My arrival in 2011 as the eighth director of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University coincided with the opening of the Weld Hill Research Building, marking the first time in generations that the majority of the scientific activities of the institution would occur within sight of its living collections. In many ways, this reunification of our botanical collections with the expertise and advanced tools to study them has been transformational to the Arboretum, particularly in how we advance discovery and contribute to the enlightenment of tomorrow’s problem solvers. It has also contributed immensely to the critical and continuing importance of our accessioned plants and landscape to these endeavors. While it is true that the Arboretum is so much more than the trees, shrubs, and vines growing in our landscape, without them we would have no reason to exist. Indeed, we are what (and who) we grow.
When Charles Sprague Sargent was appointed as the first director of the Arboretum not long after its 1872 founding, his most important order of business was to establish a synoptic collection of woody plants across this landscape. Initially, Sargent was mainly interested in representing tree species native to North America with a sampling of trees from other parts of the world. As the Arboretum grew in staff, influence, and acreage, Sargent adopted a more global vision for the Arboretum’s collections. Taking a cue from Harvard botany pioneer Asa Gray’s groundbreaking theories on the relationship between the floras of North America and eastern Asia, Sargent began organizing overseas expeditions to explore and collect plants from the Far East. In doing so, he not only cemented the relationship between contemporary science and the institution’s collecting priorities, but also made the Arboretum one of the first gardens in North America to concern itself with global exploration and global biodiversity. His vision led him to engage some of the most daring and successful plant hunters of his time, and this set the Arboretum on a path to acquire perhaps the finest collection of Asian plants in the West.
Notwithstanding a number of gaps occasioned by world affairs and shifting priorities, the Arnold Arboretum has steadily continued its quest to acquire new plants—both domestic and exotic—via wild collections in the field. Our current fervor for exploration, illustrated by our ten-year Campaign for the Living Collections, represents the most significant acceleration of these activities since Sargent’s time. Between 2015 and 2025, we aspire to collect some four hundred taxa of woody plants to add to our holdings, more than half of which will come from temperate Asia. While our efforts mirror Sargent’s thirst for discovery and plant introduction, they also reflect the changing needs of science and its increasingly global orientation. Many of the plants we are targeting will enhance the breadth of our holdings in key plant families, additions that promise to support wide-ranging research programs that are aimed at understanding everything from genomics to the unique physiology of trees to the effects of climate change on temperate woody plants. Some of our target taxa are at grave risk in their natural environments, and their study and preservation here may ultimately help sustain their populations. Still others have never been tried here or failed in previous attempts, but may stand a better chance in a (regrettably) warmer Boston. Connecting all of these aims is our fundamental commitment to the future of the Arboretum for the next century and beyond, and safeguarding its historical role in advancing science and experimentation toward a better world.
Ten years after the establishment of the Arnold Arboretum, Sargent collaborated with the City of Boston to open the landscape to the public in perpetuity, while offering Harvard University a 1,000-year renewable lease to pursue its horticulture, education, and research activities here. This has allowed the Arboretum to thrive in extraordinary ways, creating strong connections between science and the community and building an indelible bond between our collections and the people of Boston. With at least 850 years remaining in the agreement, the future of the Arnold Arboretum seems one of limitless time and potential to do phenomenal things. However, this will only be possible through the continuous pursuit of exploration initiated here more than a century ago. The pioneering work by Sargent, Wilson, and many others defined the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University as among the most consequential collections of temperate plants on Earth. These individuals also provide a palpable inspiration to their present-day contemporaries in the field, encouraging them to remain endlessly curious and generous in acquiring and sharing knowledge. Along with the extraordinary plants they championed, it is a truly great and living legacy.