Visiting The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University

“Founded in 1872 as North America’s first public arboretum, the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University is a leading center for the study of biodiversity and a cherished 281-acre Boston landscape open free year round. One of the most comprehensive and best documented collections of temperate woody plants in the world, the Arboretum promotes the understanding and appreciation of plants through horticulture, world-class research, and education programs for all ages” ( This garden has always been on my “Bucket List” and a recent trip to Boston had me break away from family and friends for 3 hours. A short Uber ride later, on a sub-freezing cold January day, found me at 125 Arborway, running through the gate and heading towards Hunnewell Visitor Center.

The Arnold Arboretum is a “Systematic Garden Design,” whereas plants are largely grouped by family and genus. “Where every element appears to be the same volume, the same height, the same intensity” ( Simply put, the maples are with the maples, the beech with the beech and even the Cork trees, Phellodendron, are all grouped together. You can fully appreciate the similarities the family shares, while marveling at the unique qualities each type can possess. This living collection consists of some 15,000 accessioned plants representing nearly 4,000 kinds of trees, shrubs and vines. All this has been made possible because the trustees of the will of James Arnold (1781-1868), “a whaling merchant of New Bedford, Massachusetts transferred a portion of the Arnold’s estate to the President and Fellows of Harvard College” (

As I passed through the gate, I immediately headed towards Hunnewell Visitor Center. Running towards its front door, I looked left and was gawking at the grove of Dawn Redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, appreciating their orange winter outline against the bright blue sky.  After a brief introduction with an arboretum employee, I was told that a guided tour had just left. Quick to join that group I ran over a ½ mile to catch up with them. Passing the Magnolias, Tulips and Lindens, running down Meadow Road, I was almost through the Cork trees when I caught up. Minutes later I realized that this group’s pace was too quick for me and I found myself out of touch with them and again on my own. I simply could not take in all that was afforded to me on their 45-minute tour.

Mentioning the staggering number of plants the Arnold Arboretum has in its collection, no single article could ever do it justice. Every visitor will undoubtedly take away his or her personal favorites. My quick overview of the property certainly provided me with several handfuls of favorites. The second stand of trees to hold my attention was the impressive collection of Cork tree types, Phellodendron. Native to China and Manchuria, this distinct collection was easy to identify given their corky bark patterns. Easy to identify the genus, but not the species. A humbling experience to see so many mature trees that are similar, yet different. Nobody can ever know it all. The Amur Cork Tree, Phellodendron amurense was my favorite on this day as the bark was particularly ridged and furrowed.

Continuing down Meadow Road, located on the bend near the water, was an obscure tree which I had to read its tag for its identity. Castor-aralia, Kalopanex septemlobus is one of those “hardy” trees no one in retail ever asks for. Armed with tons of thorns on its youngest stems and hanging clusters of spent fruit on long, thin stems, I felt I should have remembered this tree as I had once learned it. Regardless, I had to cheat and read the tag.

As mentioned earlier, The Arnold Arboretum’s vast collection includes thousands of different kinds of plants. What held my attention the longest was the Explorers Garden, specifically the Chinese Path. Chock full of personal favorites, this is where I spent a third of my time. Given that my visit happened in the middle of winter, for me it was all about bark appreciation, as all the deciduous trees had already lost their leaves. Seven-son Flower Trees, Heptacodium miconioides, huddled together, anyone would have appreciated their shredded, torn creamy-brown multi-stemmed bark. A conifer that blew my mind was a Plum Yew type, Cephalotaxus sinensis whose sheer size and splintered, yet smooth patchwork of purple-brown markings on its bark, was something I had never seen so pronounced.

Seeing such a collection in a mature state, grouped as they are, my opinion concerning a certain genus “held water” here. Stewartia are known by many plants people to be one of those quintessential trees that can do it all. Flowers, fall color and gorgeous bark are reliable on most. The Arnold Arboretum has many candidates close to one another so you can quickly and easily choose your favorite for your garden. Beaked Chinese Stewartia, Stewartia rostrata, Japanese Stewartia, Stewartia pseudocamellia, Chinese Stewartia, Stewartia sinensis were all so close to one another that it helped solidify my choice as to who has the best bark. Japanese Stewartia, Stewartia pseudocamellia, still comes away as my clear favorite and the one we chose for our home. On this cold day, nestled in with all the rest, the Arboretum’s mature Japanese Stewartia did not disappoint. Awesome exfoliating, muscled bark with smooth plates, continued to remind me of a boa constrictor’s skin. Another type with remarkable bark, Korean Stewartia, Stewartia koreana, is a close second, however.

The “Grand Champion” of plants I saw, on this day, came to me as I climbed the path. This tree seemed to greet me with open arms as its largest limbs were so outstretched, I have never seen a Paperbark maple, Acer griseum, with such size and unique form. A candidate whose trunk is measured in feet, the likes of which are seldom seen in our country. Exfoliating cinnamon-brown bark was everywhere and I was only sorry to have missed its brilliant red fall color. However, I did appreciate having met and “hugged” this tree, as it left an impression on me of what can happen given enough time, care and effort. A life lesson to be a bit more patient, stay connected with nature and focus more on experiences rather than screens. To date, this is one of the most impressive trees I have ever come across.

Covering 281 acres in 3 hours was nearly accomplished by me. However, this was a broad paint stroke at best. I could have spent 3 weeks and my soul would not have been fully nourished.  Running that first ½ mile to catch the initial group, I passed a wooden bench. Meandering back, as I was losing daylight, I visited that same bench. Made of Douglas fir, this is “Ed’s Bench.” Edward I. Masterman 2016, ‘With gratitude for the miles I walk here with nature. I could not help but think, given further opportunity to these surroundings I too would share the same sentiment. Hell, I share that sentiment after walking only a few short miles in 20-degree weather, once! Just exiting, or entering the arboretum, massed near the Dawn Redwoods in a wet area is an evergreen bamboo, groundcover type, Kuma bamboo grass, Sasa veitchii. Captivating my attention was its large, broad leaves that are dark green with white edges. Extremely well maintained and contained, for a bamboo, this grove is most likely cut down every spring to manage its height. Known for being aggressive and stubborn, this bamboo type is clearly being managed with the same painstaking efforts the way every other plant in the Arboretum is.

“The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University discovers and disseminates knowledge of the plant kingdom to foster greater understanding, appreciation, and stewardship of Earth’s botanical diversity and its essential values to humankind” ( This, their mission, is realized through research, horticulture and education. Blessed to be able to see natures finest in a mature state, I have James Arnold to thank for his generosity and vision and Charles Sprague Sargent for “knocking” the arboretum together. Sargent was appointed the Arboretum’s first director and spent over 5 decades shaping its policies and programs. Finally, Frederick Law Olmsted, the Father of American Landscape Architecture, worked closely with Sargent defining many of the Arboretum’s spaces. These men, their vision, benevolence and philanthropy along with a phenomenal steak dinner, at Abe and Louie’s, made for one unforgettable weekend!