New Arboretum head explores mysteries of plants

October 21, 2011
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(Gazette Photo by John Ruch) Arboretum Director Ned Friedman (left) and grad student Becky Povilus examine a microscope’s image of plants in a lab at the new Weld Hill Research Building.

Historic cartoons mocking Charles Darwin decorate the office walls of Dr. William “Ned” Friedman, the new director of Arnold Arboretum.

“Evolution and revolution go together as evil,” reads the caption on one.

Times have certainly changed. Friedman now oversees a facility best known as a public park, but which is also Harvard University’s world-class facility for studying the evolution of plants.

Friedman is an expert in the evolutionary history of flowering plants, which, he noted with a laugh, “Darwin once referred to as an ‘abominable mystery.’” It is less of mystery today, in part due to Arboretum research.

That research used to happen in Cambridge, with plant samples shipped up to Harvard from the Arboretum grounds. But now it happens in the Weld Hill Research Building, a state-of-the-art, 44,000-square-foot lab building that opened this year at 1300 Centre St. on the Roslindale side of the Arboretum.

Friedman and Faye Rosin, the Arboretum’s director of research facilities, recently gave the Gazette a tour of the facility. Grad students and faculty bent over microscopes and adjusted experimental set-ups.

“This is really about making the Arboretum whole,” Friedman said of new research labs, which include greenhouses with precise climate control mimicking everything from deserts to temperate winters. “I’ve got the best job in the world, living in the middle of plants.”

One plant in particular seemed to nab Friedman’s attention. A book titled “Hops” lay on a table in his office, and he pointed out hops vines climbing up a trellis behind the building.

“I do brew beer at home,” Friedman confessed. He later had a hops leaf fetched from outside and showed it to the Gazette under the lab’s high-power microscope. As a taste of the wonders researchers see every day, the microscope revealed tiny hairs on the leaf that provide protective chemical warfare and enable the plant to climb up walls.

Home for Friedman is Jamaica Plain’s Moss Hill, and he has fallen for the “vibrant” neighborhood. Parkside’s Canto 6 Bakery is among his local favorites, with its goodies often turning up in the Arboretum offices.

Living locally also educated Friedman about the Lewis farmhouse at 1090 Centre St., a historic building that Harvard once sought to demolish but was forced by the city to mothball.

“We hope to have the building restored to its original condition,” said Friedman. “I’m an optimist and I think we’re going to pull it off.”

He said he would like to see the farmhouse serve as housing for visiting scholars and an orientation center for new students, as well as offering community meeting space.

Friedman is enthusiastic about the Arboretum’s role as a prominent public park. He recently stepped up the campaign against the plague of off-leash dogs brought by careless visitors, but that’s the extent of his concerns.

“Having the public here is 100 percent positive,” he said. “We’re always glad to have people crawling over our landscape.”

The Arboretum is seeking to pull the public indoors as well with a new series of popular science lectures at the new building. Upcoming topics include why leaves change color in the autumn, and the botanical background of plants that show up in Thanksgiving dinner.

The lectures do not shy away from controversy—including some of the resentment that Darwin still creates. One lecture earlier this year featured the judge who ruled in a landmark 2005 case that “intelligent design” is a religious idea that cannot be taught as science in public schools.

“We’re the university here [in JP],” Friedman said. “We want to, not provoke people, but stimulate people” to think about such issues as “the line between science and religion in a classroom.”

Meanwhile, research continues behind the scenes in the building’s labs. Among the researchers is Juan Losada, a graduate student from Spain, whose work includes the mysteries of the magnolia flower.

The flowers change sexes during the season, starting as female and receiving pollen, then switching to male and distributing pollen. They bloom at night, and do so fast enough for the human eye to see them moving.

With the labs now situated directly in the Arboretum, Losada can get the blooms fresh from a tree and have them under a microscope or DNA sequencer in minutes. But, Friedman acknowledges, there may never be a practical application for such research. So why do it?

“It’s for the same reason we want to know about the stars or the Big Bang,” Friedman said. “It’s a fundamental quest to understand the natural world.”

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