Here’s a hot take on cold trees: Winter’s a great time to tour Northeastern’s arboretum

A tour of Northeastern’s arboretum in the wintertime yields a variety of insights about trees and intriguing images such as these shadows on Mugar Life Sciences Building during. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

In Boston’s barren winter months, it certainly seems that the nature around us has little to offer. The summer flowers have long since faded and the vibrant fall leaves seem like a distant memory. All that’s left is gray skies, frigid wind, and brown grass—and that’s only if it’s warm enough to overcome the snow. 

But Chuck Doughty only sees this as an opportunity to see it all in a new light: With fewer leaves and flowers in bloom, it’s easier to see more subtle features, such as the details on the bark and the silhouettes of the trees.

“I think that people kind of associate a tree tour or a landscape tour with the summertime, when things are in bloom and colorful, but I think there’s such a great story to tell 12 months a year,” says Doughty, who is Northeastern’s landscaping program director.

Doughty will be giving a tour of the arboretum on Boston’s campus on March 12 to showcase the easily overlooked details on the trees. Last May, Northeastern was recognized as an arboretum, making it the only university in Boston with an arboretum on its campus.

With so many varied details, Doughty says, you have to see the trees in every season to fully appreciate them.

A leaf from an English oak tree outside the Dana Research Center. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Some of the largest trees on campus are on Centennial Common, including the pin oak trees outside Shillman Hall that stand so high they have to be trimmed not to block the signage at the top of the building. 

Without summer’s leaves, it’s easier to see some of the unique shapes the trees create. Also on Centennial is a camperdown elm tree nicknamed “Cousin It,” because its shape is reminiscent of the character from The Addams Family. Several of its branches were grafted onto the tree when it was younger.

That process gave the tree certain branches that jut out sharply from the trunk and giving it an almost flat top. The branches then hang low, with smaller offshoots, providing a look not unlike the hair of Cousin It.

And, if attendance at a winter walking tour of Northeastern’s arboretum were a concern, consider this: Doughty was standing on Forsyth Street one chilly afternoon before the tour, inspecting a swamp white oak when he was interrupted by a pedestrian who wanted to know if he was giving a tour.

“People tell me I have the best job on campus,” Doughty says.

Clockwise from left, longstalk holly leaves, the bark of a Korean dogwood tree, and buds of a camperdown elm tree informally named 'Cousin It.' Photos by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

In the winter, it’s easier to spot the trees that have exfoliating bark, or bark that naturally peels away from the trunk. This feature gives the bark a two-toned color that is more concealed in warmer seasons. On some trees, like the scots pine, it creates a more orange layer of bark under the crackling brown, while on the river birch it creates paper-thin layers that curl away from the trunk.

The feature is mostly ornamental, although it has come in handy as a level of protection from the bronze birch borer, a bug that, as its name implies, will bore into birch trees through the bark. But the exfoliating bark often creates a thicker layer, keeping the bugs out.

Doughty considers these sorts of things when he’s getting ready to plant a new tree—a formula that’s more complex than you might expect, he says.

Among those considerations:  “How long do the flowers last? Are the leaves colorful? Does it have interesting branching? What does the bark look like?” Doughty says.

There are over 1,400 trees and 143 species across the campus, and Doughty says it creates an atmosphere that requires you to walk around campus to fully experience it.

“I think in our relatively small area of land, that we have a unique situation where we have many ornamental and native trees and a well-maintained landscape and it’s pretty much accessible from pavement,” he says. “We have a unique story to tell.”

The one-hour tour of the arboretum on Thursday, March 12 (rain date March 17) will start at 12 p.m. at the Snell Library Quad.

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