Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum Is Looking Toward the Next 150 Years

Looking his window on the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard College, Ned Friedman sees 150 years of historical past — and likewise hundreds of thousands. He is aware of this assortment of practically 16,000 woody crops holds clues on the best way to navigate an more and more excessive ecological future.

“After I see a tree, I all the time find yourself musing on time,” mentioned Dr. Friedman, who has been the Arnold’s director for 12 years. Within the arboretum’s century-and-a-half historical past — an anniversary it’s marking this 12 months — he’s solely its eighth chief.

There may be the timeline of seasonal modifications a tree could move by way of in any given 12 months, after all — together with subtleties that Dr. Friedman urges us to note, just like the purples, pinks and reds of early spring’s ephemeral feminine conifer cones. And there may be time measured within the life span of a species, which can equal many human lifetimes, in instances like that of the majestic white oak (Quercus alba).

“However as an evolutionary biologist, I additionally begin to see different scales of time,” he mentioned.


He was referring to the span measured in hundreds of years, for the reason that final ice age moved temperate crops tons of and hundreds of miles from their earlier native ranges. And in tons of of hundreds of thousands of years, for the reason that supercontinent Pangaea started breaking into items, shifting land lots and pathways of plant genetics.

This extra-long view will not be what particular person gardeners think about when selecting a specific tree, asking about decorative options, eventual measurement and hardiness. However having a fuller image of its ancestors’ life on Earth makes it much more spectacular, Dr. Friedman mentioned.

Wanting approach again additionally helps to elucidate issues we could marvel about, together with why some conifers are deciduous, dropping their needles in fall — and why some deciduous woody crops maintain onto theirs, light and seemingly ineffective, all winter.

Have you ever ever thought-about why so many species we name Southeastern natives are hardy a lot farther north, approach past their present vary?

The solutions to that and plenty of different questions dwell within the Arnold’s assortment of greater than 2,000 species — together with insights into the tenacity required to adapt to tomorrow’s world.

Maybe your backyard is house to a daybreak redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), a pyramidal, fast-growing deciduous conifer that may attain 100 ft excessive and has a distinctively fluted base.

“It’s simply sinuous,” Dr. Friedman mentioned. “I might have a look at these trunks all day lengthy.”

However as just lately as 75 years in the past, there was no such tree in North America.

Every species tells its personal story of resilience and long-haul survival methods. The daybreak redwood, depicted within the arboretum’s brand, is sometimes called a residing fossil. That’s as a result of, till the Forties, when an extant grove was found in China, it was considered extinct.

Seed despatched to the Arnold in 1948 resulted within the first of these bushes to develop in North America in additional than two million years.

Why would a conifer be deciduous? Conifer or in any other case, there could possibly be numerous causes for dropping your leaves, Dr. Friedman mentioned.

Within the tropics, deciduousness developed in response to dry seasons, as crops relaxation when water is scarce. And for a number of conifers, it was a response, hundreds of thousands of years in the past, to the problem of preserving leaves alive at excessive latitudes, by way of the winter months of darkness and chilly.

“It’s a cost-benefit evaluation,” Dr. Friedman mentioned. “It was a greater enterprise mannequin to eliminate the needles yearly.”

Why deciduous woody crops, together with some oaks, beeches and witch-hazels, maintain onto a lot outdated baggage all winter will not be as properly understood. Do the light leaves persist as a barrier to deer shopping, or are they retained to drop simply in time to function mulch in spring?

The phenomenon is called marcescence — a phenomenal phrase, and a fragile matter: To stop leaf drop, the plant should preserve the tiniest bit of every leaf stalk, or petiole, alive by way of months of chilly. One wintertime instance, and a favourite of Dr. Friedman’s, is Chinese language spicebush (Lindera angustifolia), which reveals off its pleasingly tan foliage within the off season.

One wonders what set off set such a difficult little bit of engineering into improvement.

Being deciduous will not be for everybody. The coastal redwood of California (Sequoia sempervirens) and the large sequoias within the Sierras (Sequoiadendron giganteum), each kin to the daybreak redwood, are evergreen.

However their cousin diverged from that path, Dr. Friedman mentioned, “wandering off, sooner or later in its evolutionary historical past, to some extent in time the place shedding your needles turned out to be advantageous.”

Timber transfer, you see. Slowly, sure, however they transfer.

