Morton Arboretum exhibit lets trees tell their tales

  • The solitary bur oak will be home to a hideaway with a secret entrance as part of the Morton Arboretum's "Tree House Tales" exhibit opening in June.

    The solitary bur oak will be home to a hideaway with a secret entrance as part of the Morton Arboretum's "Tree House Tales" exhibit opening in June. Courtesy of the Morton Arboretum

  • Arboretum staff members are creating concepts for the tree houses that will tell visitors about the trees' qualities.

    Arboretum staff members are creating concepts for the tree houses that will tell visitors about the trees' qualities. Courtesy of the Morton Arboretum

Updated 4/10/2012 10:51 AM

When you treasure trees the way the Morton Arboretum does, it seems natural to add a half-dozen tree houses for a touch of whimsy.

Plans are moving forward for the Lisle arboretum to open "Tree House Tales" on Father's Day weekend in June. The special exhibit should attract both the young and young-at-heart to explore trees and nature in a playful way.


"We want to give our visitors another reason to celebrate the amazing stories that trees have to tell and give them an opportunity to experience something really fun in an enchanting location on our grounds," said Sue Wagner, arboretum vice-president of education and information.

"'Tree House Tales' will allow individuals to connect to trees and their meaning in our lives."

In the world of imagination, tree houses are meant to be places to play. Below the canopy of a protective tree, fantasy and reality transform into adventure, escape and memories. The arboretum's small village will include all the charm and fascination necessary to tweak creativity.

"The exhibit is created for parents looking to explore beyond our Children's Garden and get out on the grounds and understand a little more about the trees," Wagner said. "We considered both durability and sustainability."

Since structural concepts are being fine-tuned, the folks at the arboretum offer a sneak preview of what visitors of all ages will experience.

Each tree was carefully considered for its role. The structures are located either next to or around the tree, but are not up in the trees.

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"Because the trees are part of our collection, nothing is attached to a tree, penetrates a tree or harms a tree in any way," Wagner said. "The head of our curator of trees collection helped determine the placement of the structures so they will not harm the roots."

These were similar requirements for a popular tree house art exhibit at the arboretum in 2004. However, this time the concepts all originate from the arboretum's staff and are designed to tell the tree's unique story.

The largest tree among those selected is a Bur Oak, Quercus macrocarpa, that has a thick furrowed bark. Its extensive root system keeps other trees at a distance. It is often found as a solitary tree on a hillside or prairie. The Bur Oak clubhouse, complete with a secret entrance, will feel like a hideaway that Wagner describes as similar to a "Little Rascal's club house."

Known as the tallest tree by American colonists, the Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobes, can reach heights of 150 feet. A white pine was on the first New England flag. The tree's height, light weight and straight central trunk made it a good source for ship masts.


Colonists were outraged when the King of England reserved the largest white pine trees for the crown. By 1774, shipments of white pine logs to England were halted. The concept tree house at the arboretum for this pine will resemble a ship.

The third tree selected is the Empress Tree, Paulownia tomentosa. This deciduous tree is native to China, where an old custom recommends planting one when a baby girl is born. The Empress tree is a good selection for a tree house castle since it was named for Queen Anna Pavlovna of the Netherlands.

The White Oak, Quercus alba, was the tree used often on the American frontier for log houses because it offered long, straight and rot-resistant logs. Audiences will find a simple log cabin as a familiar choice for the arboretum's tree house structure.

With its amusing name, the Cherokee Princess Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida Cherokee Princess, will offer tiny children spaces to crawl through for a great photo-op for parents, Wagner said. People may think the term dogwood comes from the canine world, but rather it is from the root word "dag," which refers to the tree's dense, hard wood that does not crack under pressure. This tree's wood was used to make sturdy arrows for early Americans.

The sixth tree featured in "Tree House Tales," is the prevalent Silver maple, Acer saccharinum. This maple acts as a factory, using the sun's energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and sugar. The tree house tale will depict this function of the silver maple. Children find the silver maple's winged seeds great fun to toss in the air and watch each spin to the ground. The abundant seeds a maple provides are food for small animals and birds.

In 2013, "Tree House Tales" will phase-in four additional tree houses, including a Linden, American elm, White ash and a second Silver maple tree.

The 1,700-acre arboretum will host activities relating to its "Tree House Tales" all summer. Plans are in the works for twilight adventures at the tree house village, for docents to answer questions on Wednesday and weekends, for family-oriented events Thursday evenings and for reading to children at the arboretum's Sterling Morton library. Small classes and activities will be held in the Children's Garden as well, said Wagner.

Plans call for all tree houses to have interpretive signs so parents and grandparents may help their children understand what a tree would say if one could speak up and tell us its history and the individual qualities it brings to our world.

Access to the tree house village is a short walk from the main visitors' parking lot near the Visitor Center in an area roughly south of the Japan and China collections. The Morton Arboretum is open 7 a.m. to sunset daily. For details, visit or call visitors services at (630) 968-0074.

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