Biology major Ed Hedborn ’70 surveys trees at the Morton Arboretum to determine peak color

Oct 26, 2015

Virtually every Chicago media outlet considers Ed Hedborn ’70 their go-to guy for all things trees. Need to learn about the Emerald Ash Borer? Ed’s your man. Wondering when the fall colors will be at their peak? Call Ed.

Hedborn is manager of plant records at the 1,700-acre Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, located about 10 minutes from the North Central campus. The arboretum is home to more than 222,000 live plants from around the world.

Put simply, Hedborn’s job is to document the life history of every plant ever grown there. If that sounds like a daunting task … well, it is. “The arboretum is charged with collecting every kind of woody plant in the world and see if it will thrive here in Lisle,” he says. “We have plants from all over the world, from the Georgian Republic to the state of Georgia.”

So where does he begin? With paper and pen. He enters each acquisition by hand in a journal, noting everything from its name, size, and number to its latitude and longitude of origin. Later all the information is entered into a database; currently the arboretum is collaborating with Oxford University in England to fine-tune a system that will track both the living collection and the herbarium (preserved dried plants).

Hedborn also digitally maps all Morton plants. “We’re information pack rats here,” says Hedborn, who earned his master’s degree in biology from Northeastern Illinois University in 1984.

Hiking the Arboretum regularly is also part of Hedborn’s work. Armed with a collections printout, a clipboard and an assistant, he examines each plant and confirms that it is labeled correctly, noting any changes in growth or condition. Each comprehensive tour takes about three years from beginning to end.

He’ll also drive through the property to collect information about “peak color” for media and visitors. This fall the color hit its height about a week later than usual, he reports. A change in a tree’s color is caused by several factors, including moisture levels, amount of daylight, temperature and overall plant health.

Hedborn’s passion for plants had plenty of room to grow at the College, where he majored in biology. ”I remember field trips with [biology professor] Dr. Warren Keck,” he says. “He did things the old school botany way, which meant he went on field trips dressed in a suit and tie! Those were interesting times.” 

Hedborn met his wife, Linda Csiszar ’72, at North Central, although they didn’t start dating until after he graduated (they connected at a Cardinals football game). Today they are the parents of three grown children.

Hedborn’s Morton career began the summer after his senior year, when he accepted a position working in the prairie. He left to serve for four years in the U.S. Navy, then returned for good. Now, after 38 years at the arboretum, Hedborn couldn’t be happier with his life’s work. A sign in his office says it all: “If you’re lucky enough to be in the woods, you’re lucky enough.”