At the junction of Meadow, Bussey Hill, and Forest Hills Roads, three small watery gems of the Arnold Arboretum, our ponds, provide habitat for amphibians and waterfowl, and refreshment for other creatures. For our visitors, the ponds are places to pause and admire natural beauty, and perhaps, observe a snapping turtle lounging in the sun.
These ponds did not exist in their current form when Charles Sprague Sargent and Frederick Law Olmsted developed the Arboretum landscape in the 1870s. Instead they were low boggy places, fed by seeps from Bussey Hill and water from the North Meadow, where one might lose a shoe to the clinging muck. That muck hid valuable peat beds, however, a fact that had been recognized for nearly a century. Records reveal that rights for cutting peat for fuel were granted to local householder Daniel McCarthy in 1784, presumably by landowner Eleazer Gore. Gore’s property, bought by Benjamin Bussey in 1806, was later bequeathed by Bussey to Harvard in 1842.
Realizing the value of this rich black peat for nourishing the young trees, Sargent, the first director of the Arboretum, instructed his horticulturists to use it as soil amendment for his new plantings. Our centenarian and older trees are a testament to his wisdom.
In the Archives, we have a study of the Arboretum landscape created by Olmsted. It shows the ponds area superimposed over an early topographic map of Bussey’s property. In this study, there is a small stream flowing the length of the North Meadow. At the southern end is a body of water, perhaps only a vernal pool, in about the location of Faxon and Dawson Ponds today. On the study map, this little stream hugs the edge of what would later be Meadow Road. It is unclear whether the stream is feeding the pond or vice versa but it is interesting to see that Olmsted was considering a pond in this area so early on.
In 1905, the old Shrub Collection received a drainage system. Larger ceramic pipes bisected smaller ones to carry excess water down into the two well-established ponds. This is the site of the Bradley Rosaceous Collection today.
In the early years of the Arboretum, the ponds were simply referred to as the “large pond” and the “two smaller ponds.” In the 1990s, they were named in honor of three beloved and long-serving members of our staff.
The largest, Dawson Pond, is named for Jackson Thornton Dawson, the first propagator and employee of the Arboretum. After service in the American Civil War, he settled down in Jamaica Plain and raised thousands of plants for the Arboretum. He was a noted rosarian and created the award winning rambler, the Arnold rose (Rosa ‘Arnold’). A consummate plantsman, Dawson was reputed to be able to coax life into a stick long forgotten in the pocket of a jacket. If his legacy, as reflected in our living collections, is any yardstick, the legends about him are true.
Charles Edward Faxon is the namesake for Faxon Pond, Dawson Pond’s near neighbor. He was a life-long resident of Jamaica Plain, and attended the Lawrence Scientific School in Cambridge, graduating in 1867 with a degree in civil engineering. From 1879 to 1884, he was an instructor in botany at the Bussey Institution. Sargent asked him to join the Arboretum staff in 1882 as the curator of the herbarium and to oversee the library. He also illustrated Sargent’s Silva of North America, producing 644 masterful drawings.
Tucked in the crook between Bussey Hill and Meadow Roads is Rehder Pond. It is named for Arboretum taxonomist Alfred Rehder who came from a family of gardeners in Germany and trained in the nursery trade. He soon turned to horticultural writing. In 1898, while working on a project for his publisher, Rehder visited the Arboretum on a research trip. Sargent hired him to work on the grounds. He soon recognized Rehder’s skill, and set him to work on the Bradley Bibliography, a guide to the literature of woody plants. He later headed the herbarium and was editor of the Journal of the Arnold Arboretum.
Before the ponds were created, this landscape in this area of the Arboretum would have gone through seasonal wet and dry periods. With construction of the ponds, these cycles became more obvious. Occasionally they dried out completely, as happened in the late 1920s, but it became a regular occurrence about 25 years later.
During the mid-20th century, the ponds suffered badly from the effects of late summer drought. During the particularly dry summer of 1957, Dawson and Rehder Ponds were empty and parched by September when only patches of mud remained to show where that water had been. Photographs from October 1957 show the severity of the problem. Rehder Pond fared a bit better but only retained a few inches of liquid. The situation had completely reversed by early winter when heavy rains filled the ponds to overflowing, flooding Meadow Road for several days.
Severe drought returned in September 1963. The ponds had not dried out completely since 1957, but by then summer drying had become a yearly concern. Photographs make it obvious that Dawson Pond had become very shallow, probably from runoff and erosion, a condition that was exacerbating the summer drying. The ceramic drains installed in 1905 were also likely clogged with a half century of soil and organic matter, and no longer carrying runoff from the Shrub Collection. In the summer of 1968, a contractor dredged out the accumulated debris.
A new century brought more drought and flood. Hydro-raking was employed to try to keep the aquatic weeds under control and remove loose debris, but the situation at the ponds again required attention. In 2007, our Hunnewell horticultural interns tackled the various concerns as their project. Their research on five core considerations—history, dredging, hydrology, vegetation, and visitor experience—informed a major restoration project for Dawson Pond in 2009.
The restoration sought to create a naturalized habitat for plants and living creatures. New plantings emphasized herbaceous aquatic species and woody plants that are more tolerant of wet conditions. A sloping cobblestone platform added at the edge of Dawson Pond, allow visitors to safely access the water’s edge. The platform also makes a warm basking spot for the pond’s fauna.
Although the ponds were not originally a natural feature of the Arboretum landscape, after more than a century they have become naturalized and are now small but rich ecosystems. They are home to a variety of aquatic organisms, thriving in the middle of a busy urban center. Charles Sprague Sargent’s decision to fertilize young trees at the Arboretum with the peat he had at hand has led to a magical place in our landscape nearly 150 years later. We are fortunate indeed.
Explore Urban Ponds: Essential Ecosystems for the Enjoyment and Discovery of Nature, an exhibition of photographs of the Arboretum’s ponds by Bruce Wilson.