True to its origins, the Public Garden is a botanical showcase both for those who admire its beauty and for those who value it for information.
The seasonal floral displays in today’s Garden are the legacy of its second (and final) superintendent, William Doogue, who guided the Garden from 1878 until his death in 1906. Doogue practiced a “gardenesque” style of landscaping with extravagant and ornamental plantings. He introduced the bedding-out system to Boston, with flowers and foliage massed together in elaborate patterns. Then, as now, there were critics who preferred a simper, more naturalistic form of planting, but bedding out found a permanent setting in the Garden, with new combinations each year.
Tropical displays were part of the Victorian fascination with large and showy plants. Admired for their exotic effect, tropical displays of palms, crotons, and other specimen plants were also recognized as serving an educational purpose to increase knowledge and appreciation of plants from around the world. The tradition continues to this day, although much less elaborate than the displays of the nineteenth century.
Of all the flowers in today’s Public Garden, it is the tulips that have the oldest and closest tie with its history, going back to its earliest years and continuing, with variations, until the present day. The prize tulips that bloomed around 1840 were said to be the first such display in America. The bulbs were imported from England at a cost of $1,500, a huge sum in those days. Now an iconic image of the Garden, the blooming of 26,000 tulips in the spring is one of the most photographed views in Boston.
Roses, another feature of the earliest Garden, have been reestablished in four beds, surrounded with a protective post-and-chain fence. Topiary yews in each bed add a fanciful touch. Tended lovingly by the volunteers who make up the Rose Brigade, these flower beds are among the most admired in the Garden.
First introduced by Doogue, perimeter planting has become even more necessary as the surrounding city has grown. The need is both practical and aesthetic. Forming a shield between the Garden and the street, perimeter plantings reinforce the fence as a barrier and enhance the sense of tranquility within.
The most striking visual change in the Garden through the years has been the growth of its trees. Those planted in the nineteenth century have matured to their full beauty along with newer specimens that have been planted for future generations. The Garden contains more than six hundred trees representing more than a hundred varieties, both native and imported. Many trees are labeled with their Latin and common names, in keeping with the educational role of a botanical garden.The most striking visual change in the Garden through the years has been the growth of its trees.
Sixty years ago a third of the trees in the Garden were elms. The magnificent specimens gave the Garden a character that can never be duplicated, for many elms have been destroyed by Dutch elm disease. Only a few American elms, the most graceful of all, still remain. Six other elm species survive in the Garden, including the majestic line of Belgian elms along the Boylston Street path. There would be no elms at all without the inoculation program carried out yearly by the Friends.
The willows on the edges of the Lagoon are a familiar sight, with their graceful branches draping over the water. The largest and most ornamental shade trees in New England are the beeches. The European beech was one of the first ornamentals to be brought to this country, and the Garden’s weeping beeches are among its oldest trees. The seven species of oaks have taken over the high canopy in the Garden. Many of the mature maples were introduced in the early twentieth century, along with numerous lindens and horse chestnuts.
Among the specimen trees in the Garden are three whose ancestors can be traced to prehistoric times, yet which thrive in the modern city. The maidenhair tree, also known by its Latin name ginkgo, is believed to have grown on Earth for 150 million years. Preserved in Oriental temple gardens, it was first planted in this country in 1794. The Sierra redwood once grew worldwide, but the only remaining native groves are in the Sierra Nevadas. Until the 1940s, the Dawn redwood was known only from paleobotanical records. Rediscovered in China, its seeds were collected for the Arnold Arboretum, which distributed them worldwide. One of the trees grown from these seeds was given to the Garden in 1963, and it is already one of the tallest trees.
Flowering ornamentals contribute greatly to the Garden’s spring beauty. Magnolias, dogwoods, and crab apples were planted many times during the twentieth century. Cherries, white redbuds, and plums add to the profusion of spring blossoms.