BELFAST — A century-old dream is materializing at Belfast City Park, home to what is believed to be the only arboretum in Midcoast Maine.

Thanks to the efforts of several local groups under the leadership of Aleta McKeage, Waldo County Soil and Water Conservation District technical director, the park is finally becoming what its early planners envisioned: a place where people can see and learn about different tree species cultivated for scientific and educational purposes.

New to the park are six big trees, 10 feet tall, 2 inches in diameter, as well as markers designating their species. Eight more trees are planned for installation next spring. McKeage recently showed off the new plantings during the first of several planned arboretum “open houses.”

Established in 1904 by the Belfast Ladies Improvement Society, City Park originally was designed by Boston landscape architect E. L. Beard as a classic early 20th-century pastoral park, similar to Central Park in New York. Over the decades that followed, groups added gardens and trees, creating the perfect setting for an arboretum.

In 2015, Waldo SWCD began working with Belfast Parks and Recreation Department, Friends of Belfast Parks, Belfast Bay Watershed Coalition and Habitat Belfast to make the long-held dream a reality.

Awarded a Project Canopy planning and education grant for $8,900 this past spring, the project began to move forward rapidly, with a special purpose. “We wanted to plant trees to help people look at and think about what might grow here in the future, as the climate warms,” said McKeage, a conservation biologist.

The year-long grant has made it possible to purchase and plant 14 new trees, create new interpretive signs and tree markers for 30 more trees, and produce an educational map and guide.

Aleta McKeage, technical director of Waldo County Soil and Water Conservation District, holds one of the new trees installed in the Belfast City Park Arboretum. Courtesy of Waldo County Soil and Water Conservation District

A group of new trees near the front entrance to the park “are not native to right here,” McKeage explained, “but they’re native to points south of here. We’re basically looking at, can we move species north as the climate warms, and we’re planting them in City Park to see how they do here.”

Some of the trees grow in southern Maine and some grow into New England, but not Maine, she said. They include shag bark hickory, black walnut, tulip poplar and white oak, “which grows near here and is a really good tree for beneficial insects and wildlife.”

“Scientists believe our climate will be akin to the New Jersey climate in 100 years,” McKeage said, so these trees, native to points south, serve as test cases.

“We also wanted to show that through selective breeding we’re creating disease-resistant trees, like elms and chestnuts,” she said, including the American elm hybrid. “The elm was an important tree in our towns and cities in the past. Can we put it back now?

“An arboretum is about helping people to think about trees and their role here now and in the future, and their role in nature,” McKeage explained. “For example, hickory and walnut trees provide nuts, and we’ve lost chestnut and beech trees, so we’re trying to fill ecological gaps with these trees.

“Eventually, ideally, we’ll be able to add chestnuts and beech trees. There are still beech trees in the landscape, but they’re not producing nuts because the trees are killed by a beech bark disease and a new disease on the leaves. The nuts are very important to wildlife — bears, turkeys, jays, squirrels — anything that eats nuts; they’re more nutritious than, say, a red oak acorn. Birds like blue jays actually collect nuts and hide them, and that’s how we get more trees — because they forget about them and they grow.”

Workers from Belfast Parks and Recreation also planted a gingko tree in the park. “It’s an urban tree,” McKeage said. “We want to show and plant trees that can grow in a tough spot like the city. The leaves are gorgeous, … very exotic. The city just put some in downtown Belfast … so there’s been some effort to redo the street canopy.

“A lot of trees that have been getting old are being removed,” she said, “so we have to think about street trees here.”

In addition to the arboretum’s big trees, McKeage noted, are “understory trees — we have hop hornbeam, ironwood, smaller maples like striped maple. These are native now, and we want to add some native conifers as well.

“We can add just a few more conifers and we’ll have all the native conifers of Maine there,” she said.

With the help of Parks and Recreation Department staff and volunteers, Waldo SWCD has created a round plaza at the City Park entrance, put together a park map, and installed signs at individual trees “so people can walk around, read and learn to identify them.”

Coming this winter is a guidebook that will be available online. “There’s a kiosk, too,” McKeage said, “where you can point your phone at a QR code. And there are printed copies for people who want to do it the old-fashioned way.

“People have been trying to make that park an arboretum for 100 years,” she said, “and we’ve got it going on!”