The secret life of trees

Chuck Doughty, who oversees landscaping for Northeastern’s Boston campus, is working to have the campus recognized as an arboretum. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Tucked behind a guard shack on the Fenway side of Northeastern’s Boston campus, along a wall protecting the MBTA tracks, stand two small trees. Their bare trunks and branches are smooth where the bark has peeled away, revealing patterns of reddish-brown wood.

The trees, known as crape myrtles, typically thrive in the American South. But Chuck Doughty, who oversees landscaping for the university, has found a place where two of them can flourish on campus.

“People say they aren’t hardy,” said Doughty, who is the director of landscaping, grounds maintenance, and waste management. “But planted against that wall, where they’re in a microclimate protected from the wind, and where their roots can go down and there’s some insulation value, those two have been successful.”

The adaptation of the myrtles is indicative of the way Doughty has helped transform the Boston campus into an urban oasis. More than 1,400 individual trees, representing 147 different species, shelter the walkways between buildings and surround the open green spaces.

“We have something of real value, real significance, and we should be very proud of it,” Doughty said. “We should show it off.”

Doughty is working to have the campus recognized as an arboretum. To be accredited, an arboretum needs a strategic plan, a governing board, public programming, and an inventory of every tree and woody plant on the grounds. Doughty is in the process of adding the location and details of every tree to an online map for visitors and building the management structure.


“We have something of real value, real significance and we should be very proud of it,” Doughty said. “We should show it off.” Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“I’ve been wanting to do this for for a number of years because we have a great story to tell here,” Doughty said.

The land on which much of the campus is built was surrounded by waterways that were filled in during the 19th century. It was a challenge, Doughty said, to find trees that could survive in this man-made environment. Digging a hole into the densely packed fill creates a cup that can trap water around the roots of a tree. To thrive, trees needed to be able to tolerate moisture and occasional flooding, but also handle bouts of dryness. The black tupelo, a local species known for its vibrant fall foliage, turned out to be the right fit, and now more than a dozen line Huntington Avenue and Forsyth Street.

“Through trial and error, we’ve found species that work,” Doughty said. “That might be interesting to others. We can share that knowledge with people through this arboretum group.”

The leaves of a bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) can be over two feet in length. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University


When Doughty chooses new plants, though, it’s not just a matter of determining which ones will survive. He considers the local wildlife (he’s found several woodcocks resting on campus during their migration between Canada and the southern United States), the surrounding architecture, and the changing seasons. He wants to create interesting spaces, with multiple layers of greenery and surprising views at any time of year.

“You could take a winter walk and have as much interest and fun as you would on a summer walk,” Doughty said. “Whether you’re looking at buds or bark or horizontal branching or fruit or some other thing. Even when the sun shines and the silhouettes are cast on the ground or against the buildings. That’s beautiful stuff.”

Left: The torn leaf of a hardy rubber tree. Top Right: A single flower blooms on a Franklin tree. Bottom Right: Changing leaves on a fern-leaf beech. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

On occasion, Doughty leads walks through campus, which will be formalized when the campus receives accreditation as an arboretum. Some people attend because they are interested in expanding their own gardens, while others simply want to know more about the vegetation that adorns the university.

Doughty has also led class tours for students in the biology department. But the most important aspect of his landscaping work, he said, is to create a space that the community wants to use.

“There’s nothing better in my world than seeing a student with a book leaning against a tree, sitting on the grass,” Doughty said. “Just out there taking advantage of this great park that we’ve built.”

For media inquiries, please contact