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1927 Map of the Arboretum

Our Connection to Harvard University

Arnold Arboretum greenhouses at the Bussey Institution, 1939
Greenhouses, spring, Arnold Arboretum greenhouses at the Bussey Institution, 1939

The birth and early history of the Arnold Arboretum constitute a remarkable gift from Harvard University to the City of Boston. Ten years after its inception in 1872, Harvard granted all of the land on which the Arboretum sits to the city to incorporate into its emerging public park system. This unique partnership between the City of Boston and Harvard University continues to this day with the terms of the original indenture guaranteed to last for 2,000 years! While the Arboretum’s grounds and hardscape (walls, roads, gates) are owned by the City, stewardship of its living collections, landscape, and facilities is the responsibility of over seventy staff members employed by the University. 

Reporting directly to the Provost of Harvard University, the Arnold Arboretum has served as an academic center for the study of plant biology, evolution, ecology, and horticulture for over a century. Today, the Arboretum shares its living museum collections and landscape with educators and students from around the world. The Arboretum’s scientific laboratories are home to dozens of Harvard researchers pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as faculty members from the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB). The Arboretum also serves as an important resource for faculty and students from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public HealthGraduate School of Design (GSD), and Graduate School of Education (GSE)

The following courses, offered through Harvard College and Harvard’s graduate schools in the past, illustrate some of the ways the Arboretum contributes to the university’s educational mission. Please note these courses are administered through Harvard University and are not offered as a part of the Arnold Arboretum’s adult education program.

Past Harvard Courses at the Arboretum

Field Methods and Living Collections (DES 3356)

Rosetta Elkin
Fall Semester

This course offers an opportunity for students to learn the basic theoretical and practical parameters of site description in order to account for how the living formation acts and reacts in response to complex factors. Using Harvard Arnold Arboretum, students will study a transect between the surrounding urban fabric and the living collection, addressing the specific issues that emerge from observational analysis including historical, biological, and societal layers. Lectures and discussions are split between classroom presentations, laboratory demonstrations, and outdoor investigations.

Pre-Darwinian Evolutionary Thought (OEB 204)

William (Ned) Friedman
Spring Semester

In this advanced undergraduate and graduate course, students read Darwin’s seminal work, On the Origin of Species (1859), paying close attention to the science as well as the man as revealed by his writing. The class discuss the foundation for his grand synthesis of evolutionary pattern and process.

Advanced Topics in Plant Physiology (OEB 212R)

N. Michelle Holbrook
Fall Semester

The course focuses on current research and techniques in plant physiology with an emphasis on roots and soils. At the Arboretum, the students participated in a root excavation to get a close up look at the roots of woody plants.

Biology of Plants (OEB 52)

Elena M. Kramer and N. Michelle Holbrook
Spring Semester

During a field trip to the Arboretum, the class examines conifer vegetative and reproductive morphology, transversing the entire length of Conifer Path. Beginning with a discussion of short shoot/long shoot morphology in Gingko and Larix, the group studies male and female reproductive cones in Larix and notes the different phenological patterns of species from different latitudes. The class observes the wax plugs in stomata of pine and fir leaves, and discusses the traits that distinguish various genera. Metasequoia and Sequoia specimens are visited, and the history of Metasequoia is discussed. Taxus and several other genera are considered to exemplify the extreme imbalance between male and female reproduction. The horticultural varieties toward the end of the walk provide the basis for a discussion on the role of hormones in controlling plant morphology and environmental response.

Science and the Human Past: Case Studies at the Cutting Edge (HIST 1056)

Michael McCormick
Fall Semester

This course looks at how natural sciences are changing our understanding of the human past. At the Arboretum, students work with Arboretum staff to take core samples from trees and examine the samples under the microscope in our undergraduate teaching lab to see first-hand how plants can inform history.

Topics in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (OEB 399)

Various Instructors
Spring Semester

First-year graduate students in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology learn about the research interests and experiences of scientists in this field of study. They also learn about the myriad resources that Harvard has to offer including tours of the Arnold Arboretum led by Arboretum staff.

Getting to Know Charles Darwin (Freshman Seminar 24p)

William (Ned) Friedman
Fall Semester

Do you think you know who Charles Darwin was? The sober-looking, bearded scholar behind the most important paradigm shift in human history? In this seminar, students read Darwin’s seminal work, On the Origin of Species (1859), paying close attention to the science as well as the man as revealed by his writing. Students get to know Charles Darwin—the avid breeder of pigeons, lover of barnacles, devoted father and husband, gifted correspondent and tactician, and remarkable backyard scientist. In this latter vein, several of Charles Darwin’s classic Down House experiments that were central to making his case for natural selection and evolution are recreated at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. The class shares the myriad basic observations of organisms and their interactions with the environment that made Darwin the master of minutia and provided the foundation for his grand synthesis of evolutionary pattern and process. See an article from National Geographic about this class.

