Arnold Selects program brings new and historical Arboretum plant introductions to the trade

The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University is renewing its commitment to advancing horticulture by providing and promoting exceptional plants to the nursery trade. This work dates back to the Arboretum’s earliest days, envisioned in the founding documents drawn between the trustees of James Arnold’s estate and Harvard College. We look forward to advancing this important legacy through a new program for evaluating, promoting, and distributing exceptional woody plants—Arnold Selects.

When the Arboretum was established in 1872, inaugural director Charles Sprague Sargent began at once to receive germplasm from his contacts in Europe and seeds from Asia. When Sargent directed the first national census of forests for the United States government in 1884, plants from all over the United States arrived at the Arboretum for study as part of this inventory. From the Arboretum’s greenhouses, the offspring of these plants continued to flow to nurseries and enthusiasts who sought to display a diversity of plants on their estates. Plant collectors for the Arboretum, notably Ernest Henry Wilson, provided the Arboretum with plants and seeds from groundbreaking expeditions to temperate regions of Asia.

In the years that followed, the Arboretum established plant breeding and evaluation programs, with the dual goals of understanding the physiological and genetic basis for plant traits, and increasing the nation’s horticultural palette through distribution. Under the direction of Karl Sax, Director of the Arboretum from 1946 to 1954 and Donald Wyman, Horticulturist at the Arboretum from 1935 to 1970, these programs flourished and established the Arnold as an authority on the use of woody plants in the landscape—for both professionals and popular enthusiasts.

Acer rubrum ‘Schlesingeri’, a cultivar discovered locally by Founding Director Charles Sprague Sargent, and offered through the Arnold Selects program in 2021. Though a popular red maple cultivar, ‘Schlesingeri’ has become confused in the trade, a problem Arnold Selects aims to correct by distributing cuttings from our original 1888 lineage growing near the Hunnewell Building. Jon Hetman

During this period, many celebrated hybrids were bred by Sax and his colleagues at the Bussey Institute, then Harvard University’s school of agriculture and applied biology. This authority extended to the broader horticultural community of New England, with the Arboretum’s annual plant sales (and later plant giveaway) serving to distribute superb Arboretum plants to our membership. The Arboretum’s contributions from this period are still celebrated and recognized, though the era’s rapid pace of exchange may never be matched.

Under Director Robert Cook, then Director of Living Collections Peter Del Tredici focused on returning to the mission of acquiring and distributing all the woody plants fit to grow in the Arboretum’s climate. The Plant Introduction, Promotion, and Distribution (PIPD) program was developed by Putnam Fellow Kim Tripp to serve these ends. Starting in 1993 and running through 2001, PIPD plants were selected by a team of Arboretum staff and distributed as a subscription service to nurseries, sister institutions, and enthusiasts The Arboretum still fulfills requests from nurseries and researchers and provides plants to our community through programs such as the Arbor Day Seedling event for members.

Times have changed since the days of Sargent and Wilson’s contributions, Wyman’s exhortations, and even the recommendations of PIPD. New pests and diseases have emerged. It has become evident that some previous introductions have not performed as intended or desired. In fact, some introductions were successful in ways that Sargent and Wyman could not have imagined, revealing noxious characteristics over time. Through careful planning, Arnold Selects will adapt evaluation and assessment programs to ensure that our introductions are thoroughly tested and proven to perform well and play well with others in the landscape.

Abies koreana 'Prostrate Beauty' at the Arnold Arboretum
Abies koreana ‘Prostrate Beauty’ was also offered by Arnold Selects in 2021. A dwarf form of Korean fir with dense, dark green foliage and mauve immature cones, it is not well-known in the trade and deserving of wider use. Ned Friedman

In many cases, out of real necessity, introduction programs are driven by monetary returns. Trademark licensing agreements and patents provide assurance that growers invest in plants that consumers desire, and breeders can be assured of a return on their efforts. However, the Arboretum’s goal for Arnold Selects is to increase accessibility to our living collections. Our model is to provide unique plant material to nurseries for propagation, along with rich cultural information and backstories, so that gardeners can keep their plants healthy and feel a personal connection to what they grow.

One hundred fifty years of expertise in cultivating these plants, rigorous curatorial work that accompanies our propagation trials, and robust documentation of our horticultural care provides authoritative information to share with our nursery partners and the public. Our unique and longstanding relationship with these plants has transformed an appreciation for their horticultural merits to a real love and admiration for their enduring qualities—an understanding rooted in decades of stories about the origins, quirks, and charms of individual plants in our collections. Arnold Selects aims to deepen the relationship people have with the plants they grow through the stories only we can tell, illuminating the characteristics and history that make each plant special. In doing so, we aspire to also forge stronger connections between people and the Arboretum, as well as between people and our world.