The Arnold Arboretum has, at last count, over 15,000 individual plants in its collection of which 8,325 are trees! These represent over 2,000 species of trees that have been carefully documented, many of which are of significant historical and botanical importance.
Our visitors probably know a few species by name and character: oak, maple, magnolia, horse chestnut, cherry, and willow for example. But what about the other trees? Which species would you like to get to know better?
The 2021 Tournament of Trees pit lesser known species against each other in a bid to become part of every visitor’s circle of tree friends. As you can see in the above tournament bracket diagram, this year’s 16 contenders battled each other round after round until a winner was declared:
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum 968*A)
Lilac: Congratulations on being voted “Most Interesting Tree” in this year’s Tournament of Trees! I am honored to meet you. My name is Syringa, but you can call me Lilac.
Sassafras: Thank you, and I am also pleased to meet you. You are new around here, right? I like to keep an eye on the neighborhood, and I can’t say I’ve noticed you before.
L: So observant! Yes, I moved into my spot across the road from you last October. Now that the weather is changing, I’m getting ready for Lilac Sunday. It’s a lot of work—my relatives are getting their limbs pruned, mulch refreshed, and boundaries set so we can show off our flowers in the best possible way. This will be my first Lilac Sunday outing and I just can’t wait!
S: I’m so sorry to have to tell you, but there won’t be a Lilac Sunday this year. Instead, visitors are encouraged to come see the lilacs over the course of four weeks between late April to late May to avoid crowds. This COVID-19 pandemic is still not over, and now is not the time to relax our guard.
L: Oh…I didn’t know! Well, truth be told, I wasn’t looking forward to all the damage caused inadvertently to lilacs when everybody visits on the same day. This will be so much better, and I can enjoy the limelight over the course of four weeks instead of just one day.
S: Sorry if I was harsh. It’s just that I’ve seen this before during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Boston suffered so many losses. Did you know that it was the third worst-hit city in the United States after Pittsburgh and Philadelphia? It is history repeating itself: lack of medical personnel, a belief that “it would go away” without the need for interventions, school and business closures, and the blame game. Such a waste!
L: Wait. You were alive in 1918? How old are you?
S: Well, I was a wild child brought here as a young sapling from West Roxbury by Mr. Jackson T. Dawson in 1884. He was the first plant propagator and employee of the Arnold Arboretum, and I was so proud when Dawson Pond was named after him back in the 1990s. Since we can see the pond from here, I feel close to him. I will be exactly 137 years old on October 15, around the time you’ll be turning one!
L: Are there many centenarians here?
S: Oh yes, though I am not the oldest. In fact, there are over 1,000 trees and shrubs that are more than 100 years old. You should take the self-guided Centenarian Tour some day and meet some of my contemporaries.
L: I will. Let’s talk about you some more. I can’t help but notice that you are “different” than all the other trees I’ve met. I’m talking about your leaves.
S: You noticed! I have three distinctly shaped leaves; children like to refer to them as the football, the mitten, and the ghost. I even have left-handed and right-handed mitten leaf shapes, which are great for teaching children left from right. They keep me young, those children do. I love to hear their theories as to why my leaves are varied—everything from “they change as the tree ages,” to “excess chemicals inside the leaves cause the lobes to appear,” to “it avoids water loss to have the footballs on top.” Indeed, I have more football-shaped leaves on my top half, but the truth is no one really knows why my leaves show such variety.
L: You know what else I’ve noticed? There’s a sweet scent that wafts in the air when deer and rabbits are around. What is up with that?
S: Ah, that would be the chemical compounds found in every part of me, from my roots, bark, and leaves. When wildlife scratches my bark or crushes my leaves, oils are released. It probably smells like root beer, Fruit Loops, or citrus to you. It is certainly very different from the sweet floral smells I get from your species when the wind blows my way.
L: Root beer, that’s what I smell! Are you the source for this drink?
S: It used to be my root bark that was the traditional source for root beer. Now artificial flavorings are used since safrole, the cancer-causing compound responsible for the scent, has been banned by the FDA. Still, my plant parts have been used for centuries by Indigenous peoples and Europeans alike as part of their culinary, medicinal, and economic histories. Did you know that my dried and ground leaves are the source of a spicy herb used in Louisiana Creole gumbo? Or that my wood was used in early toothbrushes? I could go on…I’ve been around for a long time!
L: This is fascinating! No wonder you were voted “most intriguing” tree of the 2021 Tournament of Trees. It is truly an honor to know you. With your permission, I am going to add you to my Circle of Tree Friends. I feel luck to have moved here into a landscape full of potential new friends.
S: Likewise. I am happy to make your acquaintance. Young plants are vital to our community and legacy. Welcome to the neighborhood and enjoy the sunshine!