Tom Draves: tree watcher

Our region now boasts a new accredited arboretum in Darien, New York: Draves Arboretum

Tom Draves and the Draves Arboretum pond area

Photos by kc kratt


Draves Arboretum
1821 Sharrick Road, Darien, New York 14040
Group tours by appointment: 585-547-9442 
Level II accreditation (August, 2016) by ArbNet 
(International rating organization for arboreta)

Tree species: more than 500


In August of 2016, WNY tree lovers, gardeners, and green industry pros received good news. Our region now boasts a new accredited arboretum in Darien, New York: Draves Arboretum. This is the result of decades of effort, accrued knowledge, and the intense commitment of arborist Tom Draves. His arboretum will draw groups of professional arborists, landscapers, and garden clubs to admire, identify, and study trees. That’s what arboreta do—or are intended to do. But this arboretum takes tree education and arboriculture research several rungs higher than many. 


What’s special about the arboretum is Draves’ discipline in collecting and trialing rarely seen species and identifying potentially new tree species. Several of his discoveries are on the path to patenting or have already entered the marketplace. 


 Draves Arboretum pond area


Arborist turned teacher

In any specialty, the finest minds are drawn to each other; experts talk to experts, often with breakthrough results. Professors George Hudler and George Good of Cornell University influenced Draves (and taught many of today’s leading arboriculture and horticulture experts). Chris Luley of ESF (College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse) was also Draves’ teacher and assisted with the documentation and application process for accreditation. Luley states that it is important for the arboretum to be recognized, because “It acknowledges the completeness and professional significance of Tom’s achievements within the industry.” Luley adds that Draves Arboretum, applied for at Level II, could probably have received a Level III accreditation (requiring 500 named species, with educational and research programs). “Maybe we’ll go for that in the future,” he predicts. 


Luley is not the only one crediting Draves for his seriousness of purpose in teaching arboriculture. The arborist is known for challenging and pounding knowledge into the brains of all who look at trees with him and listen. In the words of Ed Dore CNLP, himself an icon in the nursery and landscape industry: “A tour of Draves’ Arboretum is truly a humbling experience, not only for the vast array of unusual and difficult-to-find plant material, but [also because] it makes us realize how little many of us know and how much he does.” Draves urges all students, from youths to arborists, to learn plant identification; this is his initial reason for making an arboretum. His other purpose is to show woody plants in realistic growing conditions and let people see what mature specimens would look like growing in home landscapes, cities, and parks.


Larix kaempferi (Japanese Larch)


Picea Orientalis (Oriental Spruce)


The tree collection

Visitors to Draves Arboretum will experience it differently, depending upon their backgrounds and interests. It is not the kind of arboretum—think Brooklyn Botanic Garden—that has paved paths lined with flowers. Maybe it will someday. But if you’re looking for beauty, you will find it here. You don’t have to be a tree professional to love strolling around ponds or hiking along streams and over hills, discovering special trees and shrubs. For that, all seasons are good. When your tour group visits the Draves Arboretum, you’ll probably notice that the well-spaced groups of compatible trees and shrubs are placed in a wide variety of habitats. Draves kept purchasing acres—twenty-five to date—just to have diverse sites for testing plants’ hardiness and adaptability. The property has gravel, sand, loamy, and clay soils, as well as swampy and drought-prone locations. Deer are prolific in Darien, so Draves fences many new specimens. He also figures out which trees can survive deer damage. He can’t easily water most of his specimens, so he sites them correctly and then says, “Good luck!” It’s the perfect trial spot to see which trees thrive in true Western New York conditions. 


Another feature of this new arboretum is its relative youth. Draves explains, “Unlike some places that show you 150-year-old trees, we can show you trees that are just fifteen or thirty years old; this is what they will look like in your lifetime if you plant them at home.” Both home gardeners and professionals will see many trees here that they have never seen before.


