Chair of the Friends of the National Arboretum, Jocelyn Plovits, at the Paran? pine forest.

Chair of the Friends of the National Arboretum, Jocelyn Plovits, at the Paran? pine forest. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Anyone who attended the first meeting of the Friends of the National Arboretum Canberra, back in 2007, might be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon an obscure group of tree enthusiasts and nothing more.

Back then, says Friends chairwoman Jocelyn Plovits, the arboretum, still in its infancy, had more loud detractors than quiet supporters.

But she and her team had just one request for anyone who questioned the project: just come and have a look.

Today, a decade after the devastating bushfires that spawned the idea for the project, the arboretum is about to open to the public, and the friends - like the 100 forests over which they keep watch - are growing, with about 2000 people on their books.

"At that very first meeting, we had about 20-25 people, maybe 30 tops, and we just thought, we'll putter along with this," she said.

"But once we became an incorporated association it really started to snowball, and the more [we] were out there in the community talking about the arboretum, the more we found there were actually hordes of supporters."

She said many Canberra residents, even those who were born here, had been surprised at the arboretum's spectacular views of the city, and the potential for a vast patchwork of exotic forests.

"The more we brought people up here on tours, looking and talking … the more they heard about the science … the thought and the planning, and the passion [that had gone into it], the more they realised it wasn't a piece of idiosyncratic, throwaway nonsense. It was a really good, solid, careful idea for using land which would otherwise not be used," she said.

The Friends now hosts the annual Festival of the Forests each autumn, gives talks and guided tours of the 250-hectare site, runs working bees within the forests and raises funds for arboretum projects.

"Somebody asked me, 'what does [the arboretum] represent to you', and I said 'hope'. You plant a tree, that's a hopeful act," she said.

"It's come out of a tragedy, and yet some of the trees have the potential to live 1000 years - that's 36 human generations."

She said the arboretum was also an important source of research and education about environment and ecosystems.

"In the Friends Forest, we had mice being stored in the branches of the trees by owls," she said.

"When there was a plague, the owls had to move in to balance nature back for us, and there's nothing quite as interesting as coming to look at trees you've planted and seeing skeletons in them. That's the sort of glory of the thing."

■ For more information about the Friends of the National Arboretum Canberra, visit nationalarboretum.act.gov.au