Curated Color

Arboreta cultivate and catalog trees for all to enjoy. Witness the beauty of autumn at these six spots.

The forest is still wild, especially given its location less than 25 miles from downtown Cleveland. Much of the land within the 3,600-acre Holden Arboretum in Kirtland has been untouched since the 1930s, and there are chestnut oaks in Stebbins Gulch whose leaves have been turning copper for more than 400 autumns.

As fall visitors turn onto the entrance drive, they’re immediately reminded that this place is a museum devoted to the preservation of trees. To the right, a vivid display of reds, oranges, and yellows mark the mature forests that slope down to the banks of Pierson Creek. To the left, a leafy canopy of fall color conceals the place where Stebbins Gulch enters the East Branch of the Chagrin River.

“Obviously, it’s beautiful to behold, especially in the fall when you have all these colors against a blue sky, and it’s a nice day with the air beginning to get cooler,” says David Burke, chair of the research department at Holden.“ But you also get that sense you’re walking through something special, and there is that sense of awe and wonder that natural systems like that bring out.”

Autumn is the perfect time to witness the wonder of trees, and arboreta offer a different perspective than parks or other public forests. Devoted to the display and study of trees and shrubs, arboreta generally feature a great diversity of species, carefully tended and cataloged, with identification placards and interpretive signs to help visitors learn more about forests and their trees.

No matter where you live in Ohio, there’s an arboretum within a day’s trip  from home, and fall colors are at their showiest in October. The leaves have already started changing. Now is the time to make your visit.

Holden Arboretum
9550 Sperry Road, Kirtland 44094

More than 20 miles of hiking trails pass through extensive natural areas, nearly two-dozen ponds, theme gardens and wild natural areas within Holden Arboretum’s roughly 3,600 acres.

The theme gardens offer variety as abundant as the forests, but with easier access, more educational information, and many nonnative plants that are popular as home landscaping choices.

For those searching for fall colors, Roger Getting, director of horticulture and conservation at Holden, suggests visitors look beyond the obvious — the leaves — and consider the fruits as well.

“The fruits often contrast with the foliage,” he explains. “You’ve got winterberry holly. Its leaves turn yellow and its fruits are bright red. Shrubby dogwood fruit is burgundy and foliage is white. The black gum fruit is deep purple and its foliage is red.”
And plants aren’t the only attraction, Getting says. The fruiting trees attract migrating fall birds, while the asters in the butterfly gardens bring in migrating monarch butterflies.

For the hardy hiker, Burke recommends the rugged 1.9-mile Pierson Loop trail, which winds along a fern-carpeted valley cut by the creek and adorned with the fiery colors of a mature oak forest. “When you walk through a forest like Pierson you get a sense of what a lot of these forests used to look like hundreds of years ago.” Open daily from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults and $3 for children 6–12. For holiday closings and a calendar of events, visit or call 440/946-4400.

The Dawes Arboretum
7770 Jacksontown Rd., Newark 43056

Like Holden, The Dawes Arboretum is a sizeable place with a mix of cultivated display gardens and expansive natural areas. Having spent 26 years on the staff there, executive director Luke Messinger is understandably partial to the place he’s witnessed so many autumns.

“We really have a tremendous plant collection,” he says, “and we’re really fortunate in that the trees that tolerate the growing conditions in this part of Ohio are some of the most beautiful fall color trees. Ohio has some of the prettiest fall color — anywhere.”

With 600 of its 1,848 acres devoted to display, a four-mile vehicle tour and 12 miles of hiking trails, Dawes provides easy access for visitors hoping to compare the fall displays of the various types of trees growing in the Ohio River watershed.

For a thorough sampling of the entire arboretum, take the 2.5-mile Lake Trail. If time is limited, take a shorter tour through the Japanese garden, which is surrounded by large trees and shrubs providing brilliant fall color.

With more than 16,000 trees and shrubs in its collection, visitors can find a multitude of natural life but the arboretum is especially focused on three types of trees: buckeye, maple and dawn redwood. Dawes is entrusted with maintaining the genetic diversity of these trees through an agreement with the North American Plant Collections Consortium. No other Ohio arboretum is responsible for more than one.

The 336 varieties of maples come from around the globe and offer colors that range from golden yellows to deep reds, while the needles on the dawn redwood, an Asian conifer, actually turn a deep golden brown and drop off each year. Open 7 a.m.–sunset daily, except for some holidays. There is a small charge for some events. For more information, visit

Cox Arboretum
6733 N. Springboro Pike, Dayton 45449

Renowned Belgian landscape architect Francois Goffinet proposed a 46-foot “tree tower” as part of a new master plan for Cox Arboretum because he wanted visitors to have a panoramic view of the central attraction.

