Asa Gray Garden

July 5, 2018

And all rare blossoms from every clime

Grew in that garden in perfect prime.

            -Percy Bysshe Shelley

We encourage all to visit our newly renovated Asa Gray Garden. In collaboration with the award-winning Halvorson Design Partnership and R. P. Marzilli Landscape Contractor, this garden includes a diverse mix of 130 taxa of trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, annuals and bulbs which will provide four-seasons of color, texture and interest. An enlarged central water feature and reflecting pool help create a sense of calm within this newly re-designed meditative landscape.

made him feel as if the fountain were an immortal spirit

that sung its song unceasingly

and without heeding the vicissitudes around it…

-Nathaniel Hawthorne

In lieu of specific plant discussion, we recall this garden’s namesake, the preeminent nineteenth century botanist, Asa Gray (1810-1888). The eldest of eight siblings of a farmer/tanner in Sauquoit, New York, he graduated from Fairfield Medical College in 1831. Lynn Barber in The Heyday of Natural History 1820-1870 states, “At the beginning of the nineteenth century, all laymen and most scientists believed that the earth and all the species on it had been created by God in six days towards the end of October in the year 4004 B.C.” Gray eschewed an incipient medical practice for a botanical life that led to decades of research and publishing. Later botanical renown positioned him to become the foremost American advocate of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), when in 1859, Origin of Species revealed the then heretical theory of evolution and the process of natural selection.

Gray’s formative botanical career began routinely, but auspiciously as well. Routine would be teaching high school botany in 1832. More auspicious, that same year he first met John Torrey (1796-1873), professor of chemistry and botany at what would become Columbia Medical School. They went on a collecting expedition in New Jersey and the following year Gray became an assistant to Torrey, then the leading U.S. botanist and a major correspondent with plant collectors throughout America and beyond. This correspondence and trading of botanical specimens built the foundation for the rest of Gray’s life. He and Torrey remained lifelong friends and professional collaborators. Between 1838 and 1843 they researched and co-authored the early portion of the Flora of North America.  In Gray’s first year-long visit to Europe in 1838-39, he visited all the leading herbaria from Padua, to Berlin, to Paris, to Glasgow and Kew Gardens examining and studying North American, European and Asian plant species.

Asa Gray 1877 Colorado Rockies front center Jane Gray on right in white Joseph Hooker seated left

In 1842 Gray accepted the Fisher professorship of natural history at Harvard College, with the understanding that he could confine his work “to instruction and lecturing of botany and to the superintendence of the botanic garden.” Remaining until his death he eventually positioned Harvard to be renown for botanical study. In 1848 he married Jane Lathrop Loring (1821-1909) and they both are buried in Lot 3904, Holly Path. At Harvard, Gray joined with Torrey in New York, as leading American botanists from the 1840’s onward, a period of greater western U. S. expansion, as well as the beginnings of overseas expeditions. This era of “Manifest Destiny,” with its military expeditions, railroad surveys, U. S. explorations, etc. resulted in floods of botanical specimens from associated collectors that needed to be classified and named. Thousands of collected dried and pressed plant samples destined to become herbarium sheets facilitated abundant botanical priority naming. Gray is credited by the International Plant Names Index with 752 records. Herbarium sheets and reference books were Gray’s tools of his trade. In 1865 it was estimated that his herbarium collection contained 200,000, at the time of his death it was estimated to be twice that size. Today, Harvard University’s Gray Herbarium includes over five million specimens.

A prolific author for more than four decades of monographs, reports, proceedings of societies, reviews, as well as numerous books, many professionals as well as amateurs still depend upon The Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States. It went through five edited editions in his lifetime and now 130-years after his death, updated and still in print, it is just commonly referred to as “Gray’s Manual.”

If you have knowledge

Let others light their candles in it.

            -Margaret Fuller

A notable interest of Gray’s was his study around issues of plant-distribution, today included in fields of biogeography and paleobotany. In 1840 Gray wrote a review of the Flora Japonica by Phillip Franz Siebold (1796-1866). In this two-volume, large-format, with hand-colored illustrations of Japanese plants, Gray observed striking morphological similarities between several Asian and Eastern North American genera. In the 1850’s Gray received dried specimens directly from Japan collected as part of the U. S. Surveying Expedition to the North Pacific Ocean, adding to his topic list of Eastern Asia-Eastern North America Floristic Disjunction. During this time Gray was a friend and frequent correspondent with Charles Darwin. In brief, this floristic disjunction could be attributed to advanced glaciers sundering temperate floras into great divided branches, evolving from a common ancestor, as opposed to divine speciation as cause.

On January 11, 1859 Gray presented his theory at a meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Here we turn to Hunter Dupree’s authoritative biography Asa Gray, “The scene…was the house of Mr. Charles Greely Loring [1794-1867] in Boston. On that spot he had courted Jane…Old Jacob Bigelow [1787-1879], the president and a botanist from an earlier day, was on hand…twenty-two members were present…The wealth of Boston had its representatives…” Dupree quotes Gray’s closing, “…to refer the distribution by species as well as their origin simply to the Divine will…would remove the whole question out of the fields of inductive science…” Through this paper Gray had firmly established botany as scholarly discipline on American soil. Our re-planted Asa Gray Garden includes numerous examples of Eastern Asia-Eastern North America plant pairings to honor this noble botanist.

We conclude our brief encomium by quoting William G. Farlow’s (1844-1919) closing from his Memoir of Asa Gray, read before the National Academy, April 17, 1889, “…some of you will recall hours spent in his quiet home in Cambridge among his books and flowers, his only children… He found a country in which a few botanists were struggling against general neglect and popular ignorance. He left a great nation in which, very largely through his exertions, the value of botany had become generally recognized… although we may have good botanists in the future … it is hardly likely that hereafter any single botanist will hold the same comparative place in public esteem as that filled by Asa Gray in his day.”

We are stardust

Billion-year-old carbon

We are golden

Caught in the Devil’s bargain

And we got to get ourselves back to the garden…

            Joni Mitchell


About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant View all posts by Jim Gorman →


  1. Astrid Dodds says:

    Thanks for this tribute to Asa Gray. We visited the new Asa Gray garden on July 7. It is spectacular, a fitting entrance to Mt. Auburn Cemetery. In late afternoon on July 7, the fountain was not operating. Is that one aspect of the garden that is incomplete? Or perhaps the fountain operates according to a schedule?

    • Jennifer Johnston says:

      We are so pleased that you visited Asa Gray Garden! Our contractors are still fine-tuning the fountain, but it should be operating pretty regularly when the Cemetery is open very soon!

  2. Patrice Moskow says:

    What a succinct and wonderfully-written overview of Asa Gray: works and times. Thank you! And the garden seems exactly right, with its fixed and fluid elements. Great pix!

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