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Arnold Arboretum

Our History

Hunnewell Building, 1892

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The Arboretum was established in 1872 when the trustees of the will of James Arnold (1781-1868), a whaling merchant of New Bedford, Massachusetts, transferred a portion of Arnold’s estate to the President and Fellows of Harvard College. In the deed of trust between the Arnold trustees and the College, income from the legacy was to be used “for the establishment and support of an arboretum, to be known as the Arnold Arboretum, which shall contain, as far as practicable, all the trees [and] shrubs . . . either indigenous or exotic, which can be raised in the open air.”

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927) was appointed the Arboretum’s first director in 1873 and spent the following 54 years shaping the policies and programs of the Arnold Arboretum. Since its inception, it has served as a model and benchmark for similar institutions, both in North America and elsewhere.

In large part the successes of Sargent’s directorship stemmed from his ability to raise the funds required to implement his plans coupled with a creative lease agreement forged between the City of Boston and Harvard in 1882. According to the terms of the thousand-year lease, the Harvard-owned land on which the Arnold Arboretum was established became part of the city park system, but control of the collections continued to reside with the Arboretum staff. The city was to maintain the perimeter walls, gates, and roadway system and provide police surveillance, while the Arboretum agreed to keep the grounds open to the general public, free of charge, from sunrise to sunset every day of the year. As a result of this unique arrangement the Arboretum became part of the famous “Emerald Necklace,” the 7-mile-long network of parks and parkways that Frederick Law Olmsted laid out for the Boston Parks Department between 1878 and 1892.

The design of the Arboretum grew out of Sargent’s close collaboration with Olmsted, who laid out the path and roadway system and designated areas within the Arboretum for specific groups of plants. Early on, Sargent decided to arrange the plant collections by family and genus, following the then generally accepted classification system of Bentham and Hooker. As Sargent envisioned it, “a visitor driving through the Arboretum will be able to obtain a general idea of the arborescent vegetation of the north temperate zone without even leaving his carriage. It is hoped that such an arrangement, while avoiding the stiff and formal lines of the conventional botanic garden, will facilitate the comprehensive study of the collections, both in their scientific and picturesque aspects.”

Sargent also devoted much effort to realizing the institution’s research potential. As the era’s most distinguished dendrologist, he authored The Silva of North America, published between 1890 and 1902 in 14 volumes, and The Manual of the Trees of North America (first edition, 1905; second edition, 1922), both standard references even today. By developing a comprehensive library devoted to botany, horticulture, and dendrology, an equally notable herbarium to serve as the repository of specimens of woody plants from throughout the world, and a publication program that included both scholarly and semi-popular works, Sargent established the Arnold Arboretum as a leading scientific institution. In addition, the Arboretum’s involvement in botanical and horticultural exploration around the world, especially in eastern Asia, has brought many new plants into cultivation and greatly expanded our knowledge of their evolution and systematics.

The Arnold Arboretum occupies 281 acres of land in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. It is administered as an allied institution within the central administration of Harvard University. As of February 2014, the living collections consisted of some 14,914 accessioned plants representing 3,888 botanical and horticultural taxa, with particular emphasis on the woody species of North America and eastern Asia and an especially comprehensive representation of Fagus (beech), Lonicera (honeysuckle), Magnolia, Malus (crabapple), Quercus (oak), Rhododendron, and Syringa (lilac). Collections of historical interest include the plants introduced from eastern Asia by C. S. Sargent, Ernest Henry Wilson, William Purdom, and Joseph Rock. In addition to its living collections the Arboretum holds a herbarium collection in excess of 1.3 million specimens (part of a collection of 5 million specimens held collectively by the Harvard University Herbaria) and library holdings in excess of 40,000 volumes, some of which are located in Jamaica Plain and some in Cambridge at the Harvard University Herbaria. The Arboretum also maintains an extensive photographic archive in Jamaica Plain, along with archival collections relating to its own history and to the history of botany and horticulture in North America.

The Arboretum continues to maintain its living collections in the naturalistic style originally established by Sargent and Olmsted; for the most part—with some exceptions made for the cultural requirements of some plants—the collections are still arranged according to the Bentham and Hooker classification system. The tradition of plant exploration also continues, with seven major collecting trips to eastern Asia sponsored by the Arboretum since 1977.

From the time of its founding, the Arboretum has maintained a complete record system, with a standardized accession number assigned to every plant on the grounds for use in tracking its name and origin. Staff manage these records in BG-BASE collections management software. A suite of ESRI Desktop and Mobile GIS software applications are employed to manage, analyze, query, capture, manipulate, and display geographic information. Decimeter accurate field mapping of landscape features (e.g., plants, benches) is accomplished using a Trimble Nomad handheld computer attached to a Trimble GPS Pathfinder ProXRT receiver, GLONASS option. More than anything else, it is the Arboretum’s detailed record system that facilitates the use of the collections for research by staff and other scientists. Currently the living collections are being used for research on a diverse range of subjects that include molecular systematics, plant physiology and morphology, vegetative propagation of woody plants, and evaluation and selection of new cultivars of woody plants with ornamental merit.

