Located in Boston, Massachusetts along the Emerald Necklace park system, the Arnold Arboretum is a privately endowed arboretum that operates as part of Harvard University. As an academic site, the arboretum is committed to the study of the evolution and biology of plants and the dissemination of knowledge through research, horticulture, and education. As a public park, the arboretum’s grounds are open free of charge to visitors 365 days a year.
The arboretum was founded in 1872, combining estate land donated to Harvard by James Arnold and Benjamin Bussey for the purposes of horticultural research. The following year, Charles Sprague Sargent was appointed director of the new arboretum facility. Sargent negotiated a thousand-year grounds lease with the city of Boston that has become a model for similar horticultural institutions around the world, stating that, as an entity, the arboretum would become part of the city park system, but the university would be responsible for the cultivation and maintenance of its plant life. As a result, he worked closely with landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead to incorporate the arboretum’s layout into Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace park system.
Today, the arboretum is designated as a National Historic Landmark, with grounds encompassing 281 acres and containing more than 14,980 plant specimens representing 3,924 botanical taxa. In addition to its planted living collections, it has cultivated an herbarium collection in excess of 1.3 million specimens, serving as part of a five-million specimen collection held overall by the Harvard University Herbaria. Additionally, 40,000 volumes of library holdings and a large archive of photography serve as part of the arboretum’s extensive record system, which also electronically tracks the name, origin, and status of every plant in its collection.
Since its inception, the arboretum has strived in particular to maintain a collection of trees, shrubs, and other woody plants, both those indigenous to the New England area and others from around the world that can thrive in the region’s climate. The arboretum’s collection has a heavy concentration of species from North America and Asia, the latter resulting from university expeditions to Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan in the 20th century. Plants are labeled for identification and largely still organized according to the classical Bentham and Hooker classification system.
Park visitors are encouraged to enjoy a number of special horticultural displays, including collections of rosaceous, conifer, lilac, maple, and bonsai trees as well as cultivated arrangements of azalea and rhododendron. Large meadow spaces such as the Bussey Brook Meadow and the Cosmopolitan Meadow allow for free growth in urban wild environments. In addition to standard park structures such as benches and pathways, several pavilions provide an opportunity for observation and relaxation, although picking or otherwise destroying plant material, climbing trees, and walking in plant beds is strictly prohibited by arboretum policy.
A visitor center inside the Hunnewell Building features a permanent exhibit, Science in the Pleasure Ground, which chronicles the history and development of the arboretum. The Hunnewell Building is also home to the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library, which visitors can browse at their leisure or use for research purposes, as well as seasonal art exhibits focusing on horticultural and landscape themes.
Ongoing Programs and Education
In addition to its use as a public park space, the arboretum serves as a primary resource for Harvard’s plant biology research. Arboretum and university staff utilize both the living and herbarium collections for a number of diverse research purposes, including evolutionary biology, plant physiology, and biodiversity study as well as ecology and conservation research. The arboretum also continues to send scientists abroad for research expeditions, both to study plants in their natural environments and to collect for introduction into the park’s ecosystem.
Since the 1980s, the arboretum has been committed to serving as an educational resource for the Boston community, providing introductory horticultural study for children through educational programs and resources. Guided field study experiences for elementary school students offer hands-on experiences with the arboretum’s plant collections, while monthly professional development opportunities encourage teachers to explore ways to incorporate the natural world in their classroom. Families can also enjoy guided educational activities, such as a wildlife bingo game, a themed photo hunt, and the Discovery Pack program, which provides organized exploration suggestions for all age groups. Special exploration walks are led by arboretum staff and volunteers, offering family-friendly themed tours of the grounds and collections. Through the Arboretum Interpreters program, volunteers ca also serve as docents periodically throughout the year, guiding visitors through the grounds and offering additional information and anecdotes.
Although eating or preparing food is generally not permitted on the arboretum grounds, the popular once-a-year Lilac Day celebration, held on the second Sunday in May, encourages visitors to bring a picnic and tour the blooming lilac collection.
125 Arborway, Boston, MA 02130