A Revival of Exploratory Horticulture in Newport

For perhaps the first time in 90 years, seedlings have arrived in Newport from Arnold Arboretum plant hunting expeditions abroad.

Grown from wild-collected seed, these young seedlings will be lovingly cared for in our new grow house at Rogers High School, currently under construction. An amazing assortment of species have arrived at our doorstep, including:

Newport’s inimitable urban forest owes much of its depth and diversity to the many seedlings that made their way to our city from the Arnold Arboretum during the Gilded Age. Arnold Arboretum Director, Charles Sprague Sargent, had a summer home in Newport and frequently took the train to Newport with tree hunter Ernest Henry Wilson, carrying specimens in their satchels.

As noted by Richard Champlin in his narrative about Newport’s famous Dove Tree: “A frequent visitor at Bethshan [on Gibbs Avenue], Charles Sprague Sargent of the Arnold Arboretum advised the ardent Mrs. Gibbs in her selection of trees. Together with plant-hunter Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson, they stocked Bethshan with exotics, none more acclaimed than the dove tree (Davidia involucrata) which Wilson had personally acquired in China.

“The Bethshan dove tree first bloomed in 1924 toward the end of May. Each year for a score of years Harvard students visited Newport to view the dove tree and other exotics at the Gibbs’ home. When the 1938 hurricane toppled the tree, workmen righted it. But finally in the 1950s the old, unstable specimen was felled. Horticulturists at the University of Rhode Island as well as private Newport gardeners such as Allan Booth failed to germinate seed from it, despite many efforts.

“‘Chinese’ Wilson’s finding of the dove tree makes interesting telling. He had been commissioned by the Arnold Arboretum to go to China to acquire seed of the scarce tree. Returning to a known location, he failed to find the slightest trace of it until on inquiring of a native as to its whereabouts, the man pointed to his shanty and said he had constructed his home with boards from the choice tree. Wilson eventually located specimens, which came to the arboretum and thence to Newport and elsewhere.” —“Newport Estates and Their Flora,” Richard Champlin, from the Newport Historical Society journal, Newport History,Volume 53 Part 2, Spring 1980, Number 178.

Maud Howe Elliot describes the Gibbs tree: ‘When blooming, it is covered with large blossoms having two snow white leaves that look like the spread wings of Spirito Sancto, the white doves of the Vatican garden.’” —“Newport’s LIving Legends,” Peter Simpson

A wonderful dove tree specimen can be viewed on the northeast corner of Butler Street and Van Zandt Avenue. Look for its elegant blooms in May.

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The Newport Arboretum, New England's first citywide arboretum, is a special project of The Newport Tree Society of Newport, Rhode Island.