Nor’easters exact toll on Arboretum trees

by Jon Hetman, Director of External Relations & Communications
March 15, 2018

Picea x notha 13406-A

Nor’easters exact toll on Arboretum trees

Silver Maple 12560*C

Notable among the wounded survivors of the three powerful nor’easters that blew through New England in March is a majestic silver maple on Meadow Road (Acer saccharinum12560*C). One of the tallest trees in the Arboretum, the tree lost a major leader in the March 13-14 storm. Staff are attempting to preserve what remains of this beloved centenarian by significantly reducing its crown.

Three consecutive nor’easters in March left their mark on the renowned tree collections at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, with some 30 Arboretum accessions lost or slated for removal due to major damage. The most devastating of the three storms at the Arboretum was the first, Winter Storm Riley, which slammed Boston and much of the East Coast on March 2–3. By the end of that storm, 22 accessioned specimens—primarily comprising pine, spruce, fir, and hemlock species—were identified by Living Collections staff as losses. In the aftermath of each weather event, staff mobilized to not only clear the debris, but also to collect and preserve the germplasm of the lost plants for renewal.

Strong winds with wind gusts exceeding 50 mph and more than two inches of rain pelted the collections during Winter Storm Riley. Living Collections staff that arrived on Saturday morning, March 3, immediately fanned out through the landscape, taking stock of the damage and recording observations for the Arboretum’s plant records. Many plants suffered minor damage, and further field checks and cleanup continued through the month. Of the trees lost in the storms, some first had budwood taken and preserved by staff in order to attempt repropagation of their lineages. Fortunately, due to their value, several of the trees affected had already been duplicated as clones in the Arboretum collections to preserve their lineages. Preservation work continued following the March 7–8 and March 13–14 storms.

Two painful losses for Arboretum staff are beloved centenarian accessions of dragon spruce (Picea asperata) and Wilson spruce (Picea wilsonii), collected by famed Arboretum plant explorers Ernest Henry Wilson and William Purdom, respectively, on separate expeditions to China in 1910. Another tree of particular importance in the Arboretum’s long history of plant development and introduction—the nearly 50-year-old, original accession of the Donald Wyman crabapple (Malus ‘Donald Wyman’), selected by and named for the Arboretum’s famed propagator—was severely damaged, losing two of the three leaders ascending from its trunk. Though initially recommended for removal, further inspection suggests that the remaining leader and its supporting trunk are structurally sound, and the tree will survive though in greatly diminished form. In the March 13–14 storm, a massive and beloved 1881 accession of silver maple (Acer saccharinum 12560*C, profiled in Arnoldia) standing on the edge of Meadow Road lost one of its major leaders. While a large section of its trunk has been exposed due to the loss, staff have removed several other precarious branches in an attempt to stabilize what remains of the tree.

Picea x notha 13406-A

An accession of Notha spruce (Picea x notha, AA 13406*A) was among more than 20 trees lost at the Arboretum in the March 2 winter storm. Image by William (Ned) Friedman.

Fortunately, ongoing preventative care of the collections through routine pruning and deadwood removal prevented the storms from inflicting more extensive damage at the Arboretum. The trees that could not be salvaged will nonetheless live on through their rich documentation as Arboretum specimens, as well as through any repropagated scions preserved through staff recovery efforts. “While notable and startling,” wrote Keeper of the Collections Michael Dosmann, “such events of the weather convince me that these museum collections are anything but stable, dynamic in their responses to time and space. We must manage them accordingly.” Read more about trees that were damaged and efforts to preserve them in two related posts from Director William (Ned) Friedman, “A tangled tree” and “Felled by the wind”.

The following trees and shrubs were lost or slated for removal. Click to access map locations and links to curatorial information for each. If you would like to support work to repropagate these accessions, please visit our online donation page, and select “Horticulture and Landscape” from the fund drop-down menu. Thank you for your help!

8 thoughts on “Nor’easters exact toll on Arboretum trees

  1. Sooooo sad….. as a Morris Dancer for many many Springs At AA…. and a botany minor… this brings tears to my eyes!

  2. Every loss is a real loss. Is there a map where all the above losses can be seen on one map?

    I enjoy every opportunity to visit the arboretum and explore its many beauties! I have so many “favorite” spots, from the lilacs on Bussey Hill (of course!), to the majestic deciduous trees and Azalea Border along Valley Road, to Conifer Path… just to name a few top pics (the list could go on and on!!!).

    I thank God for the cathartic and healing properties of nature… and for Harvard University maintaining this treasure (the Arnold Arboretum) free and open to the public.

  3. Very sorry to learn of the loss of the Purdom-collected spruce, and I hope that it proves possible to propagate and plant a replacement in time for the centenary, in 2021, of the death of this much under-rated plant-collector and dedicated forester.
    I recommend readers to check out Purdom’s photos of China on the AA website, and the Library Leaves article about him by Lisa Pearson

  4. So sorry to hear of the losses. For 10 years I lived nearby and spent many hours in the Arboretum, without or with camera (~1,000 pictures). If I was still sane when I left Boston, much of the credit goes to those thousands of hours among AA trees and shrubs.

  5. It is sad to read the list of Living Collections losses. As a casual AA visitor from the mid-west I’ve always enjoyed every minute on the grounds. I’m confident savvy hard work by experienced staff will bring about scientifically sound and aesthetically pleasing replacements.

  6. Yes its devastating! I noticed a lot pf huge stumps near the South Street entrance. Were these some of the trees damaged also..?

  7. A number of declining accessions in our beech collection (Fagus spp.) were removed this spring near the South Street Gate. Across the northeast, mature beech trees are in decline due to beech bark disease and other insect and disease pressures. Compounded by environmental factors including the recent periods of drought, many of the Arboretum’s oldest beeches are in severe decline. In order to combat the spread of this disease to other trees, heavily affected and failing trees—sources of fungal inoculum—are being removed from the collections. While difficult, this course of action is in the best interest of the overall health of the Arboretum’s collections, and provides opportunities to allow young beech trees to thrive and be observed for resistance to the disease. Find out more here:

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