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The Arboretum was established in 1872 when the trustees of the will of James Arnold (1781-1868), a whaling merchant of New Bedford, Massachusetts, transferred a portion of Arnold’s estate to the President and Fellows of Harvard College. In the deed of trust between the Arnold trustees and the College, income from the legacy was to be used “for the establishment and support of an arboretum, to be known as the Arnold Arboretum, which shall contain, as far as practicable, all the trees [and] shrubs . . . either indigenous or exotic, which can be raised in the open air.” Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927) was appointed the Arboretum’s first director in 1873 and spent the following 54 years shaping the policies and programs of the Arnold Arboretum. Since its inception, it has served as a model and benchmark for similar institutions, both in North America and elsewhere. In large part the successes of Sargent’s directorship stemmed from his ability to raise the funds required to implement his plans coupled with a creative lease agreement forged between the City of Boston and Harvard in 1882. According to the terms of the thousand-year lease, the Harvard-owned land on which the Arnold Arboretum was established became part of the city park system, but control of the collections continued to reside with the Arboretum staff. The city was to maintain the perimeter walls, gates, and roadway system and provide police surveillance, while the Arboretum agreed to keep the grounds open to the general public, free of charge, from sunrise to sunset every day of the year. As a result of this unique arrangement the Arboretum became part of the famous “Emerald Necklace,” the 7-mile-long network of parks and parkways that Frederick Law Olmsted laid out for the Boston Parks Department between 1878 and 1892. The design of the Arboretum grew out of Sargent’s close collaboration with Olmsted, who laid out the path and roadway system and designated areas within the Arboretum for specific groups of plants. Early on, Sargent decided to arrange the plant collections by family and genus, following the then generally accepted classification system of Bentham and Hooker. As Sargent envisioned it, “a visitor driving through the Arboretum will be able to obtain a general idea of the arborescent vegetation of the north temperate zone without even leaving his carriage. It is hoped that such an arrangement, while avoiding the stiff and formal lines of the conventional botanic garden, will facilitate the comprehensive study of the collections, both in their scientific and picturesque aspects.” Sargent also devoted much effort to realizing the institution’s research potential. As the era’s most distinguished dendrologist, he authored The Silva of North America, published between 1890 and 1902 in 14 volumes, and The Manual of the Trees of North America (first edition, 1905; second edition, 1922), both standard references even today. By developing a comprehensive library devoted to botany, horticulture, and dendrology, an equally notable herbarium to serve as the repository of specimens of woody plants from throughout the world, and a publication program that included both scholarly and semi-popular works, Sargent established the Arnold Arboretum as a leading scientific institution. In addition, the Arboretum’s involvement in botanical and horticultural exploration around the world, especially in eastern Asia, has brought many new plants into cultivation and greatly expanded our knowledge of their evolution and systematics. The Arnold Arboretum occupies 281 acres of land in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston. It is administered as an allied institution within the central administration of Harvard University. As of June 2015, the living collections consisted of some 14,760 accessioned plants representing 3,800 botanical and horticultural taxa, with particular emphasis on the woody species of North America and eastern Asia and an especially comprehensive representation of Fagus (beech), Lonicera (honeysuckle), Magnolia, Malus (crabapple), Quercus (oak), Rhododendron, and Syringa (lilac). Collections of historical interest include the plants introduced from eastern Asia by C. S. Sargent, Ernest Henry Wilson, William Purdom, and Joseph Rock. In addition to its living collections the Arboretum holds a herbarium collection in excess of 1.3 million specimens (part of a collection of 5 million specimens held collectively by the Harvard University Herbaria) and library holdings in excess of 40,000 volumes, some of which are located in Jamaica Plain and some in Cambridge at the Harvard University Herbaria. The Arboretum also maintains an extensive photographic archive in Jamaica Plain, along with archival collections relating to its own history and to the history of botany and horticulture in North America. The Arboretum continues to maintain its living collections in the naturalistic style originally established by Sargent and Olmsted; for the most part—with some exceptions made for the cultural requirements of some plants—the collections are still arranged according to the Bentham and Hooker classification system. The tradition of plant exploration also continues, with seven major collecting trips to eastern Asia sponsored by the Arboretum since 1977. From the time of its founding, the Arboretum has maintained a complete record system, with a standardized accession number assigned to every plant on the grounds for use in tracking its name and origin. Staff manage these records in BG-BASE collections management software. A suite of ESRI Desktop and Mobile GIS software applications are employed to manage, analyze, query, capture, manipulate, and display geographic information. Decimeter accurate field mapping of landscape features (e.g., plants, benches) is accomplished using a Trimble Nomad handheld computer attached to a Trimble GPS Pathfinder ProXRT receiver, GLONASS option. More than anything else, it is the Arboretum’s detailed record system that facilitates the use of the collections for research by staff and other scientists. Currently the living collections are being used for research on a diverse range of subjects that include molecular systematics, plant physiology and morphology, vegetative propagation of woody plants, and evaluation and selection of new cultivars of woody plants with ornamental merit. Research on plant pathology and integrated pest management for maintenance of the living collections is constantly ongoing. Herbarium-based research focuses on the systematics and biodiversity of both temperate and tropical Asian forests, as well as the ecology and potential for sustainable use of their resources. The Arboretum’s education programs offer school groups and the general public a wide range of lectures, courses, and walks focusing on the ecology and cultivation of plants. Its quarterly magazine, Arnoldia, provides in-depth information on horticulture, botany, and garden history.  


125 Arborway Boston,

Boston, MA, MA 02130-35

United States

Tel: 617.524.1718