Arboretum enthusiasts fear for park’s health

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / July 7, 2010

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Along one wooded trail, a Serbian spruce stands beside a Nikko fir from the mountains of Japan. On a graceful hillside, birches native to the northern Rocky Mountains share a field with paperbark maples from central China. Birds dart among trees that date to the 19th century, gnarly giants whose heavy boughs bend to the ground.

With its vast expanse of hills and meadows that can seem miles away from urban bustle, the Arnold Arboretum has many charms. But its collection of rare and exotic trees, some of them endangered in their natural habitat, surely ranks among the most precious.

So neighbors and regular visitors to the Arboretum were deeply concerned about yesterday’s news that six maple trees across Centre Street from the Jamaica Plain preserve had been found infested with the dreaded Asian longhorned beetle, a voracious insect that devastates hardwood trees.

“If trees are destroyed, it would be quite a loss,’’ said Abdi Ali, a 39-year-old teacher who often comes to the Arboretum with his two young children from their home in Roxbury. “Some of them are ancient, and we have so few green spaces in the city.’’

Environmental officials voiced optimism that the infestation is isolated. But Arboretum enthusiasts, many of whom take the loss of trees personally, shuddered at the prospect of a problem like that in Worcester, where the invasive insect has caused the loss of some 25,000 trees.

“It would be a tragedy,’’ said Gary Schubert, who has lived beside the Arboretum for more than 30 years and walks through it daily. The 265 acres, planted with 16,000 trees, are like a giant extension of his backyard, and he knows every corner.

About a decade ago, Schubert recalled, a number of elm trees at the base of Bussey Hill had to be cut down because of disease. He still misses them and hopes the new threat can be held in check.

“It’s a constant battle for the Arboretum,’’ he said.

The new infestation was the first discovery of the beetles outside Worcester County, where it was found two years ago. Spurred by the beetle’s arrival in Massachusetts, the Arboretum launched a monitoring program in February 2009.

Arborists have been closely watching for signs of the insect, even climbing into the canopy of trees along the park’s perimeter. The most recent survey was completed last month, with no evidence of the beetle.

“It’s something we’ve been prepared for,’’ said Audrey Rogerson, the Arboretum’s spokeswoman. “It doesn’t have to be a repeat of Worcester. We’re hoping this will be a small little blip.’’

To aid federal inspectors, Arboretum leaders provided the US Department of Agriculture a detailed map and a comprehensive list of its trees, particularly those that could be home to the beetle.

As temperatures soared to 100 degrees in Boston early yesterday afternoon, the preserve was lightly traveled, with far fewer picnickers, runners, and stroller-pushing parents than usual. Most visitors had the woods all to themselves.

Near the visitors’ center, Ali was teaching his 6-year-old son, Amir, to ride his bike, and before that had taken his two children bird-watching, spotting woodpeckers, cardinals, and blue jays along their walk. The heavily shaded paths provided welcome relief from an oppressively hot afternoon.

“It’s like natural air conditioning,’’ he said.

As Nicolas Davy, a 27-year-old from Paris here to visit his sister, strolled down a wooded path, only the sounds of birds broke the silence. He had just come from the collection of Bonsai trees and hoped such a beautiful place would stay as it is.

“It would be very sad,’’ he said, if trees were destroyed.

Jill Pedrick, a 38-year-old who visits the Arboretum five days a week, even in winter, had just learned about the discovery of the beetles. She looked at a picture of the creature, with its long, curved antennas, and grimaced in disgust. She would be on the lookout, she promised.

“If this is affected,’’ she said, looking skyward at the tree line, “that would really be too bad.’’

Carolyn Johnson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at

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