“He figured, what better way to see trees than to get above them?” explains Amy Forsthoefel, a spokesperson for Five Rivers MetroParks, which owns and operates Cox.

The tower was completed nearly a year ago in the waning days of the fall-color season, so this year, the 50th anniversary for Cox, will be the first full color season for the tower. Ascend the wraparound staircase for a 360-degree view of the arboretum’s 189 acres of mature forests and specialty gardens featuring trees, shrubs and prairie plants.

“The arboretum is designed to be a microcosm of the natural plant life found in Ohio,” Forsthoefel says. “The arboretum really comes alive with color in the fall.”

After your climb, there are 2.5 miles of nature trails to walk and a network of paved paths through the gardens. Admire but try to avoid petting Zipp, the arboretum’s border collie mascot.

“He’s very friendly but really he’s supposed to be working,” explains Forethoefel. “His job is to keep the Canada geese where they belong, which is someplace else.” Admission is free. For seasonal hours and information about guided tours, visit or call 937/434-9005.

Secrest Arboretum

2122 Williams Rd., Wooster 43056

The Ohio State University’s Secrest Arboretum took a hit in 2010 when a tornado sliced through a wide swath of its public display area, taking out many of its oldest trees in a section affectionately known as the Buckeye Forest.

Fortunately, its location on the campus of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center means there is plenty of expertise available to nurse this tree museum back to health. In fact, reforestation is the origin story of this arboretum, which dates back to 1908 and bears the name of the father of Ohio forestry, Edmund Secrest.

Ken Cochran, the current program director, explains that when Secrest began his work, the grand forests of Ohio had been virtually wiped out — fall color wasn’t exactly an issue. In the early days the arboretum was developed in grids of like trees, lined up in orderly rows.

“[Today] our mandate is still research, but I always say, ‘hey, research can be beautiful,’ ” Cochran says. “So we plant a lot of our things in a garden, with meandering paths and a mix of plants.”

Many of Secret’s oldest trees were taken out in the storm. But the 121-acre arboretum still has extensive theme gardens and a grove of mature trees that are carefully labeled and easy to walk through, which provides easy comparisons for the amateur landscaper trying to choose trees.

“Generally the yellows and the oranges are going to come in the sugar maples,” Cochran says. “There are even some red maples that come more yellow than red. But some maples are very red.”

He adds that hornbeams and lindens are going to tend toward yellow, while gingko can be just golden. “When you get into oaks, you get some of your purples and burgundies and red,” Cochran adds. “Sweet gum is purple or yellow, sometimes multi-colored.” Open dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. Admission is free. For more information, visit

Spring Grove
Cemetery and Arboretum

4521 Spring Grove Ave., Cincinnati 45232

It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful place for eternal repose than the Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum in Cincinnati, and the many and varied trees found there play a huge role in setting the appropriate mood. A mood, to steal from Wordsworth, “in which the heavy and the weary weight / Of all this unintelligible world / Is lightened.”

Wordsworth’s Romanticism is a good introduction to Spring Grove, which is an example of the rural-cemetery movement that evolved from the Romantics’ love of nature as a setting for contemplation and consolation.

“The idea of the design was to have the rolling expanses of trees and shrubs invite the eye to take you around the next corner,” says Brian Heinz, horticulture supervisor at Spring Grove, “almost to get lost, to a point, within the grounds.”

In the nearly 170 years since its founding, Spring Grove has grown to 733 acres, including a woodland preserve of about 12 acres, which is never intended to be developed and presents maples and beeches up to a century old. A stroll through the trails there is a must during any autumn visit.

Other notable sights include a 400-year-old white oak, which turns a brilliant red in the fall. Heinz also recommends the Civil War section, where a plantation of bald cypress reflects russet brown in the waters of a lake.  For the reds, oranges, and yellows of sugar maples, visit Section 144. For more information, visit or call 513/ 681-7526

Stranahan Arboretum
131 Tantara Drive, Toledo 43623

The University of Toledo’s Stranahan Arboretum is primarily a research and education facility for the Department of Environmental Science, with a focus on the use of trees for environmental cleanup and restoration.

But the public face of this 47-acre site, about 10 minutes from the university’s main campus, can be charming — especially in the autumn, when a small woodlot of 150-year-old trees puts forth a tremendous display of fall color.

“My favorites are almost always the maples, because of the brilliant colors they get,” says Daryl Dwyer, an environmental microbiologist in charge of the arboretum. “But I also like the oaks in the old forest area, because you get those nice, deep, rust-colored reds.”

In addition to the old forest, the arboretum includes ornamental trees, ponds, wetlands, a ravine, and remnants of the grasslands known as the

Oak Openings region that once covered more than 130 square miles in northwest Ohio. Open Mon.–Fri. 9 a.m.–3 p.m. There is seasonal schedule variation, so call 419/841-1007 or visit for more information.