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Cylburn’s Secret Gardens

A city escape, in Baltimore

Last month we featured Rawlings Conservatory, with its amazing collection of orchids and other plant life from all over the world. This month we’re showcasing its sister property, a 207-acre park, education center and forest. Cylburn Arboretum, with its expansive meadow, woodland trails and display gardens, offers a respite from the busyness of daily life.
Not only are the grounds beautiful, but the arboretum conducts a steady curriculum of nature workshops. Three additional bonuses make Cylburn a place you’ll want to visit, and soon. One, the site hosts cultural events as well as environmental classes; two, admission is free; and three, you can actually bring your best four-footed buddy. Talk about having it all.
Cylburn Arboretum is one of those places that makes you look forward to spring…and summer…and fall. Maybe you’ll come for the 12 trails that meander through the gently curving meadow and woods. Maybe it’s the 20 themed gardens that will draw you. Or maybe you’ll just be in the mood for a picnic. Whatever your purpose for heading there, you’ll discover many other reasons to bring you back.

Chipmunks & Concerts

Cylburn, the city’s largest garden and one of its few wooded areas, holds interest for all ages. “We offer something for everyone,” says Patricia Foster, whose office resides in the 1863 mansion on the grounds. Catch Jazz under the Stars, the Celebration of Arts and A Walk with Fairies, or sign your favorite kid up for camp sessions like Stinky, Sticky, Slimy. Foster has been involved with the property for years, but in her new position as executive director of the Cylburn Arboretum Association (CAA), she has “a lot of aspirations” for the property.

Her ideas will enhance what the arboretum already has to offer, such as a Victorian Renaissance revival mansion that’s been everything from a summer residence for a philanthropist and suffragette to a horse farm and a home for 40 displaced children in the 1940s.

Educational programs, an aquaponics lab, gardening workshops and art shows appear on the venue’s calendar. Yoga on the lawn is popular, as is birdwatching (more than 160 species have been spotted on Cylburn grounds). Its Vollmer Visitors and Education Center features an outdoor amphitheater and a rentable meeting hall and theater. This uber-green building houses several organizations, including the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland. Its president Linda Schwab says, “We really treasure being part of the Cylburn campus. People can come here and, surrounded by all this beauty, connect to the environment and learn something new.”

Beeches, Birds & Butterflies

Just a short walk away, an 1810 carriage house is home to a popular nature museum whose taxidermy specimens have proven irresistible to medical and veterinary illustrators as well as artists. The most well-known of these is Perry, a peregrine falcon, the subject of a children’s book called Perry’s Baltimore Adventure. The collection, containing 250 specimens of mostly birds, includes two bald eagles and the extinct Carolina Parakeet. At 13 inches long, this was the only parrot native to the eastern United States. The museum also features bird eggs dating from the 1800s (it’s now illegal to collect whole eggs), as well as butterflies, fossils and hands-on activities for children.

Highlights of the grounds include the formal garden, with its Lady Baltimore statues and stunning tree peonies, Daylily Display and Garden of the Senses. Cylburn’s greenhouses can be toured by appointment. These supply the exotic orchids and other plants for the Rawlings Conservatory as well as for other local sites, so it offers blooming color regardless of the season. Other special features on the property are sequoias and a century-old gingko tree between the hollies and the magnolias on East Lawn.

Foster calls it “a green oasis right smack in the middle of Baltimore.” She says it’s important to preserve, “First, because it’s unique among the 50 parks in Baltimore and because it gives people the opportunity to connect with nature.” Over 40,000 visitors come through each year, and volunteers and interns are encouraged to come learn while helping.

For walkers, it’s a haven. Hospital employees cross the street to stroll during lunch; it’s also a popular Sabbath destination for nearby residents. Throughout the year, scouts and homeschoolers drop in, and about 65 school field trips come through each year. On those days, it’s a beehive of activity; other days this green space is wide open. From time to time, plein air artists dot the landscape like a kaleidoscope of butterflies.

Movies, Maples & Milkweed

Lynda McClary, former executive director of Cylburn, observes, “The plein air groups, along with our artist in residence and rotating outdoor sculptures, are part of our symbiotic relationships with the artistry of the gardens. You could say the gardens are our artists.”

Cylburn is, as you can imagine, a destination for wedding and prom photos. It’s also been the site of model shoots and even a few movies, like the PBS documentary Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story. There’s even a rumor that the site was scouted for House of Cards.

At Cylburn, especially when the daffodils are in bloom, everyone becomes a photographer. Depending on when you come, there are poppies, trilliums, hellebores, dogwoods and more. On the woodland trails, you never know what type of beauty is around the next bend. It’s such a treasure of nature that the Maryland Institute College of Art makes regular field trips there and to the Conservatory.

The focus of an arboretum can get a little blurry amidst all the showy flowers. While it looks a lot like a park, officially it’s land set aside to cultivate trees and shrubs so people can study and learn about them. There are arboretums all over the world, each with a different focus. (One in Florida majors on, naturally, palm trees.)

Here in Baltimore, Cylburn’s forest contains a significant number of Japanese black pines, often used in bonsai. Also growing here are cypresses and sequoias, and an ancient Japanese maple with a corkscrew trunk.

Forests, Gardens, & Trails, Oh My!

“What’s most valuable in my opinion,” says McClary, “is that we have been able to protect a mature tree canopy, in keeping with the growing consciousness of what this means to us as humans to protect these things.”

So between the forest, the trails and the gardens, how can three “very part-time gardeners” keep up extensive gardens that have been open to the public for 60 years? “We have a lot of dedicated people who are really passionate about Cylburn,” says Foster. She jokes that, if they won the lottery, they'd revamp the mansion. One room the public is welcome to tour is stunning with its gilt and cream interior, tall narrow windows and marble fireplace.

CAA, charged with its upkeep, is fortunate to enjoy the efforts of over 200 volunteers, including a Friends Group and other gardening clubs, as well as students from Baltimore Youthworks. And fortunately, the arboretum is home to the Federated Garden Clubs of Maryland, the Horticultural Society of Maryland, the Baltimore Bird Club and the Maryland Ornithological Society. These groups, along with the CAA, offer regular programs at Cylburn.

The programs, with topics ranging from a flower arranging workshop to a firefly walk, add to Cylburn Arboretum’s mystique. Baltimore City Paper called it the “Best Escape from the City, in the City.” Foster says she’s inspired just by being there: “As a lifelong gardener, I consider it a great gift to be able to come to work in this beautiful garden. It truly is an inspiration in any season.” She adds, “Just come here and see what we have to offer.”

If You Go

Cylburn Arboretum
4915 Greenspring Avenue
Baltimore, Maryland

Free and open to the public year round.  
Hours: Tues.-Sun., 8 a.m.-5 p.m.
(Closed Mondays)
Visitor Center: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Nature Museum in the Carriage House
Open April through November.
Hours: Sat.-Sun., 12 p.m.-3 p.m.

Well-behaved dogs on leashes are welcome.  
Meadow trails are wheelchair-accessible.

Want to get involved? Help decorate the mansion for Ar-BOO-retum in October or for the winter holidays. Volunteers and workshop presenters always welcome. Check Cylburn’s Facebook page for upcoming events.

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