Spontaneous Flora

Spontaneous Flora


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Much of what is now the Arnold Arboretum was once part of Benjamin Bussey’s farm (until 1842), and before that the ground had been farmed by Eleazer Weld. In 1692, a small saw mill operated along the banks of Bussey Brook at the base of Hemlock Hill, turning virgin timber into lumber. In other words, the land comprising the Arboretum has a land-use history going back some two hundred years before the Arboretum was established.The spontaneous vegetation that exists here today—which is defined as any plant that grows in an area without assistance from humans—reflects not only the agricultural history of the land but also its long horticultural history. It includes species native to a variety of New England habitats, and species from Europe that were brought here during the colonial period for medicinal, ornamental or agricultural purposes (along with “weedy” species that contaminated their seed). There are also a number of species from Asia, mainly woody and originally planted for landscape purposes, that managed to escape from cultivation and spread throughout the area by various means of dispersal (e.g., wind, water, animal). In short, the Arboretum’s spontaneous vegetation is a cosmopolitan mix of species that reflects the complex social and ecological history of the land itself.

The Herbarium of Cultivated Plants at the Arnold Arboretum houses a collection of herbarium specimens called the Spontaneous Flora. Find more information on this collection here.


Below are the key published references on the Arboretum’s “wild” flora.

  • Del Tredici, P. 2010. Excerpts from Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast. Arnoldia 68(1): 13-25 [pdf]
  • Dalton, P.A., Novelo, A.R. 1983. Aquatic and Wetland Plants of the Arboretum Arnoldia 43(2): 7-44. [pdf]
  • Green, P.S. 1962. Herbaceous Aliens in the Arboretum. Bulletin of Popular Information 22(7): 49-56. [pdf]
  • Palmer, E.J. 1930. The spontaneous flora of the Arnold Arboretum. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 11: 63-119. [pdf]
  • Palmer, E.J. 1935. Supplement to the spontaneous flora of the Arnold Arboretum. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 16: 81-87. [pdf]
  • Palmer, E.J. 1947. Second supplement to the spontaneous flora of the Arnold Arboretum. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 28: 410-418. [pdf]
  • Sargent, C.S. 1874. Report of the Director of the Arnold Arboretum (Republished in Palmer, 1930).
More »
  • Del Tredici, P. Spontaneous Urban Vegetation: Reflections of Change in a Globalized World. Nature and Culture 5(3), Winter 2010: 299–315 [pdf]
  • Hetman, J. The Weeds and the Wilderness: An Interview with Les Mehrhoff on the Spontaneous Flora of the Arnold Arboretum. Silva, Fall/Winter 2008-2009: 2-3. [pdf]