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Reading 3: Arnold Arboretum Becomes a Reality
The establishment of Arnold Arboretum in 1872 marked the first time in this country that provisions were made to collect trees from all over the world and plant them in one area. Charles Sargent had many questions to address about the fundamental purpose, layout, and use of an arboretum before he could begin planting his specimens. These questions were answered only through years of collaboration between Sargent and Olmsted. Both men agreed that people should be able to study the trees not just as scientific specimens, but as living works of art. To fulfill its purposes as an arboretum, the trees needed to be grouped by family and genus according to the natural order. To make the arboretum useful as a park, they had to design the roads in a way that suggested relaxation. The route had to curve gently to and fro through the landscape, always leading visitors to new scenery. The trees, therefore, could not be planted in the stiff and formal lines of a conventional botanical garden.
Months went by, then years, as Olmsted attempted to merge the concept of a park and a tree museum into a mutually agreeable plan. He produced drawing after drawing showing in what order the trees could be planted and where roads could be built. Sargent stated, "Olmsted of course will render immense assistance in the way of taste and engineering, but the arrangement of plants so that they will tell as clearly as possible the story they are meant to illustrate I must do."1 Sargent insisted that many species be planted along the roads by type, to allow people to compare their differences and similarities. He wanted visitors to be able to examine side by side a maple from Maine and one from Japan. Olmsted wanted the trees to appear as they would have in nature, in clumps with plenty of curving space between groups. Discussions between the two men seemed endless, but if a design was not decided upon quickly, the trees that Sargent already had collected would be too large to plant.
Six months after Harvard and Boston signed their agreement, the city began constructing the arboretum's drives, a process which took 10 years to complete. In late 1884, Sargent and Olmsted worked on refining the planting plan. Rather than containing every tree and shrub that could grow in the climate of Boston, the arboretum would now feature a selection of North American and foreign trees to show tree growth in the North Temperate Zone. In 1885, Olmsted and Sargent finally agreed on a final planting plan. The installation of the permanent tree collection began in the spring of 1886 as beeches, ashes, elms, and hickories were transferred from the nursery beds where they had been kept. By spring of 1887, 120,000 trees and shrubs were in place.
Sargent realized his dreams as thousands of trees from all over the world passed through the arboretum's gates. He and his staff had traveled in search of woody plants throughout the U.S., Europe, and the Far East. They brought back plants such as Japanese wisteria, Chinese dogwoods, and ginkgoes--trees that form a tall canopy of yellow, fan--shaped leaves. He made sure all were planted just right so they would grow to be healthy examples of their species. He remarked, "Trees have never been planted with better promise of undisturbed old age."2
Olmsted also achieved a dream. For those who walk through Arnold Arboretum's grounds, the undulating design of the roads and the planting areas yields one visual delight after another. The final product was a testament to "Olmsted's artistry and Sargent's good taste."3 Together Olmsted and Sargent created a place of beauty and science. Its form and function were woven together like a fine tapestry.
Certainly, Arnold Arboretum did not erase the urban problems of congestion, epidemics, and unsanitary conditions in Boston. However, it did provide a tranquil diversion from the crowded city. It offered a place for families to take weekend walks among spring flowers or fall foliage, for amateur horticulturists to keep up with the latest developments, and for professional landscape designers and botanists to examine hundreds of trees and shrubs previously unknown in the United States. Reflecting on the first 50 years of the arboretum's existence, Sargent wrote:
...[I]t has been managed not merely as a New England museum but as a national and international institution working to increase knowledge of trees in all parts of the world.... An institution with such ambitions must be equipped to answer any question about any tree growing in any part of the world which may be addressed to it.4
Today, Arnold Arboretum contains more than 6,000 varieties of trees and shrubs, with 1,286 of them grown for the first time in Northeast America. Many of the species Sargent set out at the Arnold Arboretum are now grown in other parts of the nation, enriching private gardens and public parks across the country.
Questions for Reading 3
1. In what ways was the development of Arnold Arboretum an experiment? What kinds of questions did Sargent need to answer before he could begin planting?
2. What considerations did Olmsted and Sargent have to think about when planting trees? How are the concepts of a park and an arboretum potentially at odds with each other?
3. Why was 1886 an important year for both Olmsted and Sargent?
4. What legacy did the collaboration between Olmsted and Sargent leave to those who love trees and quiet, open spaces?
Reading 3 was compiled from Polly M. Rettig, "Arnold Arboretum" (Suffolk County, MA) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975; and S. B. Sutton, Charles Sprague Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970).
1Chas. S. Sargent to Joseph Dalton Hooker, April 12, 1878, Library, Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Richmond, Surry, England.