Research on plant pathology and integrated pest management for maintenance of the living collections is constantly ongoing. Herbarium-based research focuses on the systematics and biodiversity of both temperate and tropical Asian forests, as well as the ecology and potential for sustainable use of their resources. The Arboretum’s education programs offer school groups and the general public a wide range of lectures, courses, and walks focusing on the ecology and cultivation of plants. Its quarterly magazine, Arnoldia, provides in-depth information on horticulture, botany, and garden history.

Synopsis

1872 Harvard College accepts the James Arnold bequest, executes the indenture of the Arnold Arboretum, and agrees to locate the Arboretum on its Bussey estate in West Roxbury.
1873 C. S. Sargent is appointed director of both the Harvard Botanic Garden and the Arnold Arboretum.
1874 Harvard officially allocates a portion of its Bussey estate in West Roxbury (137 acres, 55 hectares) as the site for the Arnold Arboretum.
1877 Sargent commissions Frederick Law Olmsted to produce a design for the Arboretum.
1879 Sargent resigns as director of the Harvard Botanical Garden; Olmsted completes the initial design for the Arnold Arboretum.
1882 Harvard transfers the Arboretum’s land to the City of Boston, which leases it back to Harvard for a thousand years.
1883 The city begins work on a road system within the Arboretum.
1885 Permanent tree planting begins with the installation of the Fagus (beech), Fraxinus (ash), Ulmus (elm), and Carya (hickory) collections.
1888 Sargent launches Garden and Forest, a weekly journal covering botany, horticulture, forestry, and landscape design, that is published through 1897.
1892 The administration building is designed by the firm of Longfellow, Alden and Harlow and constructed with funds donated by H. H. Hunnewell; Sargent collects plants in Japan for the Arboretum.
1894 The Peters Hill tract (67.6 acres; 11 hectares) is added to the Arboretum under a second indenture with the City of Boston.
1902 Alfred Rehder is appointed to the staff of the Arboretum as taxonomist.
1905 A herbarium wing is added to the administration building; Arboretum dendrologist J. G. Jack collects plants in Japan and Korea.
1906 E. H. Wilson is hired to collect seeds and herbarium specimens for the Arboretum in China.
1910 Wilson returns to China on his second expedition for the Arboretum.
1911 The first issue of Bulletin of Popular Information (renamed Arnoldia, 1941) is published.
1919 Publication of Journal of the Arnold Arboretum begins.
1921 Tightened USDA regulations limit the Arboretum’s ability to import plants and seeds.
1924 Joseph Rock is commissioned to collect for the Arboretum in China and Tibet.
1927 C. S. Sargent dies; Oakes Ames is appointed chairman of a new Council of Botanical Collections and supervisor of the Arnold Arboretum; E. H. Wilson is appointed keeper.
1930 E. H. Wilson dies in an automobile accident.
1936 Elmer D. Merrill is appointed director; Donald Wyman is appointed horticulturist.
1937 The Larz Anderson bonsai collection is donated to the Arboretum.
1938 The hurricane of September 21 decimates the living collections.
1942 The Arboretum acquires the Case Estates in Weston, Massachusetts.
1946 Karl Sax is appointed director.
1954 Richard A. Howard is appointed director; major portions of the Arboretum’s herbarium and library are moved to the new Harvard Herbaria building in Cambridge (along with their curators).
1963 The Charles Stratton Dana Greenhouses are constructed.
1972 The Arboretum celebrates its centennial.
1978 Peter S. Ashton is appointed director.
1980 The Arboretum participates in the Sino-American Botanical Expedition to China.
1985 The Bradley Collection of Rosaceous Plants is dedicated on the site of the former shrub and vine collection.
1989 Oversight of the Arnold Arboretum within Harvard is transferred from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to the Office of Vice President for Administration; Robert E. Cook is appointed director.
1993 The Hunnewell Building (formerly known as the administration building) is renovated.
1995 Arboretum website is launched.
1996 The Arboretum adds the 24-acre Bussey Brook Meadow to its landscape; “Science in the Pleasure Ground” exhibition opens in the Hunnewell Building.
2000 Supporters donate more than $8.2 million to the Arboretum as part of Harvard University’s millennial campaign.
2002 The M. Victor and Frances Leventritt Shrubs and Vine Garden is dedicated.
2009 Oversight of the Arnold Arboretum within Harvard is transferred from the Office of Vice President for Administration to the Office of the Provost; Director Robert E. Cook retires.
2011 William (Ned) Friedman is appointed director; the Weld Hill Research Building opens.

Further Reading

Connor, Sheila. 1994. New England Natives: A Celebration of People and Trees. Harvard University Press

Hay, Ida. 1995. Science in the Pleasure Ground: A History of the Arnold Arboretum. Northeastern University Press

Sargent, Charles S. 1921. The First Fifty Years of the Arnold Arboretum. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 3: 127-171

Spongberg, Stephen A. 1990. A Reunion of Trees. Harvard University Press

Sutton, S. B. 1970. Charles Sprague Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum. Harvard University Press

Wilson, Ernest H. 1925. America’s Greatest Garden. Boston

Zaitzevsky, Cynthia. 1982. Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System. Harvard University Press

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