Tangible Things: Harvard Collections in World History (USW 30)

Laurel Ulrich
Spring Semester

Laurel Ulrich brings a group of students and teaching fellows to the Arnold Arboretum as a field trip for their general education course, Tangible Things. The course explores the proposition that people make history through the things they create, collect, exhibit, exchange, or discard. By learning how and why particular things arrived at Harvard and what happened to them over time, students discover how material objects have shaped academic disciplines, reinforce or challenge social boundaries, and define America’s place in the world.

Why We Animals Sing (the Ways We Do) (FR 22t)

Brian D. Farrell
Spring Semester

Recording from April 27, 2011/wp-content/uploads/bioblitz1

A class of Harvard freshmen visit the Arnold Arboretum in the spring on their last class of their freshman seminar course on acoustic biology and the evolution of music. The recording above is from their visit on April 27, 2011. Armed with portable sound recorders, microphones, and earphones, the students documented the sounds of nature at the Arboretum, including American toads trilling and mating in the ponds; red-winged blackbirds, yellow warblers, song sparrows, and goldfinches singing overhead; and many other migrating and resident bird species in and around the marsh and woods. Starting in January, students learned how and why animals sing, from woodwind-like birds, mammals, and frogs to the percussionist insects, and spent a semester listening through headphones to recordings of animal sounds. This trained their ears for immersing themselves in the cacophonous, multi-dimensional, surround-sound environment of the Arboretum. The students recorded toads, birds, and even underwater insects; most importantly, they left with a new enthusiasm for research and study of the ecosystems that comprise the Arboretum. One student returned a few days later to begin sampling bees, initiating a long-term study in the Farrell Lab of the diversity of pollinators at the Arboretum. Professor Farrell will continue recording sounds of Arboretum fauna.

Plant Sex: Insights into the birds and the bees…and the buttercups and the bleeding hearts (Freshman Seminar 21j)

Robin Hopkins
Fall Semester

 This seminar addresses fundamental evolutionary concepts while exploring the dynamic relationship between plants and their pollinators using plant-pollinator interactions to understand the science of mutualism, co-evolution, speciation, convergence, animal behavior, and conservation biology.  Discussions and readings on these topics will be highlighted by trips to the Arnold Arboretum, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and local beehives.  The course utilizes living plants to explore diversity in plant morphology and reproductive strategies.  In-class activities will include mimicking bee buzz-pollination and observing pollen tube growth.

Research Seminar in Urban Ecology (GSD 6451)

Peter Del Tredici
Fall Semester

This course focuses on the structure, function and history of spontaneous urban ecosystems. The Arboretum’s 24-acre urban wild, Bussey Brook Meadow, transforms into a “research studio” site where future landscape architects taking the course are encouraged to think creatively about these landscapes.  The students initiate and investigate a research project to understand the role of spontaneous landscapes and learn how to increase their ecological, aesthetic, and recreational uses.

Basic and Applied Ecology (GSD 6241)

Richard T. T. Forman and Peter Del Tredici
Fall Semester

This introductory course is part of the core curriculum for students studying for the Masters in Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). Peter Del Tredici, who is also on the staff of the Arboretum, will bring students to the Arboretum to study the development of form in woody plants (tree architecture) as well as the ecology of landscape maintenance. Peter has taught a number of courses at the GSD since 1992 and typically includes class trips to the Arboretum for advanced field studies on trees and landscape maintenance.

Sustainable Plants for a Changing World (GSD 6446)

Peter Del Tredici
Fall Semester

This class is an elective for students studying for the Masters in Landscape Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). It relies heavily on plant material collected from the Arboretum for teaching the basic principles of plant identification. Now in its third year, this course focuses on the interaction between the plant and its environment, particularly as it pertains to the cultivation of plants in managed landscapes.

Trees, Forests and Climate Change (SLS 25)

Andrew Richardson and Don Pfister
Spring Semester

The class is led on a tour through the living collections of the Arnold Arboretum by staff, highlighting themes of biodiversity and conservation. This course focuses on forests and the vast range of products and services they offer human civilization, both economically and culturally. Students receive an introduction to the biology and ecology of forest ecosystems. An overarching theme throughout the course is understanding how climate change affects forests and the ecological services we derive from them, and in turn how forests impact their own growth environment and can affect global climate change.