It wasn’t very way back in evolutionary phrases that there have been no bushes the place the arboretum is — or wherever within the Northeast, north of New York Metropolis or thereabouts.

Some 18,000 years in the past, a sheet of ice coated huge northern swaths, “and all of the temperate bushes of japanese North America have been hanging out in Georgia and Florida,” Dr. Friedman mentioned. “After which — an incredible factor — they’ve simply all marched north.”

He added: “They’ve rebounded; they’ve come again in a matter of hundreds of years. They simply push their seeds north, north, north.”

Spruces and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) have already moved impressively. The fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) continues its journey, too.

Famously, although, the extinct-in-the-wild Franklin tree (Franklinia alatamaha) was amongst people who didn’t make it out of its ice age refugium. As we speak, it’s seen solely in botanical gardens and personal landscapes.

Are these bushes and well-liked Southeastern shrubs like Fothergilla main and bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) hardy up north as a result of they as soon as lived there? Solely fossilized pollen information can inform us that.

Regardless of the purpose, Northeastern gardeners are the completely satisfied beneficiaries.

As we speak, glaciers will not be among the many threat elements prompting migration — however intensifying warmth and drought are. The Arnold’s researchers are working to protect the genetics of pressured crops, particularly on the hardest southern edges of their vary.

“A species could transfer and survive, however there could also be elements of it that simply go extinct,” Dr. Friedman mentioned. “And also you lose these genetics.”

Early on, that precept was utilized to a unique problem: How might the Arnold’s first director, Charles Sprague Sargent, develop the cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) he lusted after, though it wasn’t hardy in Boston? In seed from a high-altitude Turkish inhabitants, the craving was glad.

An identical quest is underway with the evergreen Southern dwell oak (Quercus virginiana). “We simply can’t develop the evergreen oaks right here,” Dr. Friedman mentioned, an assertion that researchers hope to disprove, beginning with acorns collected within the tree’s northernmost vary, in Virginia.

“On the finish of the day, if we put 200 saplings in and one has the genetics to outlive in Boston, it’s a win,” Dr. Friedman mentioned.

Three-quarters of the analysis on the arboretum at present focuses on how bushes and forests will perform within the face of “human-induced international change, together with local weather change,” Dr. Friedman wrote just lately in Arnoldia, the quarterly membership journal.

The arboretum’s assortment is organized taxonomically on its 281 acres, with associated bushes clustered collectively, which is good for finding out how numerous maple species react to rising drought, for instance, or how specific bushes deal with extra freeze-thaw cycles occurring throughout spring’s leafing-out stage.

“Similar to a museum gallery that has a sure sort of artwork, you wish to have that comparative context,” Dr. Friedman mentioned.

The Arnold can also be an vital assortment of what are generally known as biogeographic disjuncts: intently associated crops separated in nature by nice distances, due to these continental shifts hundreds of thousands of years in the past — when sea ranges have been decrease and crops started east-west migrations throughout continental land bridges that are actually submerged.

For this reason North America and Asia have so many shut cousins amongst temperate bushes and shrubs, together with magnolias and viburnums.

After a 14-million-year estrangement, as an example, a Chinese language tulip tree (Liriodendron chinense) now lives on the Arnold alongside a North American one (L. tulipifera). The 2 are so genetically comparable that they’ll cross-pollinate, with hybrid offspring rising fortunately of their midst.

“A household reunion” — one among many rooted within the floor, and historical past, of this place — Dr. Friedman famous.


Dr. Friedman regards the Arnold Arboretum as a part of Boston’s public well being system: a spot for train and escape. In the course of the pandemic, it has by no means closed.

The panorama, which is a part of Boston’s metropolis park system, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (who would have turned 200 in April). It’s free, and open one year a 12 months. A sequence of curated walks on the web site contains audio, textual content and photographs, guiding guests in individual or just about.

Every plant has an in depth provenance, together with the big-leaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), a tropical-looking creature with the biggest flowers and easy leaves of any temperate North American native plant. That is one other tree discovered within the Southeast as we speak, however hardy sufficient to develop farther north.

There may be future-facing inspiration, too. The arboretum has bold photo voltaic installations, on taller-than-average frames designed to accommodate exuberant pollinator habitats round and beneath them.


Margaret Roach is the creator of the web site and podcast A Way to Garden, and a e book of the identical title.

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