Why does the Arnold Arboretum display so well?

The strolling path through the Arnold Arboretum is another Emerald (and Garnet and Amethyst and ...) Necklace in Boston by Olmsted.

The strolling path through the Arnold Arboretum is another Emerald (and Garnet and Amethyst and …) Necklace in Boston by Olmsted.

How to best display an extensive collection of large plants arose as a challenge in the 1870s when Charles S. Sargent was named director of Harvard University’s new Arnold Arboretum. Sargent’s mandate was to grow “all the trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants, either indigenous or exotic which can be raised in the open air” at a former farm in Jamaica Plain.

In carrying out this mandate, Sargent “had ambitions as much aesthetic as scientific,” Cynthia Zaitzevsky relates in chronicling the development of this part of the Boston park system. “He wanted the Arboretum to be as outstanding in landscape design as it would be inclusive in its collections.”

He also intended that it would indeed be a public park, serving a recreational purpose of open-air strolling and carriage riding, so he called on Frederick Law Olmsted, the leading landscape architect of the day, who would soon establish his office in the neighboring town of Brookline.

During the late 1870s and the 1880s, Olmsted and his firm undertook an extended series of studies leading to the final plan for the roads and woody plant collections.

At Sargent’s insistence, they constrained themselves to developing a logical sequence of tree and shrub collections so that, as Zaitzevsky explained, “a visitor driving through the arboretum will be able to obtain a general idea of the arborescent vegetation of the North Temperate Zone without ever leaving his carriage.”

The woody plant families are arranged chronologically by their evolutionary beginnings, as understood at the time. The earliest genuses—the magnolias, ginkgoes, and dawn redwoods—are found near the entry off the Jamaicaway while the conifers stand at the farthest end of the park. (Contemporary research shows the conifers are misplaced.)

The central drive/walkway (in red) covers a mile's distance in two miles. Lesser paths (in orange) add another two miles.)

The central drive/walkway (in red) covers a mile’s distance in two miles. Lesser paths (in orange) add another two miles.)

Working with Sargent, Olmsted decided that the roads would be laid out to take advantage of the hilly topography and the existing stands of natural woods to create the longest possible road. Where a crow could cross the park by flying just over a mile east to west, the carriageway with its spurs extends more than two miles.

The resulting carriage way winds back and forth, providing long edges for viewing the arboretum’s specimens of more than 7,000 woody species.

The road essentially forms a single path through the park. A terminal loop goes around Peter’s Hill in a later acquired 55-acre tract to the west. A spur forms a full spiral up to the top of Bussey Hill near the center of the arboretum. The hilltop provides 360-degree views of the collection and surrounding areas of greater Boston.

Inside the drive’s switchbacks, Olmsted had the ground reshaped into mounds that make the drive’s bends seem inevitable.  The hillocks block most views of the far sides of the switchbacks that would entice shortcuts. Where views remained, Olmsted designed stream alignments and ponds to prevent shortcutting. He laid out a few deliberate shortcuts to allow fast exits from the park.

Other paths paralleling the drive pass through the tree and shrub collections.

These shorter and longer options allow a visitor to return to the entry by walking anywhere from as little as one mile to as long as nearly four miles!

Following the Arboretum’s meandering paths provides ongoing pleasure. One is always wondering what’s over the next rise or around the next conifer while knowing that a paved carriageway is always somewhere close by.

Sargent and Olmsted’s intention to create an inviting and informative botanical display was so well realized that a modern map of the Arboretum and its roads, paths, and collections is nearly congruent with their plans proposed and built a century and a quarter ago.

2 thoughts on “Why does the Arnold Arboretum display so well?

  1. Hi–Very nice piece. I wanted to correct one fact–while the conifers were placed at the end of the collections based on the 19th century understanding of woody plant evolution, it has since been determined that conifers (gymnosperms) evolved before all of the angiosperms. So the Arboretum’s layout reflects a historical understanding of plant evolution, but not an accurate modern model.

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