Retiring Hill botanist: ‘Get out into the woods!’

Local Life February 14, 2013 0 Comments

Ann Rhoads, Senior Botanist and former Director of Botany at Morris Arboretum, is shown here in her favorite place – the woods. Ann retired last month from a long and prolific career in the field of botany that included research, teaching and notable publications. Her enduring wish to all of us is to experience the natural world. (Photo by Paul W. Meyer)

by Sally Cohen

Today, in a world that revolves around technology, one of Ann Rhoads’ greatest pleasures is taking her grandchildren for woodland walks. As someone whose career has involved spending a significant amount of time outdoors, Ann has always encouraged people of all ages to appreciate and take pleasure in the natural world. In January, Ann retired from a long and prolific career at the Morris Arboretum. Ann, 74, who earned a doctorate degree from Rutgers University in botany, served as Director of Botany at the Arboretum from 1976 to 2000, at which time she stepped back to the position of Senior Botanist in order to allow now Director Tim Block to assume the position.

An expert in the flora of Pennsylvania, Ann and former Arboretum Director, Bill Klein, built on work initiated in the 1930s by Edgar T. Wherry by creating the Flora of PA database. Today the database holds approximately 400,000 specimen records from the major Pennsylvania herbaria.

During her tenure, the botany department at the Morris Arboretum also produced several important books. In 1993, “The Vascular Flora of PA, Annotated Checklist and Atlas” by Rhoads and Klein was published by the American Philosophical Society. “The Plants of Pennsylvania, An Illustrated Manual by Rhoads and Block,” first published in 2000 by the University of Pennsylvania Press, has proven to be a valuable resource both within and outside the state. A second edition, incorporating recent taxonomic changes, was published in 2007. “Trees of Pennsylvania” appeared in 2005, and “Aquatic Plants of Pennsylvania” was released in 2011.

Ann has also taught and mentored students through the years both at the Morris Arboretum, supervising or co-supervising the Plant Protection and Pennsylvania flora interns, and as an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where she taught Plant Systematics and Field Botany. An active spokesperson for environmental issues, Ann was instrumental in drawing attention to the issue of suburban sprawl and its severe impact on Pennsylvania’s forests and natural areas.

The building boom in the Philadelphia suburbs — shopping centers, chain stores, office complexes, apartment high-rises, etc. — encroaches daily on territory that once was field, forest or swamp, and Rhoads has often been called in to evaluate whether land that is about to be developed contains any rare species. “Unfortunately, our state regulations are not very strong,” she has said. While a small piece of ground that contains a particular plant might be saved, the larger area that it requires to thrive might be negatively impacted.

Ann, who currently lives in Doylestown, has lived in the Philadelphia area since her family moved here from Washington, D.C., when she was a child. A mother of four grown children, Rhoads has six grandchildren, with whom she has often shared the outdoors. When once asked about the long hours she put in at work, Ann replied, “It’s really been a lot of fun . . . I feel very fortunate to get paid for what I love to do.”

Even though she is retiring from the Arboretum, Ann says she will continue to expand her knowledge of plants, and will still be involved at the Arboretum, helping out in botany and maybe even writing another book. In the meantime, her message not only for her grandchildren but for all of us is a simple one: “Get out into the woods!”

The Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania is located at 100 East Northwestern Ave. in Chestnut Hill. The 92-acre horticulture display garden features a spectacular collection of mature trees in a beautiful and colorful landscape. The Arboretum includes numerous picturesque spots such as a formal rose garden, historic water features, a swan pond and the only remaining freestanding fernery in North America. A permanent nationally award-winning exhibit, “Out on a Limb – a Tree Adventure,” transports visitors 50 feet up into the treetops on a canopy walk that requires no climbing. The Morris Arboretum is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the official arboretum of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

For more information, visit www.morrisarboretum.org.

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