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Cylburn Arboretum: A harvest of horticulture and history

Perhaps over a half-mile, the driveway that leads to the mansion is long and riddled with cracks and bumps. An unfamiliar sensation accompanies the drive. It’s as if through crossing the property’s boundaries, you’ve entered into a time portal and, with each passing second, are being sent further into the past.

So strong is this sensation, that upon pulling up to the Italianate Victorian mansion, you expect to see old Jesse Tyson lounging on the wrap-around porch. Perhaps he’s reading a tattered copy of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage or, maybe, he has a cold glass of lemonade waiting for you.

Yet, Jesse Tyson died nearly a century ago. What he has left in his wake is Cylburn Arboretum, a Baltimore landmark with a tradition of horticultural knowledge as rich as the soil tilled there.

What makes Cylburn so valuable are, "the 200 acres of open space inside the city limits. Plus, it has a continuous history beginning in the 1860s," said Joy Wheeler, a curator at Cylburn’s Nature Museum.

"It’s just a really quiet place for meditation. And not a lot of people know about it because it’s in an out of the way spot," added Patsy Perlman, another of the museum’s curators.

Once a Tyson family estate, once a public park, Cylburn Arboretum is situated on 207 acres of rolling, green land and is just a stone’s throw away from Northern Parkway. The arboretum is home to Baltimore’s largest public garden and dozens of natural and horticultural societies.

So while serene, Cylburn Arboretum offers much more than the sanctity of meditation. Whether it’s Cylburn Nature Museum and Nature Story Hour for children on Thursdays, bird watching on Sundays in the spring and fall or wildflower searches in the surrounding wood, the volunteers at Cylburn jump at the opportunity to teach and enlighten visitors.

Yet, the volunteers are both teacher and perpetual student.

"I went on a guided walk two weeks ago," said Cylburn Arboretum Association Chairman Bill Vondracek, "to look for wildflowers. I learned more about wildflowers in that half-hour than I had in a long time. It was wonderful to be exposed to something that I had little information or knowledge about that lies just on the other side of the trees out there."

To glimpse the trees are the exact reason many visit the arboretum. The copse of Japanese maples and groves of magnolia and conifer trees were all planted to somewhat correspond with Tyson’s original estate landscape.

What wasn’t, helped to form the over two miles of open trails available to guests. Witch Hazel Trail, Azalea Trail, Circle Trail, Fern Glen Path and Crescent Path weave through the surrounding forest to entertain the more adventurous types.

Still, others come for the architecture, sculptures and overall ambiance of the grounds. Cylburn stands as a prime example of Italianate Victorian design. The mansion’s ornate plaster-works, tapestries and mosaics have largely been preserved, securing Cylburn as a tangible snapshot of Civil War-era America.

Perhaps the most luring attraction to Cylburn is its gardens. Over 20 gardens bud and bloom on Cylburn’s property. Among the most eloborate is the Formal Garden, which contains two Lady Baltimore statues. Also, the Heritage Rose Garden and All America Selections Garden seem to be popular among visitors and volunteers. The Garden of the Senses contains plantings that grow to be waist-high so that physically challenged visitors can easily feel and smell the plants.

The combination of these attractions is what keeps the bulk of Cylburn visitors coming back and draws in new arboretum ‘regulars.’

"They enjoy it and keep coming back, year after year," said Perlman.

Since the arboretum also houses the Baltimore City Department of Parks and Recreation-Horticulture Division, schools and non-profit organizations frequent Cylburn.

"The city brings many different groups here, such as public schools and the organization, Almost Family," said Wheeler.

"Another group that’s big now is home-school families. Mothers bring in children from infants to those in high school," added Perlman.

Not just schools visit Cylburn Arboretum. Last year, the arboretum hosted a busload of visitors from the National Audubon Society, according to Wheeler. Also, visitors to Cylburn have traveled from as far away as Romania, New Zealand and Australia.

But Cylburn’s largest crowds gather around the events the Cylburn Association sponsor, such as Festifall and Cylburn Market Day.

Market Day is a huge plant sale held annually since 1968.

"It’s probably the largest plant sale in the Baltimore area. Thousands of people show up," said Jane Baldwin, president of the Cylburn Arboretum Association.

Since Cylburn is open to the public and free of charge, all one needs to do to visit is find directions and hours.

Related Stories

Cylburn Mansion: A victorian vestige: Construction of the Cylburn mansion completed in 1888, but the lion statues that adorn the porch of the mansion and the entrance to the Formal Garden still seem to stand guard after 125 years.

Cylburn Nature Museum and Nature Story Hour: On this day, a dozen or so toddlers and a handful of parents attend the story hour, which is free for children and a dollar for adults.