William “Ned” Friedman is the Director of the Arnold Arboretum and a Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.
William “Ned” Friedman is the Director of the Arnold Arboretum and a Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. By Jade Lozada

Fifteen Questions: Ned Friedman on the Arnold Arboretum, ‘Botanizing,’ and His Favorite Tree

The Organismic and Evolutionary Biology professor and Arboretum director took FM on a tour of the Arboretum, discussing botany, evolution, and his love of trees along the way. “Everything that is our reality has been shaped by plants,” he says.
By Jade Lozada

William “Ned” Friedman is the Director of the Arnold Arboretum and a Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: Can you tell me more about your work here at the Arboretum?

NF: It’s a pretty unusual job. It’s Harvard’s largest campus — bigger than all of Cambridge put together.

It’s also a park in the city of Boston. So I’m a professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology attempting to run a city park, and a museum of trees, and a research institution — this building’s filled with researchers — studying climate change, global change, evolution, all kinds of things. So it’s one of the most interesting jobs you could imagine having.

It’s the first public Arboretum in the new world.

All of it’s intentional, it’s all design. There’s nothing natural here. It’s all human constructs. And it’s magnificent. It works because [Frederick Law] Olmsted had the ability to design something that affects humans, and he wanted it to be like other institutions: open, public and free. So it’s about democracy. And it’s about equity.

FM: I’m wondering how you got into botany and evolutionary science. Is there some story about how this sparked an interest for you?

NF: It’s a college story, really, which is the wonderful thing about going to college. I knew I liked biology in high school, but typically high school biology class is 99.9 percent animal stuff. And then there’s this one little piece on photosynthesis.

So I didn’t know I liked botany.

I went to Oberlin College in Ohio, and the introductory biology course was kind of half animal, half plant.

We had Saturday morning labs. 8:00. And you got a fetal pig, stewed in formaldehyde, which is not very good for you, and you’re dissecting it, and all this stuff every Saturday.

It just didn’t resonate, and then we got to the second part of the class where we did plants, and all of a sudden, everything clicked. It was a feeling that I could connect with these plants. I could look at them and their structure and think about their evolution. And it was just at that point — it wasn’t like I decided anything — it just happened, which is what I always tell students that you don’t choose a career. You find a career, and the career is something that you just have to do. So that was my first year of college, and I just never stopped.

FM: When you say you like to go out into the desert with your family and ‘botanize,’ what does that mean? What is it to botanize?

NF: It means you’re just really into plants, right? And you’re just gonna go out and have a totally great time looking at plants. So botanizing — that’s a great question. Actually, I use the term all the time, but I don’t know that anyone’s ever asked me to define it. But it’s just… we’re gonna go out and botanize, and you just geek out on plants.

It’s celebrating the beauty and the extraordinary thing that plants are.

FM: What is it about plants specifically? When you look at a plant, whether on your walk or under the microscope, what do you find so beautiful about it?

NF: So I’m an evolutionary biologist. I’ve studied the history of plants — you know, how did we get to the world that we inhabit? And it’s a three-and-a-half-plus billion-year history. Everything that is our reality has been shaped by plants, which is pretty amazing, right? You and I are breathing air in and out, and we need oxygen. And yet the planet was born with no oxygen. All of our oxygen has been created by plants or photosynthetic organisms. As you get deeper and deeper into it, you just sort of realize that you’re a little bit player over here. Plants had been sort of shaping the earth, drawing down CO2, evolving in all kinds of habitats, and everything that’s us has been made by plants. Basically our bodies are recycled plant material and all that carbon.

But then there’s another aspect, which is just the beauty of plants.

The more you know, the more you realize how amazed one can be at how extraordinarily beautiful the planet can be. And for me, it’s plants. I’m sure for an astronomer, it’s out there in space. For someone who’s a poet, it’s the construction of a few words into something that creates meaning. I think for everyone, we all attempt to find something we connect deeply with. For me, it’s just these wonderful organisms that I love. They can’t love me back. They’re not sentient, but they bring incredible joy to my life.

FM: I also read, as I was researching up on you, about your lectures on Darwin. Did he not come up with the idea of evolution? I’d never heard this before.

NF: Yeah, so he didn’t come up with the idea of evolution. He convinced the world of it and he came up with the mechanism of natural selection as a way in which evolution works. But I’m really interested in people — and I actually taught a course on — people before Darwin who wrote about evolution. There are about 70 people who actually believed that the world was created through an evolutionary process. They didn’t necessarily know what the process was, but they didn’t think it was a bunch of magical miracles where poof, there’s a new plant species here, and poof, there’s another animal species there. They thought there was something that was outside of the miraculous. It was, ‘most things we think about, there's a way you can explain it.’

I’ve been really interested in who came before him, so I do some scholarship on that. It’s a side gig. But it goes all the way back into the 1700s. And actually, Charles Darwin’s grandfather was the first English evolutionist. And so you know, he was not just born into any family — he had a grandfather who wrote about evolution. It kind of predisposes you to think about this stuff. But he did some amazing things.

Actually, after Darwin writes “On the Origin of Species,” he spends the next 25 plus years till he dies mostly writing about plants. So the book after “On the Origin of Species” is about pollination in orchids, a whole book on orchids — brilliant book. Then he writes another book about climbing plants. He writes a book about movements in plants. I don’t think most people think of Darwin as a botanist or plant person, but he was really, really interested in the plant world.

