of flowers planted around a marble fountain. The Morrises added more surrounding Italianate balustrades 20 years later, followed by a six-foot-high wall of Wissahickon schist filled with alpine plants in 1924.
John corresponded with the director of Harvard University’s arboretum to secure seeds from plant expeditions in Asia. Fine examples of a lacebark pine native to China, together with a rare China fir tree, thrive.
A Katsuratree that John planted around 1902 has grown to become a Pennsylvania state champion for the species. Native to eastern Asia, this deciduous forest tree was introduced to American gardens around 1865 and is celebrated for the abundant shade it provides. This example of one of Philadelphia’s oldest, rarest and largest trees is particularly unique because a lawnmower is said to have run over it early in its life, damaging it so that its limbs grew differently.
After John died in 1915, Lydia left instructions in her will to rename the property as “The Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania,” a place that would facilitate scientific research in horticulture and provide people with educational opportunities that would teach them how to grow plants and preserve their natural environment. Since her death in 1932, the arboretum has been doing just that.
Today, the 92-acre arboretum contains a collection of more than 5,800 trees and shrubs, as well as more than 12,000 plants from North America, Asia, Africa and Europe. Some highlights include fine specimens of magnolias, rare “Gyoiko” Japanese flowering cherry trees, and a meadow filled with azaleas.
Sadly, Compton stands no more, but a Ginkgo tree that once grew by the home’s front door — as well as the carriage house the Morrises built from local Wissahickon Schist stone in 1888 — still exist. The carriage house is the home of the arboretum’s gift shop, which sells reproductions of Lydia’s weathervane and the life-sized metal sheep that graze along the arboretum’s Magnolia Slope.
The Pennock Flower Walk is a tribute to J. Liddon Pennock, a legendary Philadelphia florist. Its striking flower borders recall the formal borders that the Morrises had originally planted on the hillside.
Other unique features of the arboretum include a ha-ha, a hidden boundary wall or sunken fence in the Capability Brown style of English gardening, so named because it surprises unsuspecting people when they come upon it; as well as a “stumpery,” a 19th-century English gardening practice where uprooted tree stumps are used to form a seated arbor. The “Out on a Limb” tree canopy walk provides a bird’s-eye view of the forest from 50 feet up in the air. A seasonal garden railway consists of miniature replicas of historic Philadelphia buildings, created using bark, leaves, vines, twigs and other natural materials.
For more on the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania, read Gardens of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley, by William M. Klein, Jr.