Exploring the root of the word 'arboretum'

It’s on one of those signs you see along the highway, or in a listing on a map or travel guide: "National Arboretum,"  "University Arboretum," or perhaps "State Arboretum." 

This invites the question: what exactly is an "arboretum?" 

Think of it as a “zoo for trees.” Yes, you read that correctly. 

That’s because an arboretum is a type of botanical garden dedicated to the collection and study of “woody” plants (that is, trees and shrubs). Or to put it another way, an arboretum is a place that has intentionally preserved specific trees and shrubs for educational and scientific purposes.

In most cases, since arboretums are designed in a park or lake setting, visitors are welcome to view and study the specimens in the collection during normal business hours. Most arboretums also offer classes that are aligned with the facilities mission. 

That’s the general definition. Now let’s get technical. In a really narrow sense, an arboretum is a collection of trees (from the Latin arbor, meaning tree). If you have a collection of shrubs, your facility would be a fruticetum (from the Latin frutex, meaning shrub). If it’s just vines, that would be a viticetum, (from the Latin vitis, or grapevine). 

Now let’s get really technical. (Sorry.) 

Let’s say you want to have a collection of specific trees. If it houses conifers, that would be a pinetum. Or if you prefer the mighty oak tree, that would be known as a querceta. 

Fortunately, an arboretum today is a botanical garden containing living collections of woody plants that is meant at least partly for scientific study. 

Now here’s the fun part: no two arboretums are alike. That’s because they all vary based on climate and which trees and shrubs are native to an area. The facilities also differ because of their history and their mission, which could range from a botanical garden to a natural or historical collection or a public green space. 

I promise you’ll look twice now when you see the highway sign, “exit here for arboretum.” Stop in! Walk around! Not only are arboretums educational, they are also beautiful.

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog! 

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