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1927 Map of the Arboretum

Our History

Charles S. Sargent and Ernest H. Wilson standing in front of a Higan Cherry tree (Prunus subhirtella). Photograph by Oakes Ames, May 2, 1915.
Charles S. Sargent and Ernest H. Wilson standing in front of a Higan cherry tree

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 November 2020, the permanent collections (which exclude nursery holdings) comprise 15,500 individual plants that belong to 10,310 accessions. These accessions represent 2,050 different species and 1,408 cultivars, which respectively illustrate the Arboretum’s broad biological and horticultural diversity, exceptional for a temperate woody plant collection. The Arboretum holds one of the most diverse, well-documented, and widely-studied collections of its kind including eight nationally accredited generic collections – Acer (maple), Carya (hickory), Fagus (beech), ForsythiaGinkgoStewartia, Syringa (lilac), and Tsuga (hemlock). 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 hardware. 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.


1872Harvard College accepts the James Arnold bequest, executes the indenture of the Arnold Arboretum, and agrees to locate the Arboretum on its Bussey estate in West Roxbury.
1873C. S. Sargent is appointed as Director of both the Harvard Botanic Garden and the Arnold Arboretum.
1874Harvard officially allocates a portion of its Bussey estate in West Roxbury (137 acres, 55 hectares) as the site for the Arnold Arboretum.
1877Sargent commissions Frederick Law Olmsted to produce a design for the Arboretum.
1879Sargent resigns as director of the Harvard Botanical Garden; Olmsted completes the initial design for the Arnold Arboretum.
1882Harvard transfers the Arboretum’s land to the City of Boston, which leases it back to Harvard for a thousand years.
1883The city begins work on a road system within the Arboretum.
1885Permanent tree planting begins with the installation of the Fagus (beech), Fraxinus (ash), Ulmus (elm), and Carya (hickory) collections.
1888Sargent launches Garden and Forest, a weekly journal covering botany, horticulture, forestry, and landscape design, that is published through 1897.
1892The administration building is designed by the firm of Longfellow, Alden and Harlow and constructed with funds donated by H. H. Hunnewell; Sargent collects plants in Japan for the Arboretum.
1894The Peters Hill tract (67.6 acres; 11 hectares) is added to the Arboretum under a second indenture with the City of Boston.
1902Alfred Rehder is appointed to the staff of the Arboretum as taxonomist.
1905A herbarium wing is added to the administration building; Arboretum dendrologist J. G. Jack collects plants in Japan and Korea.
1906E. H. Wilson is hired to collect seeds and herbarium specimens for the Arboretum in China.
1910Wilson returns to China on his second expedition for the Arboretum.
1911The first issue of Bulletin of Popular Information (renamed Arnoldia, 1941) is published.
1917E. H. Wilson begins a two and a half year expedition to Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.
1919Publication of Journal of the Arnold Arboretum begins.
1920E H. Wilson begins a two and half year good will tour of the botanic gardens of the world.
1921Tightened USDA regulations limit the Arboretum’s ability to import plants and seeds.
1924Joseph Rock is commissioned to collect for the Arboretum in China and Tibet.
1927C. S. Sargent dies; Oakes Ames is appointed chairman of a new Council of Botanical Collections and Supervisor of the Arnold Arboretum; E. H. Wilson is appointed keeper.
1930E. H. Wilson dies in an automobile accident.
1935Donald Wyman appointed horticulturist
1936Elmer D. Merrill is appointed the third Director of the Arnold Arboretum; Donald Wyman is appointed horticulturist.
1937The Larz Anderson bonsai collection is donated to the Arboretum.
1938The hurricane of September 21 decimates the living collections.
1942The Arboretum acquires the Case Estates in Weston, Massachusetts.
1946Karl Sax is appointed the fourth Director of the Arnold Arboretum.
1954Richard A. Howard is appointed the fifth Director of the Arnold Arboretum; major portions of the Arboretum’s herbarium and library are moved to the new Harvard Herbaria building in Cambridge (along with their curators).
1961The Charles Stratton Dana Greenhouses are constructed.
1972The Arboretum celebrates its centennial.
1978Peter S. Ashton is appointed the sixth Director of the Arnold Arboretum.
1980The Arboretum participates in the first Sino-American Botanical Expedition to China.
1985The Bradley Collection of Rosaceous Plants is dedicated on the site of the former shrub and vine collection.
1989Oversight of the Arnold Arboretum within Harvard is transferred from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences to the Office of Vice President for Administration; Robert E. Cook is appointed the seventh Director of the Arnold Arboretum.
1993The Hunnewell Building (formerly known as the administration building) is renovated.
1996Arboretum website is launched.
1996The Arboretum adds the 24-acre Bussey Brook Meadow to its landscape; “Science in the Pleasure Ground” exhibition opens in the Hunnewell Building.
2000Supporters donate more than $8.2 million to the Arboretum as part of Harvard University’s millennial campaign.
2002The M. Victor and Frances Leventritt Shrub and Vine Garden is dedicated.
2008An updated Living Collections Policy is published in Arnoldia.
2009Oversight of the Arnold Arboretum within Harvard is transferred from the Office of Vice President for Administration to the Office of the Provost; Director Robert E. Cook retires.
2011William (Ned) Friedman is appointed the eighth Director of the Arnold Arboretum; the Weld Hill Research Building opens.
2012The Arboretum and Arboretum Park Conservancy agree on a maintenance plan for Bussey Brook Meadow, preserving the site as an urban wild for long-term environmental monitoring and urban ecology research.
2013The Larz Anderson Bonsai Collection celebrates its centennial in America with an exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; Peter Del Tredici, Senior Research Scientist and bonsai curator, receives the Veitch Memorial Medal.
2014The Campaign for Sustainability is launched with a renovation of the Dana Greenhouses to improve the lighting, windows, and energy efficiency.
2015The Campaign for the Living Collections, a transformative 10-year initiative to boost plant exploration and collections development, begins with expeditions to the state of Idaho and China.
2016Solar panels installed on the roofs of the Horticulture Maintenance Garage and Dana Greenhouses headhouse are turned on. Harvard announces it’s 2008 short-term sustainability goal (to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2016, from a 2006 baseline, inclusive of campus growth) has been met.
2020The Arboretum provides a pandemic refuge for Boston residents. The Arboretum is the only cultural institution in the city to remain open to the public in the early months of COVID-19.

Further Reading

Annual Report

Connor, Sheila. 1994. New England Natives: A Celebration of People and Trees. Harvard University Press

Dosmann, M.S. 2007. The Arnold Arboretum’s Living Collections: A Repository for Research. Arnoldia 65(2):30–39. [pdf]

Hay, Ida. 1995. Science in the Pleasure Ground: A History of the Arnold Arboretum. Northeastern University Press

Sargent, Charles S. 1921. The First Fifty Years of the Arnold Arboretum. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 3: 127-171

Spongberg, Stephen A. 1990. A Reunion of Trees. Harvard University Press

Sutton, S. B. 1970. Charles Sprague Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum. Harvard University Press

Wilson, Ernest H. 1925. America’s Greatest Garden. Boston

Zaitzevsky, Cynthia. 1982. Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System. Harvard University Press