Q&A: Dr. Ned Friedman, Arnold Arboretum Director, Talks Trees, Flowers and Surprises

The Arnold Arboretum is a working collection in which students learn every day, so don't steal from their classroom.


Dr. Ned Friedman, who became the director of the in January of 2011, is also a professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard University. 

Friedman sat down with West Roxbury Patch inside the new and beautifully stunning Weld Hill Research and Administration Building.

After growing up in New York, Friedman spent most of his time outside of the northeast, going to college in Ohio, with his last stop before the Arnold Arboretum being at the University of Colorado. Read more about Friedman's work at the University of Colorado.

How did you end up working at the Arnold Arboretum?

Friedman: I wasn’t looking for anything. If you’ve been to Boulder, Colorado, it is beautiful, and (someone) sort of brought (the job) to my attention and asked if I’d be interested... What brought me was the most extraordinary plant life and I’m a botanist.

We need to share what we know of biodiversity with the public and be helping to push the dialogue forward with environmental issues and global warming. You name it, and this place presents me with all those opportunities.

I'm a professor with one hat, working really hard making a difference with the child’s education work we do in the Boston Public Schools.  

The answer is: I thought it'd be a wonderful thing to do.

Tell me about the research being done in the new Weld Hill facility?

Friedman: Many types, I’m an evolutionary biologist studying early evolution of flowering plants. (Flowering plants started) 130 million years ago. I'm trying to find out what the first flowering plant looked like and how they produced. I study evolution. There are people here who are ecologists, conservation biologists, studying DNA types using the sequence of DNA for plants to see what’s related to other plants. We actually go across the spectrum. Our goal is to build this facility out with more faculty.

Everything from genomes to the environment.

Nothing dangerous is in here?

Friedman: I hope not (laughs). Probably the fish (in the internal plastic research pools). Maybe the leeches (JOKING). And we promise not to let them out.

We’re studying plants. Using microscopes of plants growing from the field.

Regulations have tightened up in terms of state and federal and university regulations. Anything that happens in any Harvard laboratory is inspected.

(Harvard even gives us) ergonomic chairs. It’s a really great place because they’re serious about making sure everyone is in a safe environment.

As a visitor, what are the important things to know about the Arnold Arboretum?

Friedman: The thing to know about the Arnold Arboretum is we are constantly trying to figure out how we can draw you into the extraordinary diversity we have. Some people take the same path every day, the same loop with the dog. We want to surprise you with some of the amazing stories behind our plants. These plants can actually communicate to us through technology in a certain way. Knowing what the plant is doing will help you watch. Bud break – when does that happen? We're looking at citizen science. People paint, write, and play music (in the Arnold Arboretum). You can come to the Arnold Arboretum with your eyes closed and smell the Arboretum. There are a million things to do here. I’m determined to surprise people and shake them out of their ruts. Even though you love the Arnold Arboretum I want you off that trail and to be surprised about something you never knew was happening.

What is your favorite plant in the arboretum? Why?

Friedman: I will tell you my favorite plant is the gingko tree or the dawn redwood.  I did my dissertation on the gingko. They have a really old lineage, with one species left. That’s it. It is unrelated to any other living plants.  

I see visitors taking things from the Arnold Arboretum all the time, can I stop them?

Friedman: Yeah, they’re not supposed to. You can. It’s nice when you tell people nicely to not do that. This is a working collection. We actually do research on these plants not just to be some part of university. You may be picking something off a plant that a grad student is working and studying. There are lots of international conventions about how biodiversity moves around the world. We make sure we don’t disperse plant material without courtesy to the host country.

We will give permits (to collect specimens). We try to discourage people. We really shouldn’t be doing that. Someone actually stole a conifer before Christmas time. One of the young trees. It’s always shocking to see what people take. If you are going to collect you need to get permission from the curator of living collections.

Have you thought about having a census taken of all the animals and nonplant life that habitate the Arnold Arboretum?

Friedman: We do bio-blitzes. We may be doing an insect bioblitz where groups of students and volunteers inventory everything. Every worm, every insect, every warm fuzzy mammal.

This is actually a working collection. We’re teaching classes on this, and if I go and it’s gone there are 20 students who don’t get to see something. It’s like a national park.

What would you like to ask the Dr. Ned Friedman, director of the Arnold Arboretum, if given the chance? Leave your comments and questions below this article.

Read more about the Arnold Arboretum, the Weld Hill Facility, lectures, classes flora and fauna, and more, here at the Arboretum's website.

Karla Fleming February 21, 2012 at 12:02 PM
Please ask Dr. Friedman if there will be scheduled any tours of the new Arboretum building so that neighbors and local residents can see the inside. I admired what I could see of the building as it was going up; now I would appreciate an inside view of the finished product. Thank you. Karla Fleming
Gary Chase February 27, 2012 at 03:22 PM
Yes that is just what I was going to say. That is a beautiful building and I'd love to see the inside.


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