Experience Boston’s Scenic Tree-Filled Attractions with a Delightful Cart Ride

Discover the Arnold Arboretum: A Journey through Time and Nature

When you plant in the garden, do you consider the future? Perhaps you look ahead three years or even a decade. But have you ever imagined the impact of your actions a thousand years from now?

The Arnold Arboretum in Boston is an extraordinary place that spans generations. With a lease that will last another 1,000 years, this remarkable arboretum offers a glimpse into the future of horticulture. As you dig a hole and place a tree in the ground, think about the year 3872, two millennia after the arboretum’s inception.

Consider the legacy of the Arnold Arboretum, one of the world’s most exceptional gardens. Its expert curators have spent decades crossbreeding and selecting new shrubs for gardeners – many of which I have personally enjoyed. One noteworthy recommendation is the white Magnolia x loebneri Merrill, selected by former director ED Merrill for its early and abundant blossoms. Additionally, some of the best forsythias, a springtime staple, trace their origins back to the Arnold Arboretum. Varieties such as “Beatrix Farrand” and “Arnold Giant” showcase the garden’s dedication to creating unique and stunning plants.

Despite my familiarity with these Arnold introductions, I had never experienced the arboretum itself. However, Ned Friedman, the current director and a biology professor at Harvard University, kindly offered to give me a personal tour. Even on a Sunday in August, he willingly shared the highlights of this vast landscape. He explained that the arboretum is both “Boston’s dirt and Harvard’s trees,” as it spans an impressive 280 acres. To my delight, he navigated us through the garden in a golf cart, providing a unique and captivating way to explore this botanical wonderland.

Founded in 1872, the Arnold Arboretum owes a great debt to two remarkable individuals. Its first director, Charles Sargent, dedicated 55 years to nurturing this institution. During his 1892 trip to Japan and East Asia, Sargent solidified the arboretum’s reputation as a sanctuary for eastern flora. Today, the arboretum boasts a diverse selection of mature shrubs and trees from the east, offering invaluable resources for gardeners. Sargent’s choice of Frederick Law Olmsted, the renowned landscape architect responsible for New York’s Central Park, to design the arboretum’s layout in 1882 was a stroke of genius. Olmsted’s master plan, with its curving pathways, bridges, ponds, and slopes, has become his crowning masterpiece.

As we meandered through the arboretum, I couldn’t help but admire how Olmsted’s vision brought his design to life. The trees, planted as saplings, now tower overhead, creating serene paths that wind seamlessly through a mosaic of more than 50 shades of green. The arboretum has around 16,000 trees, constantly changing and evolving. Roughly 400 trees are replanted each year to replace those lost to harsh winters or natural causes. The arboretum’s nursery plays a pivotal role in this restoration effort, skillfully propagating new trees from collected seeds.

The trees are categorized by general species, including pines, limes, acers, and oaks. One standout is Sargent’s oak, a remarkable hybrid of English oak and chestnut oak that serendipitously appeared on Sargent’s own farm. Another noteworthy specimen is the parasol beech, a unique and low-growing rarity gifted by Kew Gardens in 1888. Indeed, there are countless treasures waiting to be discovered at the Arnold Arboretum.

During our journey, Friedman shared his top three picks – a ginkgo, a flowering Franklinia, and the lacebark pine, each captivating for its own reasons. We marveled at the intricate details of the trees, from the big-leaved Magnolia macrophylla to the hermaphroditic pine cones. Friedman’s passion for understanding these natural wonders was contagious.

As we explored further, we arrived at the Explorers Garden, a section that truly deserves attention. Here, resilient plants from the wild thrive even in the harshest winters. Wilson’s silk tree, Albizia julibrissin, with its delicate pink-white powder puff flowers, exemplifies the remarkable finds that endure through the seasons. It was Wilson who discovered this special tree growing in a Korean hotel courtyard in 1918 and sent its seeds back to the arboretum. Remarkably, the original tree still stands today. Personally, I look forward to the blooms on my heptacodium, which was rediscovered in China during my lifetime. It was first classified botanically in 1916, but its introduction to the Arnold Arboretum in 1980 has allowed it to flourish into a magnificent specimen.

Managing the Arnold Arboretum is no small feat. With a dedicated team of 16 gardeners and a yearly budget of $17 million, the arboretum relies on external institutions, particularly Harvard, for a significant portion of its funding. Donations and limited events also contribute to its operation costs. As a result, the arboretum remains accessible to all visitors at no cost, a precious gift for the community.

Olmsted believed that every individual has the right to enjoy open spaces, and this principle is deeply ingrained in the arboretum’s foundation. Even during the challenges of 2020’s lockdowns, the arboretum remained a safe haven for social distancing, welcoming 3.5 million visitors. It is truly a cherished treasure for the fortunate residents of Boston.

The Arnold Arboretum invites us to contemplate our place in the grand tapestry of time. As we plant, nurture, and explore, we contribute to the ever-evolving story of this magnificent garden. So, the next time you plant a tree, imagine the possibilities that stretch far beyond your own lifetime.

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