Who needs leaf peeping when you have your own arboretum?

Draves arboretum (very partial)
Draves arboretum (very partial)

“I’m not an environmentalist.” That’s one of the statements I remember from my morning visit to one of Western New York’s foremost tree experts, Thomas Draves, who’s also a certified nursery and landscape professional and attends to the tree needs of clients throughout the area.

He’s not an environmentalist, but Draves has planted a 25-acre arboretum behind his house, which he’s been adding to over twenty years, and now has 800 species of trees represented. It is completely invisible from the road of his rural/exurban community, but once you descend some rustic steps behind his house, you’re in a tree lover’s paradise, with different cultivars everywhere you look. And they are surprisingly mature, given that this was cornfield and scrub just 20 years ago. One of the reasons Draves says he planted this is that it’s easy to show clients what trees will look like and help them make choices. But it’s also clear that he planted all these different types of trees out of scientific curiosity, a sense of adventure, and the arborist’s sheer love of his specialty.

In Delaware Park, Buffalo
In Delaware Park, Buffalo

This is the time of year I think about trees; around here, leaf peeping is in full swing as carloads head for Letchworth to the east and Ellicottville and Allegany to the south. I have never been one for leaf peeping, much. It is beautiful to see rolling waves of reds, oranges, and yellows along the roadside—you need hillier country than we have around Buffalo to really appreciate it—but I’m just as happy to see a single blazing maple, serviceberry, or gingko along a daily walk. One of my favorites plants for color is a shrub—sumac. We rarely go out of our way to look for fall color en masse; it’s easy enough—and more interesting—to see individual components close at hand. One of my favorite places to go is along a northerly route where old cobblestone structures are overhung by large mature trees, well-spaced.

Cobblestone home, Niagara County
Cobblestone home, Niagara County

Tom Draves admits that with the diverse planting, he doesn’t get too much in the way of a color show, but that was not what he was after. I’ve never longed for a large property to garden in, but I do like the idea of having my own arboretum to wander in during the soft autumn days.

And here are a couple trees Draves thinks are underutilized, at least in his view:
American Yellowood (Cladastrus kentukea): native, four-season interest
Black Gum/Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica): another native with distinctive bark and beautiful fall foliage
Draves is also a fan of Oriental spruce, ilex, witch hazel, and aralias.

I hope you are all enjoying your trees, whatever color they are, this fall.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. That is an odd comment to make in my opinion: “I am not an environmentalist”. Does he mean that while he has his lovely piece of nature, he doesn’t care about the rest of it? Just seems odd to me.

    • That does not seem like an odd statement to me. “Environmentalist” can be a bit of a divisive term in some circles, much like the term “feminist”. I prefer “conservationist”.

      • Separating icky politics from sense might be preferable to some, but it’s not useful and causes, predictably, confusion.

  2. The comment came up when I referred to trees and their carbon sequestration properties–we didn’t say much more. I don’t think Draves is against that–it’s just not his prime motivation.

  3. I like Draves’ suggestions for under utilized trees but in Canada unusual trees aren’t easy to source. After much searching, I found Cladastrus kentukea but it didn’t survive the first winter. Two Nyssa sylvatica I planted about 15 years ago are growing slowly. They are very late to leaf out in the spring and every year I am afraid they are dead. They are also late to colour up in autumn but the brilliant red leaves make the wait worthwhile.

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