In November of 1876, Charles Sprague Sargent, the director of the Arnold Arboretum, requested acorns of the chestnut oak (now Quercus montana) from a friend in St. Louis. The delivery arrived less than a month later, amidst an early cold snap. The nurseries at the four-year-old Arboretum were already packed and overcrowded. More than three thousand trees had been planted in the Arboretum that year, but widespread planting couldn’t occur until road construction began several years later. In the meantime, the acorns were likely sown in a wooden box from a grocery store and overwintered in an outdoor pit. When the acorns germinated, at least two seedlings (accession 16355*A and B) joined the masses in the ever-swelling nurseries.
It is generally easier to transplant small trees than large ones, but in the early years of the Arboretum, this best-case scenario was seldom possible. To keep trees from rooting too firmly in the nursery, horticulturists dug and replanted the trees every two to three years. Jackson Dawson, the Arboretum’s first supervisor, described his success with this technique (and the wooden boxes) in an essay presented to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1885. “If often transplanted they may be successfully removed when fifteen to eighteen, or even twenty feet in height,” he observed. One of the chestnut oaks was moved into the oak collection, along Valley Road, where it commands a towering position today. The first plantings occurred in this section in 1887, which means the tree must have been dug and replanted at least once or twice in the nursery. Its sibling wouldn’t reach its final home on Peters Hill for another decade.
Through the early 1890s, Peters Hill remained an agrarian landscape. Its open pastures were among the two hundred acres of farmland maintained by the Bussey Institution, Harvard’s school of agriculture and horticulture. Farmworkers, while harvesting hay, could have looked towards Boston and seen the glittering capitol dome and the watery horizon. In 1894, to the frustration of the Bussey Institution’s director, Harvard administrators voted to transfer Peters Hill to the Arboretum, and the following year, the City of Boston agreed to incorporate the property into the one-thousand-year lease that governed the original portion of the Arboretum. By 1899, roads on Peters Hill were completed, and planting commenced.
At last, the second chestnut oak had a home. The large tree—a representative from the very western edge of the range for this species—was positioned on the upper side of Peters Hill, within a mixed plantation of oaks. The success of this tree and other old transplants nearby is a testament to the intensive methods used to sustain trees in the nursery and prepare planting locations. In 1886, Sargent outlined soil preparations in his annual report, describing how trees were planted in holes of between ten and twenty-five square feet. Rocks and gravel were removed to a depth of three feet and replaced with loam and peat. “The result of this expenditure, which is very considerable, will not perhaps be apparent for many years,” Sargent wrote, “but sooner or later, the Arboretum will get the full benefit of it in older and finer trees than could have been raised on its naturally thin and now exhausted soil.”
Now, on any given evening, friends and neighbors make the nine-tenths of a mile loop around Peters Hill—walking, biking, running, and scootering. Dogs parade past on leashes. Even a first-time visitor might sense that Peters Hill Road is a thoroughfare where regulars know one another. The chestnut oak leans over the procession, calling little attention to itself, despite its enormous trunk. Its bark is characteristic of the species—so deeply furrowed that it almost seems like a daredevil could grab hold and climb to the upper branches. Among the older and finer trees on the hill, it watches as the last visitors leave and the sun sinks into twilight.