North Central alum tracks Morton Arboretum trees

Ed Hedborn is the go-to guy for all things trees. Need to learn about the emerald ash borer? Ed's your man. Wondering when the fall colors will be at their peak? Call Ed.

Hedborn is manager of plant records at the 1,700-acre Morton Arboretum in Lisle, home to more than 222,000 live plants from around the world.

Put simply, Hedborn's job is to document the life history of every plant ever grown there. If that sounds like a daunting task, it is.

"The arboretum is charged with collecting every kind of woody plant in the world and (seeing) if it will thrive here in Lisle," says Hedborn, who graduated from North Central College in 1970 with a degree in biology. "We have plants from all over the world, from the Georgian Republic to the state of Georgia."

So where does he begin? With paper and pen. He enters each acquisition by hand in a journal, noting details such as its name, size and number, along with its latitude and longitude of origin. Later, all the information is entered into a database; currently the arboretum is collaborating with Oxford University in England to fine-tune a system that will track both the living collection and the herbarium (preserved dried plants).

Hedborn also digitally maps all arboretum plants.

"We're information pack rats here," says Hedborn, who earned his master's degree in biology from Northeastern Illinois University in 1984. He currently resides in Woodridge.

Hiking the arboretum regularly is also part of Hedborn's work. Armed with a collections printout, a clipboard and an assistant, he examines each plant and confirms that it is labeled correctly, noting any changes in growth or condition. Each comprehensive tour takes about three years from beginning to end.

He'll also drive through the property to collect information about "peak color" for media and visitors. This fall the color hit its height about a week later than usual, he reports. A change in a tree's color is caused by several factors, including moisture levels, amount of daylight, temperature and overall plant health.

Hedborn's passion for plants had plenty of room to grow at North Central College. "I remember field trips with (biology professor) Dr. Warren Keck," he says. "He did things the old-school botany way, which meant he went on field trips dressed in a suit and tie! Those were interesting times."

Hedborn's career at the arboretum began the summer after his senior year, when he accepted a position working in the prairie. He left to serve for four years in the U.S. Navy, then returned for good. Now, after 38 years at the arboretum, Hedborn couldn't be happier with his life's work.

A sign in his office says it all: "If you're lucky enough to be in the woods, you're lucky enough."

Ed Hedborn puts his North Central College biology degree to work every day as the manager of the Morton Arboretum's plant records. Courtesy of North Central College
As manager of plant records, Ed Hedborn catalogs the health of every plant and tree at the Morton Arboretum. Courtesy of North Central College
Ed Hedborn regularly and systematically hikes through the Morton Arboretum to monitor the health and development of every plant and tree. It takes about three years to survey the arboretum's 1,700 acres. Courtesy of North Central College
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