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New job’s growing on him

Plant researcher is happy to be heading to Harvard

(Justin Ide/Harvard Staff Photographer)
By Carol Stocker
Globe Correspondent / October 28, 2010

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On Jan. 1, Edward “Ned’’ Friedman will become the new director of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, only the eighth in its 138-year history. Currently a professor doing groundbreaking research on the evolution of flowering plants (mostly trees) at the University of Colorado, Friedman will become a tenured professor of organismic and evolutionary biology at Harvard. He spoke to us of his passion for bringing more scientific research to the grounds of the 265-acre Arnold and of partnering in science education with schools in surrounding communities.

Q. We know you are a research scientist, but are you also a gardener?

A. I love to garden. I am almost competitive about gardening. My wife and I canned 80 quarts of tomatoes this year from just nine plants. We make jam from our fruit trees. We live now in Boulder, Colo., where the season is short but the sunlight is intense. I also grow hops and brew my own beer there.

Q. What kind of tomatoes do you grow?

A. Celebrity, Sweet 100’s. No heirlooms or anything unusual because my wife is a botanist, too, and she studies Solanum plants, which are related to tomatoes, and we don’t want to transmit any plant diseases to her research projects.

Q. What have you done at the University of Colorado?

A. I’m a plain old garden variety professor studying the evolutionary origins of flowering plants (mostly trees) and how they reproduce. We’ve come up with some big surprises.

Q. What are your goals for the Arnold Arboretum?

A. The new Weld Hill building will open with a spectacular set of labs as a base for bringing undergraduates and post-docs and plant researchers to the Arboretum. They’ll be able to do microscopy and molecular biology right at the Arboretum. My job will be to get the new research building on Weld Hill up and running, but also to get science out of the building and into the schools and community.

Q. How?

A. I want to do outreach to public school teachers about the history of evolution. I want to get a National Science Foundation S.T.E.M. grant (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) for our graduate students to partner with science teachers in the public schools. I will do more on adult education, too. I will have a monthly community night when I will bring in someone very special from around the world for Boston. We’ll do it in an evolutionary way.

Q. Do you actually take care of the trees?

A. We have talented arborists for that, and we’re well-staffed, with 75 employees. But I hope they’ll let me up in the bucket for a bird’s eye view.

Q. Do you worry about the Asian long horned beetle?

A. I was visiting when they found those four infected trees in the hospital parking lot across the street. I don’t know where they came from. I was so impressed by the way the staff snapped into action. They knew what species the beetles preferred and the date that each tree had been previously checked. They checked all the trees again, and the beetles hadn’t spread to the Arboretum, but the trees there are so attentively checked by a full staff that it would never go undetected. We wouldn’t be playing “catch-up.’’ But we want to continue to educate our neighbors to keep an eye on their own trees.

Q. Given all the new threats to trees today by changing climate and imported pests and diseases, what kind of tree would you plant for the future?

A. My favorite tree is the ginko. I did my dissertation on it. It’s tough, pollution- and pest-tolerant, it has beautiful gold coloring in the fall. There’s a stretch of streets linked with ginkos in Yokahama and they look beautiful. Goethe wrote a tremendous love poem to a much younger woman about the ginko leaf. It’s a mysterious and romantic plant.

Q. Are you as cheerful as you seem?

A. I’m very cheerful. I have always felt I’ve been the luckiest person in the world because I get to spend my life with plants.

Carol Stocker can be reached at stockergarden@gmail.com.