By John Armstrong
Located between Spencer Drive, Russett Lane, and McIntosh Drive in South Amherst lies a six-acre plot of Amherst Conservation Land. The middle two acres of this plot comprise the Orchard Arboretum, home to more than a hundred labeled trees and shrubs, an ADA-accessible pathway, and inviting benches. It includes a hillside, at the top of which a path leads to the Holyoke Range trail system. The Arboretum is a place of great beauty and tranquility.
Orchard Arboretum is open year-round, except when there are snow and ice on the walkways, and spring is a particularly good time to visit, with dozens of trees and shrubs in flower. Among the trees are a few survivors of the 20th-century apple orchards that once blanketed South Amherst.
The Arboretum originated in 1994. Early in that year a condo development was proposed for the six-acre plot. But a coalition of Applewood residents and Upper Orchard condo owners, with significant help from philanthropist Janet Dakin and the Kestrel Trust, raised $175,000, bought the land, and donated it to the Town.
Since then, there has been a succession of different arrangements for developing and managing the Arboretum, culminating in the present Friends of the Orchard Arboretum, which is made up of volunteers from the Applewood retirement community, the Upper Orchard condos, and volunteers from elsewhere in town. In co-operation with the Conservation Department, the Friends manage the planting, pruning, mowing, and leaf-clearing that are key to the maintenance of this lovely place. The Conservation Department manages the four acres that are not part of the Arboretum.
The list of‘original trees, plus the trees and shrubs planted since 1994, now contains over 150 items, representing 65 species and 25 families. Almost all these specimens are labelled with their binomial Latin and common English names.
The benches and a large proportion of the trees in the Arboretum have been donated in memory of former Applewood residents. Other trees and the collection of flowering shrubs have been selected and planted by the Friends of the Orchard Arboretum.
Each March the Friends solicit tax-free contributions to an Orchard Arboretum account at the Town. These funds are used to enhance and maintain the Arboretum. Donors include many residents of Applewood as well as Upper Orchard condo owners and other Amherst supporters.
This long-standing arrangement between the Conservation Department and the Friends of the Orchard Arboretum is a good example of constructive cooperation between Town government and Amherst citizen groups.
Over the years, conservation and wildlife projects have been conducted in the Arboretum, including: a pruning practice for UMass horticultural students; bird walks led by Hampshire Bird Club members; an ongoing study of “Backyard Birds” by Nestwatch Springfield; and a number of programs sponsored by the Kestrel Trust.
Local groups wanting to plan an event in the Arboretum will find it useful to co-ordinate with the Friends’ steering committee. (Write to J. A. Armstrong, Friends Treasurer, at 301 Spencer Drive, Amherst). Groups that are considering charging for an event must apply to the Amherst Conservation Commission for permission.
The Arboretum has been an especially popular destination during the pandemic. The Friends of the Orchard Arboretum look forward to seeing many more repeat visitors.
The six acres do not include parking, but parking is available on the bordering streets. The Conservation Department requires dogs to be on a leash at all times in the Orchard Arboretum.
John Armstrong, a life-long gardener, and his wife Elizabeth have lived in Amherst since 1995. They moved to Applewood in 2015.