Arnold Arboretum–Nature’s Laboratory

Amid the bustle of urban life, stand still for a moment. Listen carefully to the cacophony of cars speeding down the busy Arborway, the cringe-inducing screech of the T barreling down the tracks, the chatter of pedestrians walking along sidewalks; most days its white noise tuned out by the inner monologue of our consciousness. Today is not most days.

It’s late March and winter is ending. Familiar sounds of spring interrupt the racket of urban life—birds chirp melodically as tree branches sway in the wind. The sign on the green rod-iron gate that separates the city from the park says 1872. It’s not an address, but the year this jewel in the Emerald Necklace was established. Arnold Arboretum is the first public arboretum in North America. Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the man who also designed Central Park in New York City, the Arboretum’s 265 acres include meadows, forest, and ponds that serve as a public park and outdoor laboratory.

Arnold Arboretum. Photocredit: Ciera Hozenthal (flickrCC)

Arnold Arboretum. Photocredit: Ciera Hozenthal (flickrCC)

Along its winding paths, couples walk hand-in-hand, mothers push their children in strollers, and pet owners play fetch with their dogs. Further into the park, atop a grassy hill surrounded by forest, a group of 10 people stand around a tree. They are a tree mob—tree enthusiasts who gather every month to learn about one of over 15,000 species in the arboretum. This month’s tree is Chimonanthus praecox, called Wintersweet.

At first glance, Wintersweet is nothing special—it’s more of a ten-foot tall scraggly bush than a tree. But a closer look reveals its unique qualities. Tiny yellow flowers, no larger than a thumbnail, dot the branches. The waxy buds first appeared in January, though they can bloom as early as December and last through the spring.

The mob listens intently to curator Michael Dosmann. A slight man with salt and pepper hair wearing a grey suit and brown leather dress shoes, he explains the tree is endemic to China and was domesticated during the Song Dynasty. Known as one of the Three Friends of Winter, the ornamental tree’s hardiness inspired poems in the 11th century. Even today, the flowers are used as a folk medicine in China for treating measles, coughs and a variety of other maladies. Its essential oils are harvested for use in cosmetics, perfumes, and aromatherapy. The tree eventually made its way to Japan in the 17th century, then to England in 1766 and finally to the United States in 1811 although some horticulturists believe it was brought over by colonists before the Revolutionary War. Arnold Arboretum received the tree as a seed in 1996 as part of a collection of Asian ornamental plants. In 2005, the conversion of its native habitat to farmland put it on the vulnerable species list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Wintersweet. Photocredit: Keyecsc (flickrCC)

Wintersweet. Photocredit: Keyecsc (flickrCC)

As Dosmann continues discussing Wintersweet, the tree mob wanders around the area examining other unfamiliar trees. An elderly woman wearing a purple knit cap and a pair of binoculars around her neck approaches an adjacent tree with striated bark. The small sign near the base of the tree indicates it too is from China. Each tree in the arboretum has its own unique story mostly unheard by park-goers.  “Zoos hold animals, conserve them, and educate people,” explains Dosmann. “We need arboreta to do the same,” he said.

Arnold Arboretum is a sort of tree zoo—hosting numerous endangered plant species crucial to various ecosystems. Approximately one in every five plant species is currently endangered, and arboreta are reservoirs for biodiversity. Similar to traditional zoos, they are also places for people to learn and interact with nature. But unlike traditional zoos, it’s difficult for people to connect with the inhabitants. “Plants tend to feel more anonymous to us, less individual, than some animals that can express personalities and in some ways reciprocate relationships,” said Lissy Goralnik, a professor of environmental philosophy at Michigan State University.

But that doesn’t mean people aren’t capable of empathy for plants. Goralnik explained people need to pay a different kind of attention to plants, as they communicate their needs in different ways. Spending time in places like Arnold Arboretum helps people establish relationships with plant life and understand the different environmental interests and interconnections that exist between humans and nature.

Dosmann said the most effective educational tool is direct in person communication with visitors. The arboretum offers tours and classes as well as a plethora of online information and resources. Still, online information is no substitute for real world experience and the connections it forms.

As the presentation concludes and the tree mob disperses, a gentle breeze carries the pungent scent of spiced citrus through the air—the hallmark of Wintersweet.  The sun sets behind the trees, washing the landscape in gold. It’s the end of a day that no one in the tree mob will soon forget.

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