"I’m gonna take you back a different way through the conifers, so we don’t repeat anything," Friedman says.
"I’m gonna take you back a different way through the conifers, so we don’t repeat anything," Friedman says. By Jade Lozada

Friedman then takes FM on a golf cart tour of the Arboretum.

NF: Look at these. This is a hemlock tree.

That’s about a 120-year-old organism. It’s just beautiful, isn’t it? Yeah. So every one of these trees has a tag on it. We know where it came from, where it was collected. We know its history — same as you and me, right? Members of the same species, but we have our own identities. Every tree here has its own identity.

Just to give you some idea, I’m just going to do a 360 here — look at this view. Wow. That’s meant to be open. It’s meant to be that you look into the conifers, you see the blues and the greens and the different forms. Amazing place. That’s designed. 120-30 years ago, there was nothing there except pasture. So when Olmstead designed it, he didn’t live long enough to see those trees get much taller than you and me.

FM: Wow. That’s a lot of confidence in your vision. You have to have faith. Long game.

NF: You have to have faith, and you’re so right about long game. Those trees weren’t planted for anybody who was alive then. So it’s also about generosity and paying it forward. So, they were planted for you. Isn’t that an amazing thing? Someone had to think that in 150 years, someone will be here — they don’t know you, of course — and they will take some pleasure in it.

FM: I’m also hoping you can show me your favorite tree.

NF: I could probably show you a few favorites. That’s a dawn redwood from China. And it was thought to be extinct. It was only known from the fossil record. And then in the middle of World War Two, some Chinese botanist figured out that this was a species that hadn’t been described scientifically. And because we’d already been interacting with China for a long time, the first seeds to leave China came here — that’s from 1948.

But one of my favorite trees came from France.

It’s kind of a magical tree, and it’s a mutant tree, too. A lot of horticulture is about finding weirdos — in a wonderful way. Mutations happen all the time.

It’s a beautiful tree. I mean, look at this little curtain, look at the form of it. Isn’t that something? The way it just kind of goes around and spirals. That’s an amazing tree.

"It’s kind of a magical tree, and it’s a mutant tree, too," Friedman says.
"It’s kind of a magical tree, and it’s a mutant tree, too," Friedman says. By Jade Lozada

FM: I’m also wondering, have you ever carved your initials into a tree?

NF: I have not, and these beech trees are what people typically carve their initials in. But fortunately, people don’t do it anymore, because it’s not good for the tree. They carve them in the beeches because they don’t shed their bark, so they stay forever.

FM: Do you have a favorite season for the Arboretum?

NF: I like them all. Every day is different. Like right now, there’s not very much in flower, although I’m going to show you some things that are in flower. So in the winter, I’m thinking about architecture. And I’m thinking about bark. And I’ll show you. Every day of the year there’s something in flower here. Believe it or not, things flower in the winter. Some species — not many, but a few — do. So here’s one of my favorites.

What do you think of that?

FM: I’ve never seen a pattern like this. It looks like the one on furniture.

NF: Isn’t that unbelievable?

It’s from Korea, it’s in the tea family, it has beautiful flowers in the summer. This is a stewartia, but when it’s shining in the sun you almost get to see your reflection — you can’t — but it looks like this beautiful chrome. And you have these beautiful beige colors, sometimes a little bit of green.

FM: This is inspiring me to come back every season.

NF: It’s really something else.

I’m gonna take you back a different way through the conifers, so we don’t repeat anything. Right over there, is an archaeological site with Native Americans. We know that there were two campsites where there was a hearth, fires burned, probably about 1,200 years ago. And so there’s a lot of archaeology and history of human transit of the land going back 7,000 years. So humans have been on this land for at least 7,000 years.

FM: Are the scientists here concerned at all about extreme heat in the summer?

NF: Yeah. It’s now a real problem. With climate change, summers have more extreme droughts. And also — this is really bad — the winters have less snow cover. So these trees have evolved to deal with these climates, but they evolved with snow in the winter. Their roots are insulated — snow is a blanket, you know. It’s going to protect you from really extreme cold.

But if you get down to zero degrees, and you have no snow, that’s really hard on the tree root systems. And in the summer, we have these really, really dry spells. So we’ve installed irrigation now. We didn’t have it before. Because these are really important trees for science and their conservation, we have to keep them alive.

You grew up in New York City?

FM: Yeah. I didn’t get to go on so many hikes and things like that, since it took a while to leave the city, but I live right by Central Park.

NF: I love Central Park.

Central Park at one time had gotten pretty rundown, and then people got together. Activists and philanthropists said, ‘We got to do a better job.’ That’s one of the things I think is really important now, is to see parks as something other than embedded. They’re actually part of democracy, because everyone can go. They’re part of your being healthy, they’re part of friendships, part of connecting with nature. If you think of them that way, then you really ought to invest in them. That’s one of the things I think that’s really important for cities to think hard about, is investing in this kind of infrastructure which is just good for people.

"Because these are really important trees for science and their conservation, we have to keep them alive," Friedman says.
"Because these are really important trees for science and their conservation, we have to keep them alive," Friedman says. By Jade Lozada

— Magazine Editor-at-Large Jade Lozada can be reached at jade.lozada@thecrimson.com.