Arbor Day tour reveals an arboretum on Northeastern’s Boston campus

A pawpaw tree is planted at Northeastern on Arbor Day.
Students joined with Northeastern landscaping staff to plant a pawpaw tree Friday on Centennial Common in celebration of Arbor Day. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Chuck Doughty pointed to the tall Callery pear tree leaning toward him from the northern edge of the Snell Library quad. He remembered the day it arrived in a truck from New Jersey.

“When it was unwrapped, they found a baby owl in the tree,” said Doughty, who oversees landscaping for Northeastern. “They captured the owl and reached out to a raptor rehabilitation facility, who eventually brought it back to New Jersey and released it into the wild.”

Doughty told the story Friday as he led a small tour in honor of Arbor Day, an international celebration of trees. The Boston campus is a level-two accredited arboretum according to ArbNet, an international community of tree-focused professionals, making Northeastern the only university in Boston with an arboretum on its campus—which features more 1,440 individual trees and close to 150 species.

Doughty, who has been working at Northeastern since 1983, identified each tree as though he were introducing a large group of neighborhood friends. He was acquainted with all of their families.

“It just makes you feel good, and some of it is a subconscious feeling,” Doughty said of the natural surroundings that he and his staff have cultivated. “We have canopies of trees that were planted within the past 30 years that have developed, so that when the sun is out you walk from one great shadow to another. It makes you feel at ease because you have all this beauty and green around you.”

Doughty’s vocation goes back for almost as long as he can remember. From age 6, he would dig plants out of the woods near his home in Abington, Massachusetts, 20 miles south of Northeastern, and then gently wrap the roots in rags supplied by his mother.

“I’d put them in my wagon and go around the neighborhood, giving out trees to people,” he said in an interview separate from the tour. “When I was growing up, I always knew what I wanted to do. There was no question that I wanted to work with plants.”

Doughty has helped transform the old parking lots of Northeastern into rich gardens that complement and reflect the community of students, faculty, and staff who arrive from every corner of the world.

“On our campus we have a very diverse population,” Doughty said. “So we think it’s important to have our collection represent our university with plants from China and Japan and Europe, and other parts of Asia and Russia. We just have a very wide plant material selection.”

Doughty encouraged the tourists to use the arboretum’s interactive map, which identifies trees and other plantings on campus. Along the way, he told stories of the hosta plants that rabbits will be devouring later in the year, the southern magnolias that must be pruned to withstand the heavy winter snows of New England, and the pin oak trees that have grown as tall as neighboring Churchill Hall since he planted them years ago.

On the walkway, collected by a shallow puddle, was a scattering of flowering crabapple and rhododendron petals. They looked altogether like a blended artwork of mint and lilac, and they might have gone unnoticed if not for Doughty stopping to appreciate their glamour.

The group along past the two-toned leaves of the Solomon’s seal, the cinnamon bark of the heritage river birches, the burning bush that will burst with crimson in the fall, and the katsuras, whose apple-green leaves smell like butterscotch when crushed. The final stop was at Centennial Common, where a hole had been dug for the ceremonial planting of a pawpaw tree.

Apart from occupying a memorable role in a song from The Jungle Book, the pawpaw yields a delicious fruit that tastes like a combination of pineapple, banana, and mango. Three Northeastern landscapers knelt to remove the yellow burlap wrapping that had protected its roots. An upturned shovel was used to scrape away excess soil to expose the roots to the air. The young tree was placed in its little plot and then, one by one, each tourist grabbed a shovel and filled in the pawpaw’s surroundings to make it feel at home.

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