Arnold Arboretum celebrates 150 years with events and programming

The Arnold Arboretum is celebrating 150 years this year, and is offering a number of events and programs to mark the occasion, as well as some capital projects and ways for the community to get involved.

The Gazette spoke with Jon Hetman, Associate Director of External Relations and Communications for the Arnold Arboretum, to learn more about the park’s history and what is on the horizon for the sesquicentennial celebration.

The Arnold Arboretum was founded in 1872 when a portion of the estate of New Bedford whaling merchant James Arnold was transferred to Harvard College.

Hetman said that “10 years after that, that’s when the Arboretum became a part of the City of Boston. Harvard essentially gave the land to the city in exchange for security and infrastructure and all the great things that we would have.” For the past 140 years, Harvard and the City of Boston have had a lease agreement for the park land.

“According to the terms of the thousand-year lease, the Harvard-owned land on which the Arnold Arboretum was established became part of the city park system, but control of the collections continued to reside with the Arboretum staff,” the Arboretum website states.

“The city was to maintain the perimeter walls, gates, and roadway system and provide police surveillance, while the Arboretum agreed to keep the grounds open to the general public, free of charge, from sunrise to sunset every day of the year.”

As part of the sesquicentennial celebration, Hetman said that the Arboretum is “really focused on two major themes:” focusing on the park’s dedication to equity and inclusion within the city as well as focusing on issues like extinction and climate change. 

He said one of the ways the Arboretum is looking at this is through a mobile visitor center, which is a “way for us to connect with our visitors much more actively.”

Additionally, the Arboretum is focused on a capital project to renovate and re-landscape all Arboretum entrances to make them more inviting to visitors. Hetman said that this will take place over the next few years, and will include new landscaping and signage at the gates.

The project will begin with the Arborway gate, and there are between 18 and 20 gates in total, “added at various points” over the years. He said the most recent gate—the one at Washington St. from Forest Hills station— was added around the 1990s. 

Right now, there “really doesn’t seem to be any cohesion between those gates or how they look,” Hetman said. “So that’s a big part of this project.”

Also as part of the 150th anniversary celebration, the Arnold Arboretum is collecting stories from visitors about their experience and “things they love about the Arboretum.” Stories can be submitted on the 150th anniversary website at

“The Arboretum is a very special place to many, many people,” Hetman said. “We’re trying to capture some of those stories. They’re really inspiring.”

A number of events are also planned for the Arboretum in the upcoming weeks and months. The MassQ Ball, a cultural event celebrating diversity and artistry, was recently held in the Arboretum.

Hetman also said that several special art exhibitions are also being held in the Hunnewell Visitor Center throughout the year. 

On September 17, Abilities Dance Boston will be performing at the Arboretum, and more information will be made available on the Arboretum website as the event gets closer. 

“We also have a couple more big Director’s Lectures coming up,” Hetman said, which are usually held in the winter, but have been spread throughout the year this year as part of the sesquicentennial. 

According to the Arboretum’s website: “To celebrate the Arboretum’s sesquicentennial, this year’s series will explore the Magic and Meaning of a Garden of Trees. Over the course of four sessions, we will trace the Arnold’s significance in the landscape architecture movement, value for the people of Boston, and leadership in creating global connections between plants and people.”

On September 13, Arnold Arboretum Director William (Ned) Friedman will lead a session in the series titled “Journeys: The Arnold Arboretum Meets the World’s Plants and Peoples.” The event is free and will be held both in-person and online. This session will include presentations and a moderated panel. 

On October 25, Friedman will lead the final lecture in the series, called “Obsessions: Fellow Organisms in the Arnold Arboretum.” 

–On October 15, the Arnold Arboretum will host a Crabapple and Maple festival to celebrate those trees in the Arboretum. A guided tour will be offered, as well as activities for children. 

Additionally, the Arnold Arboretum will be part of the park-wide picnic event on September 24 in celebration of  Emerald Necklace designer Frederick Law Olmsted’s 200th birthday celebration. 

Hetman said that the Arboretum also continues to offer guided tours and “a lot of opportunities for visitors to learn about our bonsai collection,” as the Arboretum offers bonsai trees nearing 300 years old and are one of the Arboretum’s big draws.

“We’re really excited for people to visit us on our anniversary year,” Hetman said. “We’ve been working really hard to shore up our collections, and there’s been a lot of work on specific collections and to sort of improve the landscape…There’s a lot to see here and people should come and explore and enjoy it.”

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