Crosby Arboretum, located in Picayune, Mississippi, is widely considered to be the premier native plant conservatory in the southeastern United States. The Arboretum consists of a central 104-acre interpretive site as well as 700 acres of off-site reserves that are maintained for scientific study, focused primarily on the Pearl River Drainage Basin ecosystem. The Arboretum displays three basic habitats found in this ecosystem: savanna, woodland, and aquatic
The Crosby Arboretum is dedicated to L.O. Crosby Jr., a successful timber industrialist, civic leader, and philanthropist who possessed a deep interest in nature. After his death, his family turned their strawberry farm into an interpretive center for vegetation native to the Pearl River Drainage Basin. The center was opened to the public in 1986, with the formation of the Crosby Arboretum Foundation. The Foundation partnered with Mississippi State University in 1997 in order to expand the park’s vision and resources, and the University remains a managerial partner to the present day.
Collectively, the park’s reserves include over 300 indigenous species of plants, shrubs, trees, and grasses. The park’s land was curated for diversity of forest types, including savannas, longleaf pine, slash pine-hardwoods, beech-magnolia, sweetbay-tupelo-swampbay, bottomland hardwoods, bald cypress-tupelo, and various bogs, including the Gulf Coast wet pine savanna, which is one of the richest and most diverse ecosystem types in the world. The arboretum embraces the usage of controlled burns to restore many of these forests more closely to their appearance prior to the arrival of European settlers.
Crosby Arboretum is one of the first ecologically designed arboretums in the country. In 1980, the Crosby Foundation commissioned Edward L. Blake Jr. to develop the arboretum’s master plan. Over the next four years Blake often stayed on the site for long periods of time to learn the landscape, trying a variety of methods including setting up a grid to explore how changes in vegetation reveal a moisture gradient. With assistance from a student at Mississippi State University, Tom Bobbitt, Blake worked with Dr. G. Switzer to develop a series of walking trails with glades or openings carved out of the forest where native plants would be featured as if framed by the woods. By 1982, it was clear that the plan would require further expertise in ecological design to address the complexity of the environment and their vision of native plantings.
Andropogon Associates joined the project and introduced the design ideas that expressed the site’s natural and cultural processes through the plantings. Blake and founding principal of Andropogon, Carol Franklin, developed a long-term partnership that bridged scientific and artistic expertise. Franklin led the efforts to outline an open and participatory process in the evolution of the landscape over time, allowing arboretum visitors and members to participate in the planning and design. Through this design process, a series of design tenets were developed in which the ecological process of the site would determine all exhibit design and management and that the site would be allowed to change over time. Other tenets, including the commitment to designing every part of the site, even infrastructure such as parking, would contribute to the exhibits and displays. These approaches were radical for an arboretum, although they reflected landscape architects’ growing interest in ecological design and environmental learning. Andropogon’s master plan earned an honor award from Association of Landscape Architects in 1991.
The Native Plant Center is the arboretum’s main public attraction and includes woodland, savanna, and aquatic exhibits over large areas. The arboretum’s landscapes are maintained and often man-made, but provide visitors a setting in which to experience plants and landscapes common in—and often unique to—southern Mississippi and southeastern Louisiana. Among these landscapes, native, rare, and unusual plants are highlighted for their agricultural, industrial, chemical, and edible properties and applications.
While much of the landscape of Crosby Arboretum appears as if trails were merely placed in the site, the design carefully reveals the narrative of the native ecology. A theme for the design is the interactions of the landscape and ecologies with fire and water. The trails were designed as a series of journeys through the habitats and vegetation zones. Highlighting the role of water, a pond was designed as if a beaver had built a dam along the stream that then formed a wetland zone as part of a mosaic of interlocking ecotones. In the savanna habitat, fire is used to suppress the growth of some plants while encouraging that of others. Other zones such as the grasslands and the woodlands are designed so as to experience the landscape over time as one revisits the park. Throughout, succession and change are highlighted, as is chance and the dynamic character of the native landscape.
Many structures throughout the arboretum, including numerous bridges and the renowned Pinecote Pavilion were designed by E. Fay Jones. The Pavilion is, on the one hand, a simple shed built on a base of earth-toned brick, surrounded by earth, water, and trees. The name Pinecote refers to the pine trees that serve as a “cote” or home for birds, similar to idea of the arboretum as a home for nature. The all-wood structure is built with indigenous materials including native pine. Light and shadow constitute the dynamic character of the pavilion, intimately linking it to its setting. At the same time, the pavilion is an elegant articulation of clear geometry reflected at every scale from the details to the overall form. The pavilion received an honor award (1991) from the American Institute of Architects, while Jones won their Gold Medal award (1991). The chapel-like Pine Pavilion expresses themes of nature and place through its simple and clear construction and it allows sunlight to echo the shadows created by the encompassing pine forests.
Blake, E.L. Jr. Evolution of the Crosby Arboretum. Picayune, MS: The Crosby Arboretum, 1988.
Blake, E.L. Jr. “Nature as garden, a sense of this place.” Lecture, Mississippi State University, 1989.
Mississippi State Extension Service. “The Crosby Arboretum.” Accessed July 18, 2015. www.extension.msstate.edu.
Brzuszek, Robert F. The Crosby Arboretum: A Sustainable Regional Landscape. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014.