2017-08-31 / Front Page

Newport's Tree Society Reaches New Status

By Brooke Constance White


Evergreen shrubs surround the gardens of Bettie Bearden Pardee. Evergreen shrubs surround the gardens of Bettie Bearden Pardee. It’s been a big year for Newport’s community-wide arboretum, and it’s not over yet. The Newport Tree Society has been working hard these past few months and will be welcoming 12 new arboreta in September, making the city home to more accredited arboreta than any other city in the world.

On top of that, the city-wide arboretum will soon be the first of its kind to reach the second-highest level of professional accreditation in the nation.

By the end of this year, NTS officials say the paperwork will be complete to make the remarkable accreditation official. Such a level can only be reached by having at least 500 different tree varieties planted and growing within the city.

“Having 500 varieties of trees is a feat unto itself but soon Newport is also going to have 18 arboreta in the city,” said Helen Papp, interim executive director of NTS. “This is really unprecedented. For any city to have this many gardens is just amazing.”

Since NTS was founded in 1987, its mission has been to protect and rejuvenate the urban forest. Initially, it was only concerned with public trees, Papp said. But eventually the nonprofit realized that no one was protecting trees on private properties and officials decided not to make that distinction since most of the city’s tree canopy is on private land. The citywide arboretum is one of the first in the nation to include trees on both public and private land.

“It doesn’t matter where a tree is sitting,” Papp said. “Some of our tagged trees are in public parks but some are in people’s front yards. They are all important and this is a way to get everybody involved.”

Although it’s all voluntary and nothing forces anyone to preserve and protect their trees, NTS is all about engaging people and educating them on the importance of urban forestry. Papp said that anytime they walk up to someone’s doorstep and ask if they can tag a tree in their yard, the homeowner never looks at the tree the same way again. In order to become an accredited arboreta in Newport, a property or garden needs to have 25 species of woody plants and the property owner must host at least one public event per year, such as a tour.

“A lot of cities are approaching tree protection from a legal standpoint but here in Newport we just want to help people see the importance of urban forestry,” she said. “Having someone understand the importance of our trees and see them as beautiful specimens is a form of protection and preservation.”

With such a wide array of varieties, it’s no surprise that some of the nation’s most interesting and oldest trees can be found in Newport, such as a Mongolian Oak on Bellevue Court, a Japanese Zelkova at the American Illustrator’s Museum, and a Katsua tree on Bowery Street, Papp said.

The organization began in 1987, which was about the same time the community began to see its Gilded Age-era trees dying off.

“We started noticing that four types of European Beeches were dying in Newport and today we’ve probably lost about half of all the Gilded Age-era Copper Beeches and many of the other varieties are failing as well,” Papp said.

Last year around 300 people attended a funeral for a beech tree that died at the Newport Art Museum.

“There’s a stark change to the landscape when these giant trees come down,” she said. “It makes our work educating and engaging people all the more important.”

For many years the city’s architecture has received a lot of attention, but this time, Papp said, the community's landscapes and trees should be in the spotlight.

“They tell the stories just as much as the architecture,” she said. “At one point, the people of Newport collected rare trees and competed with each other and we want to get back to that. Let’s be a model for other cities of how people can get involved in conservation and botany.”

On Sept. 14 from 2-8:30 p.m., the six newest arboreta in Newport will be open for tours. Visit newportarboretum.org for more information.

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