Heritage Trees & Landscapes

A Call to Stewardship

Aquidneck Island is home to a significant percentage of Rhode Island’s remaining historic landscapes, designed and vernacular. Although the historic integrity of many of these landscapes thankfully remains, formal recognition and protection is sorely lacking and documentation remains scattered across many archives and institutions, impeding access.

We are gratefully witnessing growing acknowledgment from our community that these open spaces that cradle and connect our built environment are a vital part of our community’s history and identity. From estates and farms, to cemeteries and beaches, to the homes of colonial merchants and artisans, our landscapes and streetscapes deserve protection, study and celebration. An organized, community-wide effort to properly research and document them is long overdue. 

We are excited to begin this important work with some of our most historic shared public spaces: our parks. The Newport Tree, Parks & Open Space Master Plan specifies the creation of CLRs for eleven historic parks and multiple driftways and cemeteries as a near-term next step in open space planning. As we prepare for a significant investment in the study of our public landscapes, we would like to pause and consider the most meaningful and effective approach.

The Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS) program at the National Parks Service seeks to identify national culturally significant landscapes, document them and add them to the Library of Congress Archives, providing an important record which promotes their value and import. Cultural landscape reports (CLRs), more rigorous and detailed than a HALS submission, are the highest standard report for documenting historic parks. Historic research, inventory, analysis and treatment provide a framework for moving forward with designed improvements for historic parks. A complete CLR includes a narrative site history, an inventory and assessment of existing conditions, an analysis of significance and integrity using National Register of Historic Places criteria and definitions, and recommendations for future landscape treatment.

The need for proper documentation of our historic landscapes is clear. Of the 23 National Historic Landmarks registered in Newport County, only four include recognized significance in landscape architecture. 122 sites included in the National Register of Historic Places for the county include only ten with contributing landscape information. And although many of our buildings are registered with the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), only one Rhode Island landscape is documented with the companion Historic American Landscape Survey (HALS).

In the process of conducting HALS submissions and creating CLRs, we believe we can not only protect an important part of our national heritage — we can also use our incredibly rich palette of historic landscapes to significantly enhance curricula at area universities in areas of study including historic preservation, archival studies, and landscape architecture.

Beginning with a Historic Landscapes class in the fall of 2017, students at Salve Regina University will assist in historic park research and documentation. In addition, Salve Regina University Archivist & Special Collections Librarian, Genna Duplisea, and Director of Library Services, Dawn Emsellem-Wichowski, are coordinating the digitization and dissemination of all work products stemming from all cultural landscape research work.

Heritage Tree Program

The Newport Arboretum Heritage Tree Program, launching in September 2017, confers an ambitious shared mandate on Newport students, volunteers, and Newport Arboretum horticulturists: to locate, document, and propagate Newport’s most special and endangered trees.

NEED FOR PROGRAM A majority of the most impressive trees in our urban forest were planted during the Gilded Age and are now on the wane. It is estimated that over half our original European Copper Beech population has been lost in just the last decade, with other European Beech cultivars beginning to suffer the same fate at an accelerating rate. In the last year and a half, a major die off of our mature English Oaks has also begun. The Gilded Age forest as a whole is reaching the end of its natural lifespan.

The unique genetic lines of these elder trees represent a natural asset for our city and country at a time when most nurseries are producing only cloned trees (which guarantee a certain aesthetic and growth pattern, but are more susceptible to sudden population loss due to pests and climate change). Once these aged trees pass, their genetic fingerprints are lost for good.

In our approach to the preservation of our heritage trees, we also seek to directly address long-term social and economic challenges faced by our city. Data collected from recent Newport surveys performed by the Health Equity Zone project points to the need for students to feel more connected with adults and with their greater community. Students indicate they lack guidance, mentorship and a real understanding of the workplace. A tree propagation center to be established at Rogers High School will not only help students learn career-ready skills in horticulture, it will build critical relationships between students and area professionals. And finally, each student’s work will provide them with a direct connection to their community and a sense of pride and accomplishment as they follow their individual trees from seed pots to the growing house, growing field, and ultimately to a Newport park, landscape or streetscape.

PROGRAM DESIGN – RESEARCH Heritage tree germplasm conservation makes a direct connection between our cultural and natural heritage. Students will research the city’s heritage trees, uncovering the fascinating stories they have to tell about generations past. As they go out into the community to identify and research our oldest, most vulnerable, rare, and culturally or naturally significant trees, students may:

    Locate our oldest native Boxelder tree and discover the dozens of ways the Wampanoag and Narragansett tribes would have used it for food, medicine, and religious ceremonies.
    Learn about the Scottish slave-owner and amateur horticulturist who planted America’s oldest European Fernleaf Beech in front of the Redwood Library the same year slavery was abolished on his home island of Jamaica, exploring the connections between cutting-edge horticulture in the American colonies and plantations in the West Indies.
    Uncover where the first Zelkova was planted in Newport after seedlings were introduced to the west from Japan in 1861 by plant hunter George Rogers Hall from Bristol, Rhode Island.

The information collected by students on these trees will be linked to each tree through a QR code on its arboretum tag which will trigger an informational web page.

PROGRAM DESIGN – PROPAGATION Newport Arboretum horticultural staff will teach students how to grow new young trees from seeds and cuttings from each of these very special heritage trees. From seed stratification to change-purse budding to whip-and-tongue grafts, students will be exposed to a wide variety of interesting and complex methods for the propagation of woody plants. Once mature and planted in the city, each successfully propagated tree will be entered into our interactive tree map (found at RhodyTrees.org), as well as the Botanic Gardens Conservation International global database of living plant collections.

Brian Maynard, URI Professor of Plant Sciences
Noah LeClaire Conway, Propagation expert, URI
John Tschirch, Architectural Historian
Nancy Noonan, Rogers HS English Dept. Chair
Bethany Borgueta, Rogers HS Science Teacher
Tanya Kelley, L+A Landscape Architecture
Robert Currier, ISA Certified Arborist
Kristyn Woodland, RI Certified Horticulturist

SUSTAINABILITY A Newport Arboretum Satellite Nursery including a grow house and outdoor planting area will be established on the Rogers High School campus in the fall of 2017. At the nursery, seedlings will be grown on to a mature size until they are ready for planting across the city.

Later project phases (years 3-5) will involve the creation of a distribution system for mature trees. The backbone of this distribution system will be the City Division of Forestry and other community partners who already depend upon the Arboretum to source over 350 trees/year from commercial nurseries for public and private tree planting at an average wholesale cost of $115 per tree, not including planting costs. Tree sourcing is managed by The Newport Arboretum Living Collections Committee and horticultural staff, and we anticipate a growing potential market as the number of community partners and private property owners who look to the Arboretum for identifying and ordering young trees continues to grow. In addition, students will work with university Business majors to explore a possible private/tourist market for Newport heritage tree seedlings.

OUTCOMES Our two-year program goal is to work with the Rogers High School horticultural classes and students from The Newport Project to successfully preserve the germ lines of at least three heritage trees through the propagation of multiple viable seedlings from each tree. During years one and two we will be testing and refining our processes within the program framework, measuring student engagement and satisfaction with the program, public exposure to the cultural assets created, and scientific efficacy in terms of successful propagation rates.

In summary, Newport High School students will help our urban forests become both a repository of biodiversity and a cradle of cultural knowledge, preserving the genetic lines of ancient heritage trees that are now on the wane. They will develop cutting edge skills in botany, and better understand their city’s past while working within their community to create a vibrant, healthy, and resilient shared future.

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