Inspiration inside a northern Kentucky park

Story by Rodney Wilson 
Photos by Carla Wilson

While publications such as this one do great work explaining the methods and manners of growing small plants in a controlled and beneficial manner, there’s much more to the botanical kingdom than just garden-variety flowers and plants. And with our very survival beholden to the oxygen exchange provided by trees, it’s worth paying some attention to those trunked beauties that compose those leafy canopies above our heads.

The arboretum’s colorful butterfly garden features a variety of native plants carefully chosen to attract and feed winged pollinators.

Such was the thinking behind the 1999 establishment of the Boone County Arboretum in Union. Featuring more than 3,600 trees and shrubs inside the 121-acre Central Park (also home to baseball and soccer fields), the arboretum’s mission is “To create a living museum that enriches the quality of life by providing a place for the appreciation and study of plants and the preservation of the natural environment.”

Decorative elements, such as this pergola, offer realistic options for inspired home-garden design.

In addition to opportunities for study through close examination, the arboretum’s 2.2-mile paved trail, which winds through the forest, also provides abundant opportunities to learn, with printed maps and an online plant database with information about trees and flowers located throughout the park. Smaller woodland trails immerse visitors in the forest itself, all while learning about trees in a natural setting. One trail is even dedicated to teaching about environmental threats posed by invasive plants and species.

With the stated aim of educating and inspiring home gardeners, the arboretum features multiple opportunities for visitors to take lessons home. Here, a display teaches about planting an effective rain garden.

And while contemplative strolls through northern Kentucky woodlands are reason enough to visit, the arboretum wants visitors to find inspiration for their own gardens as well, so there are also floral gardens meant to give people gardening ideas they can implement at home.

Paved paths weave through gardens, letting visitors get up close and personal with native plant species.
The arboretum mixes tended gardens with forested acreage, providing a serene natural experience.

Boone Co. Arboretum’s butterfly garden is one such floral display. Featuring a variety of plants and flowers that attract butterflies and pollinators – from monarch-feeding milkweed (Asclepias spp.) to butterfly bushes (Buddleia spp.), lavender (Lavandula spp.), yarrow (Achillea spp.), and more – the garden provides a spot to see pollen-gathering bugs hard at work while also getting ideas for planting insect-friendly botanicals around their own property.

Here, a tiger swallowtail perches on a Petite Indigo (‘Mongo’) butterfly bush.

The arboretum’s rain garden is designed to show visitors native-plant landscaping solutions for storm water runoff. Rain gardens employ three planting zones, arranged in a circle, to handle excessive rain water – the outer zone for plants that prefer drier soil, second zone with plants that can tolerate occasional standing water and, at the center, plants that can survive in wet conditions. For homeowners who see their yards puddling during rainstorms, the arboretum’s model garden offers an example of what and how Kentucky plants can be arranged to solve the problem.

The gardens are lovely, but the arboretum also features numerous flowering trees and shrubs.

The arboretum’s third floral garden is all about the kids. A colorful playground leads to an equally colorful garden filled with kid-friendly plants that little hands can touch and interact with. Parents, grandparents, and others can observe children playing among plants and flowers, and get ideas for planting kid-friendly gardens at home – and hopefully encourage an early love of plants in the next generation of Kentucky gardeners.

Nestled inside an active recreation park, the arboretum offers plenty of opportunities to walk and rest among the trees.

Boone County Arboretum isn’t filled with curated and exotic flowers from around the world. Rather, the grounds provide multiple examples of Kentucky gardens, with native plants that complement and enhance our bluegrass environments, ready to inspire and educate visitors and home gardeners. And, of course, there are the trees – lovelier than poems, life sustaining for humanity and framing one of the best walks northern Kentucky has to offer.




The Boone County Arboretum in Union has put a couple of “firsts” alongside the common notion of a stroll through the woods. For starters, its location inside a network of athletic fields makes it the first arboretum in the nation to be established inside an active recreation setting, And, another first, the arboretum is the country’s first to have its entire plant collection mapped with global positioning technology to enable online search functionality and a cutting-edge learning experience. Try it out for yourselfhere.

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