American University’s Arboretum

Not far from where I live, in northwest Washington DC, American University has been establishing an arboretum on its campus that provides student, faculty and visitors with a garden-like setting to enjoy and take pride in. I’ve been photographing the campus for its landscape architect, H. Paul Davis (who also has designed many beautiful residential gardens in the DC area) since 2004, and thought I would share some photos with you.

While the original campus plan for AU (which was founded in 1893) was created by Frederick Law Olmstead Sr., it underwent changes over the years. These days, Olmstead’s plan is being revisited, but some of the most visually exciting areas of AU’s landscape are directly attributable to Davis’ vision.

American University, Katzen Center, American University Arboretum

The University's Katzen Center, with sculpture and plantings.

American University, American University Arboretum, Katzen Center

Another view of the Katzen Center "garden."

Older parts of campus include mature trees and a wandering brook,

American University Arboretum

Azaleas and a brook near the Woods-Brown Ampitheater at AU.

a “pocket park” with unusual perennials and a Japanese maple with benches inviting you to sit and talk,

American University Arboretum, Roper Pocket Park

Roper Pocket Park, with a naturalized pond and seasonal plantings.

and large expanses of lushly planted sweeps of colorful long-flowering perennials in front of the President’s House and neighboring Glover Gate.

American University Arboretum, President's Garden

The lawn at the President's house, near Glover Gate.

American University Arboretum, Glover Gate

A mass of bold summer annuals and grasses capture the eye at Glover Gate.

In spring, I found Euphorbia paired with luscious yellow and white tulips along a walkway between buildings.

American University Arboretum

Euphorbia and yellow and white tulips provide a gorgeous spring combination.

The landscape design around academic buildings is impressive almost everywhere.

American University Arboretum

Hillside plantings behind a Batelle-Thompkins building, not far from Glover Gate.

A late summer afternoon in front of Battelle-Tompkins, with a Natchez crape myrtle in bloom and masses of coneflowers, shasta daisies and black-eyed susans.

In 2010, the plantings surrounding Battelle-Thompkins earned Davis and AU a Landscape Design Merit Award from the Perennial Plant Association.

AU’s arboretum is not only visually beautiful but is becoming a leader in sustainable management of an urban landscape. Its new LEED Gold Certified School of International Service building showcases a host of new green technologies, and the campus’s Media Production Center boasts a green roof. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll take a tour of the campus – even if you’re not in the market for a return to academia yourself, it’s inspirational and an opportunity for learning more about how an institute of higher learning has something to teach us all.

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8 Comments on “American University’s Arboretum”


  1. Melissa, I had no idea about this. What I see from driving on Mass Ave or Nebraska just doesn’t give the impression that there is this kind of detail inside the campus. Lovely photos, as usual. Thanks.

    • Melissa Says:

      Carolyn, the Katzen Center’s underground parking lot is free on the weekends so check out the arboretum this spring! Paul is still planting apace so there are lots of new areas to see as well.

  2. John Says:

    Well, that’s a surprise. We’ve lived in the Washington area for a long time and I’ve never known about the grounds of AU. I will have to add that to our itinerary for an upcoming visit to DC. I like the idea of mixing the bulbs with the euphorbia…

    • Melissa Says:

      I think it has come into its own really only in the past ten years or so, since Paul Davis came on the scene. Do put it on your list, and see my comments above about parking at the Katzen Center on the weekends!

  3. Jean Says:

    Melissa, I’m amazed how many gems there are in DC that I’ve never seen. This spring, while my teaching schedule is unusually light, I’m going to try to see some of them. Thanks for putting the AU campus on my list.

    • Melissa Says:

      Jean, so nice to hear from you. I think you’ll enjoy seeing AU. Be sure to go online for more info – they may even have a downloadable PDF guide to the different parts of the Arboretum.


  4. Great pictures, great post. I have been watching his work at AU for sometime and find it very fresh and dynamic…compared to the staid and boring Cathedral grounds down the street.

    • Melissa Says:

      Susie, thanks for the kind words! I think the Cathedral’s Bishop’s Garden has its own charms, but no question that AU’s campus plantings are more dynamic and fascinating. I look forward to seeing it evolve.


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