The collection includes many kinds of trees most people recognize—maples, oaks, and willows—but there are also many rare species. Silver maples, Norway maples, sugar maples, and paperbarks are familiar to many, but not variegated or trifoliate maples. Draves Arboretum has twelve kinds of trifoliate maples. Other less familiar trees include willowleaf magnolia (Magnolia salicifolia), leather wood (Eucryphia lucida) from Tasmania, bigleaf dogwoods  (Cornus macrophylla), and Japanese oaks.  Landscape designer Tim Richley remarks, “The conifer collection is the best, I think—it blows me away. You’d have to go to the Arnold Arboretum [in Boston, Massachusetts] to see anything like this.”


The arboretum also houses a new Hamamelis ovalis (witch hazel) that was only recently identified in Mississippi. Draves has planted cuttings—the buds cut in China—of a new Parotia subaequalis, another species never before seen locally. There are also native rhododendrons, including Rhododendron mucronulatum, grown from seeds gathered in Korea. 


Ilex verticillata (Winterberry)


Quercus dentate (Japanese Emperor Oak ‘Ferris Miller’)


Tree discovery, a slow process

Many of the plants are trialed at Draves’ place because of his associations in the nursery and plant propagation world. Tim Brotzman (Brotzman’s Wholesale Nursery of Lake County Ohio) met and befriended Draves about eighteen years ago, when they discovered their mutual interest in new and interesting plants. Brotzman, who impressed Draves with his commitment to lengthy observation of plants before they enter the marketplace, states, “We believe very strongly that arboriculture begins in the hands of the propagator, and must be carried through the entire nursery production process. We look for superior cultivars and selections taken from the best provenances.” When Draves thought he found a new tree species, he evaluated it for twenty years, and then took it to Brotzman for another eight year testing period. These tree people take their time. 


New and rare plants don’t have to come from faraway lands. We may picture plant discoverers trekking in remote places in Asia and South America, but Tom Draves made his biggest new species discovery in Attica, just twenty miles from his home. He noticed a honey locust with an unusually narrow and upright canopy on the village street. He scratched his head, wondering what kind of honey locust it could be. He took cuttings and began to grow them and watched—for many years. When he was sure the tree would reproduce consistently he sent it off into the world in search of a patent and a market.


That tree is Streetkeeper Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos ‘draves’). It grows to forty-five feet in about fifty years, with unusually deep green foliage for a honey locust, and a good strong leader (central trunk). But its most distinguishing and valuable feature is that it grows only about twenty feet wide—less than half as wide as other cultivars, making it especially suitable for city streets, small yards, and public places. It was first licensed in just three wholesale nurseries including Brotzman’s Nursery, Hidden Hollow Nursery (Tennessee), and J. Frank Schmidt & Sons (Oregon), but now it’s featured in municipal tree contracts across the United States. The tree also received the prestigious Best Tree award at a Farwest green industry show, and is being used in Europe and patented in Canada. Watch for it in nurseries or city streets in your area and see it at Draves Arboretum.


Tom Draves isn’t resting on his laurels (or honey locusts). He has at least forty new woody plants under observation. They are special trees with some unusual characteristic for the species—perhaps weeping or dwarf or columnar, like a particular Populus Alba (white poplar) that grows sixty feet tall but is only four feet wide. Over time, these trial plants may prove to be hardy enough for Zone 5 conditions; some will prove they grow well in drought conditions, in poorly drained places, or windy, or other rough spots. Only some will prove worthy of the time and significant expense involved in the plant-patenting process. Meanwhile, Draves will continue teaching and looking for new trees to observe over time.    


The arboretum wanders over a gently hilly area. At right, from top: Parrotia subaequalis (Chinese Parrotia), protected from predators; Magnolia officinalis var. biloba (Chinese Magnolia)


Sally Cunningham is a CNLP (Certified Nursery and Landscape Professional) who writes about plants, gardening, and home landscaping. She is a speaker, author, and consultant (privately and at Lockwood’s Greenhouses). Sally also leads garden tours in the US and Europe for AAA/GreatGardenTravel.


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