Native plants are the focus at Rady Park Arboretum

When Mary McGee first became a master gardener in 2013, she had no idea that the volunteer group helped maintain an arboretum within a popular public park just a block from her house.

So when she became involved with the Rady Park Arboretum, a project she co-chairs with fellow master gardener Winnie Buursink, one of her first orders of business was to work with the town and county that manage the Warrenton, Va., park to put a sign on the gate to the arboretum.

The Rady Park Arboretum has existed within a pocket of Warrenton’s Rady Park since 1999.

The park is owned and maintained by the town of Warrenton and Fauquier County, but the arboretum is a maintained by volunteers from the Fauquier/Rappahannock County Master Gardeners.

The arboretum is home to landscape trees that are native to Virginia, such as the sweetbay magnolia and the colorful shrub ninebark.

It is meant as an educational resource.

The idea is to show area homeowners that they can build an attractive landscape with native plants, which are suited to the local climate and can be easier to maintain, not to mention beneficial to area wildlife.

“Native plants are ecologically important,” McGee said, “because they tend to be what the insects and animals in the area look for. They have the berries and the sap and everything else that are what our beneficial insects are looking for.”

Native plants on display in collections

In 2016, the master gardeners added a native plant garden to the arboretum, using grant money from the Warrenton Garden Club.

“We consulted with a couple of landscape architects in the area about plants that we don’t have that would be nice to have, and we liked the idea of a native plant garden so that we could showcase what native plants can do in your yard,” McGee said.

Parks staff helped the master gardeners prepare the bed, laying a pathway and providing a bench for visitors.

“Every time I go down there, there is someone sitting on that bench,” McGee said.

Other special plantings within the arboretum include the peace garden.

This quiet, shaded garden started out as a commemoration of the town of Warrenton’s 2002 declaration as a “Community of Peace.” The master gardeners have since taken on its maintenance, and have planted it with herbaceous plants that have a symbolic connection to the concept of peace.

Phlox, for example, is thought to be a symbol of harmony, while Virginia bluebells are believed to represent truth.

Visibility is valuable

McGee says the volunteer group’s presence working the garden is sometimes a powerful recruiting tool for the master gardeners.

“When we work in the garden, we are quite often approached by people who are walking their dogs and asked about the Master Gardener program, and we use that as an educational opportunity,” she said.

To reach a broader audience, the group started using Plants Map to document and label the plants within the arboretum.

McGee and Buursink learned of Plants Map’s online plant profiles and interactive signs and tags from their Virginia Cooperative Extension agent, who was aware of other chapters of master gardeners and Virginia Master Naturalists using the free web-based tools.

Creating a profile page for the arboretum and labeling plants with the interactive tags has helped spread awareness about the arboretum, McGee said.

“People have started looking at it, and they are coming back to me and saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you had that many plants,’” she said.

Listing on Plants Map also sparked another fruitful connection.

ArbNet, an interactive organization of arboreta that maintains a Plants Map presence, noticed the Rady Park Arboretum on Plants Map and contacted McGee, asking if she’d like to pursue accreditation for the arboretum.

In September, the Rady Park Arboretum announced on its Plants Map page that it is now a Level-I accredited arboretum through ArbNet. “We are very excited about that,” McGee said.

Not a static park

Going forward, McGee says the master gardeners will continue to add trees at the Rady Park Arboretum.


Recent additions include a green “Winter King” hawthorn and the ninebark cultivar “Little Devil.”

“This is not a static park,” McGee said. “It’s very dynamic.”

She hopes people will stay tuned to what’s going on at the arboretum, and also that it might spark visitors’ interest in joining the master gardeners, a group she has found to be continually rewarding to work with.

“I have met the most interesting people from all walks of life,” McGee said. “It is so much fun to go and just talk plants. The camaraderie is incredible.”


To learn more, follow Rady Park Arboretum on Plants Map. 

The journal cover photo features Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)