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Murphy arboretum a resource for water-conserving landscapes

By David Ostdiek
Communications Specialist
UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center

The University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center’s mission goes beyond cows, corn, beets, beans and wheat.

The D.A. Murphy Panhandle Arboretum, consisting of landscaped grounds and research plots scattered around the Research and Extension Center, located at 4502 Avenue I, Scottsbluff, plays an important role in the center’s research, teaching and extension.

D.A. Murphy Arboretum Committee
Members of the arboretum committee at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center look over new landscaping around the electronic sign at the Panhandle Center entrance on Highway 71. From left they include Jim Schild, Steve Sibray, Bob Hawley, Ann Koehler, and Kathy Nielsen. Committee members not pictured include Bob Wilson, Bob O’Neill and Fred Hara.

The arboretum includes examples of both high- and low-intensity landscapes and showcases the diversity of plants that can be successfully established and grown in the High Plains region. In recent years, the arboretum has highlighted water-saving plants for western Nebraska landscapes.

Lawns and gardens are the biggest water users in most homes. Homeowners can conserve water by planting more native species, replacing bluegrass turs with buffalograss, and zoning plants according to water needs, according to Extension Educator Jim Schild. The D.A. Murphy Arboretum demonstrates ways to save.

The arboretum was established in January 1984 and became an affiliate site of the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum in 1985. Arboretum collections have been enhanced through an endowment by the estate of D.A. Murphy, a University of Nebraska alumnus and successful regional businessman, in 1987.
The D.A. Murphy Panhandle Arboretum was designated a Master Arboretum by the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum in 1997.

Over the years, many Panhandle Center staff members have been involved in developing and maintaining the arboretum. Much of the credit for having the original vision and getting the arboretum started goes to former employees Dave Nuland, a horticulturalist, and communication specialist Stan Haas, along with District Forester Doak Nickerson.

Many of the collections are devoted to plants or landscaping techniques that require less water or limited maintenance. Collections continue to evolve to incorporate new plant material and highlight emerging issues.
The D.A. Murphy Panhandle Arboretum is open to the public daily throughout the year. Donations to support the development and maintenance of the collections are appreciated.

Committee member Kathy Nielsen said people who would like to tour the arboretum will find it easier, with a new brochure published by the Panhandle Center that takes visitors on a self-guided tour of the grounds. The brochure contains a map with 20 tour stops. For each stop it has a brief description of the plants and concepts at work.

A few of the water-conserving highlights of the tour include ornamental grasses, shrub roses, a number of hardy but underused plants promoted by the Great Plants for the Great Plains program, alternatives to turf, native plants of the Wildcat Hills, and a patch of buffalograss.

Another notable feature of the arboretum is the Monument Valley Iris Society Collection, which includes about 600 varieties of miniature dwarf, standard dwarf, intermediate and border bearded, miniature tall and tall bearded as well as several arilbreds and beardless irises.

She said the new brochure came about as the staff and faculty at the Panhandle Center were planning for this summer’s centennial celebration.

In the years since the previous brochure and guided tour, the arboretum has evolved, according to arboretum committee member Ann Koehler, also on the staff at the Panhandle Center. The emphasis has shifted to plants that are either native to the area or well-suited to our environment, she said.

Nielsen added that the landscaping arrangements also provide variety, with some layouts formally planned and laid out, and others less so.

The Murphy arboretum has been maintained over the years with the help of local organizations, including the Monument Iris Society, which tends the iris collection, and Boy Scouts of America. Several Eagle scouts have undertaken improvement projects in the arboretum as community service projects required for their Eagle rank.
Koehler and Nielsen note that the Murphy Arboretum is constantly changing.