The intoxicating aroma of a blooming Maryland southern magnolia tree wafts on a light, humid breeze as high school cross-country runners beat a path across nearby soccer fields.

It’s an unusual juxtaposition of plants and athletes. 

That’s because the magnolia tree is one of 3,600 trees and shrubs at the Boone County Arboretum, which is encompassed within the 121 acres of Boone County Central Park’s athletic fields and courts.

It’s the nation’s first arboretum—a type of botanical garden focusing on trees and woody shrubs—developed within an active recreation park setting.

Located on Camp Ernst Road just outside of Union, the Boone County Arboretum was dedicated in 1999 as a partnership between the Boone County Cooperative Extension and the Boone County Fiscal Court, says Kris Stone, arboretum director.

“We’re here as a living classroom, a living museum to show what does well in our local climate,” Stone says.

To help visitors learn what plants grow well in Northern Kentucky, the arboretum conducts a one-hour guided walk on the first Wednesday of every month at 10 a.m. Free personal tours can also be arranged.

Jean Snyder, president of the nonprofit group Friends of the Boone County Arboretum, says the walks and tours are the perfect way to “learn what kinds of plants and shrubs and trees grow well in this area if [people are] interested in their own backyard.”

The arboretum also acts as a research center, says Josh Selm, curator. “We try to grow things that the general public wouldn’t normally think of, and some of them are only marginally hardy here,” Selm says. 

“We actually had over the years a couple of giant sequoias,” he says. Giant sequoias, the world’s largest and longest-living trees, grow naturally on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California.

But the past two winters have been hard on the arboretum’s giant sequoias, he says. They gradually recovered last year from the first cold winter. “But we’re not sure if they’re going to be able to handle that a second year in a row,” he says.

Sometimes it takes a little “voodoo horticulture” to help a plant through our winters, Stone says. Take, for example, the arboretum’s needle palm trees, which are native to the southeast Gulf Coast region of the U.S.

In the fall, a deer fence surrounding the needle palms is filled with leaves about three feet deep to cover up the crowns of the plants, says Stone. “They’re actually very hardy to about zero degrees on their own, but this gives them some extra help. So, yeah, we cheat a little bit.”

About 60 volunteers help to maintain the arboretum’s trees, shrubs, children’s garden and butterfly garden, says Lacey Laudick, horticulture technician and volunteer coordinator for the extension office.

She just wishes more people knew about the arboretum. “I just think the arboretum is a gem that’s in Boone County that everyone should know about,” Laudick says.

“It’s absolutely stunning out there.”