Magical Woods

A Tour of Gordon Hagen's Arboretum Is a Tree Lover's Dream Come True

By Marianne Willburn | Photography by Daniel Weil | Posted on 06.23.15 – Diversions, Lifestyles, People & Places

It’s a brisk spring morning in Thurmont, and as I get out of my car to visit the gardens and arboretum of Gordon Hagen, I’m certain that the temperature has dropped at least ten degrees since I left my home 1,500 feet closer to sea level.

My host seems unaffected by the cold. It may be the comfort of a woodstove that burns quietly and steadily in the book-lined living room where we sit to talk for a few cozy minutes; or it may be 40 years of braving Maryland’s notoriously unpredictable spring weather to create the masterpiece that waits on the other side of a well-used door. He is anxious to begin our tour.

So am I. I’ve waited a long time to see this place during peak magnolia bloom, and cannot wait to don gloves and hat and experience a garden so well-known in tree-loving circles. Affectionately termed The Valhalla Arboretum at Thorpewood, the designation pays tribute to both Hagen’s parents’ original name for the 150-acre property purchased in 1965 and the nonprofit organization Thorpewood, to whom Gordon eventually sold the property in consideration of a lifetime interest in the 40-acre garden parcel that he has loved for decades.

It is a win-win for both parties. The stunning beauty of the area is a perfect backdrop to the nonprofit retreats held by Thorpewood, and it also attracts many private events and weddings every year. Hagen’s beloved trees figure prominently in many photographs—a fact in which he takes great pride.

Gordon Hagen is a spry 80 years old, and though I often find such disclosure unnecessary, it figures prominently in this case. Because it is Hagen and Hagen alone that looks after this beautiful gem set high on a ridgeline of the Catoctins. On this day he has borrowed a bright red golf cart from neighboring Thorpewood to take a tour of more than 400 magnolias, representing 20 to 30 species. He hesitates to give me exact numbers, but as we progress through a blossoming, I begin to understand why.

Most people think of magnolias as either the stately Southern magnolia or the pink and white hybrids that elevate spring landscapes, but the world of magnolias is vast—populated not only by the incredible hybrids produced between Asian and American species, but in straight species such as the recently popularized sweetbay magnolia. Worldwide, serious magnolia-philes abound. Indeed, Hagen recently returned from Poland after an annual meeting of the Magnolia Society International. (Yes, there is such an organization.)

Ironically, however, the Valhalla Arboretum didn’t start out with magnolias, nor did it spring from years spent at horticultural college or interning at public gardens. Hagen went through night school to become an attorney and eventually worked and lived in Washington, D.C., traveling home occasionally to visit his family in Thurmont. One Friday, he picked up a mimosa as a gift­­ for his mother and planted it on the family farm that weekend. It was the first thing he ever planted. He was 35.

As time went on, he found himself picking up more trees, and planting them on every visit. Soon he was negotiating pasture away from his father’s horses, and starting to buy the rare and unusual. In 1973, Hagen bought the farm from his parents and began to get serious.

During our tour, we pause for a moment to gaze at a Lebanon cedar—a tree I have dreamed about for years—and I wipe away the drool to ask Gordon what fuels his purchases. “Impulse.” he answers without a beat. “I buy very small trees, it’s cheaper that way.” He pauses for a minute to pull a Sharpie out of his pocket and quickly re-label the yellow hybrid “Butterflies.” As any gardener knows, keeping one’s plants labeled is a losing battle against the elements, but with serious collectors visiting his arboretum every year, Hagen knows the value of labeling, re-labeling and re-re-labeling.

To a certain extent, I am here not only as a journalist, but as a gardener with a mission to see three very specific magnolias and get recommendations for further plantings. We stop in front of one of them, the National Arboretum’s introduction “Galaxy”—a narrow pyramidal shaped beauty with petals of deep red-purple.

I first saw this stunner at the Philadelphia Flower Show three years before, and here in a garden setting I am still in love, although Hagen tries to tempt me with

the sister hybrid “Spectrum” planted nearby. I can’t help but reflect on the luxury of seeing these two stately trees, side-by-side, as if they were cultivars of a common coneflower.

That’s the beauty of this fabulous space. In an afternoon, and without battling D.C. traffic, I have been able to examine the intricate bark patterns of Acer griseum, Stewardia pseudocamellia and Parrotia persica. I’ve seen what a Mid-Atlantic winter can do to a sweetbay magnolia and been given a hefty dose of reality when it comes to “urban-sized magnolias.” ­The Valhalla Arboretum is more than just a pretty face; it’s an educational experience.

We end our tour strolling wide grass pathways bordered by fritillaria, hellebores and thousands of bright, sunlit daffodils, finally coming to rest near an impressive and seemingly ancient circle of dawn redwoods presiding solemnly over the flower borders. Not surprisingly, the spot is a favorite for wedding processions and photos.

I have a soft spot for the dawn redwoods and have recently bought the golden cultivar “Ogon.” Later, on the phone, Hagen and I chat over the same, and I wonder out loud if I’ve actually managed to one-up this extraordinary plantsman, all the while knowing it’s probably unlikely. I can hear the smile in his voice as he admits to having two, but I also feel a guilty thrill when he can’t claim ownership of the weeping cultivar “Miss Grace.” A challenge between gardeners? Possibly.

Thus, perhaps is how a new arboretum is born.

Note: While The Valhalla Arboretum at Thorpewood is a private arboretum, Hagen welcomes visitors by appointment (301-802-9966). For event venue information, please visit www.thorpewood.org.