Natural Wonders: W&J and Cal U. Arboreta Deliver Stunning Beauty | Living in Washington County

“I have great esteem for trees: they represent age and beauty and the miracles of life and growth.” -Louise Dickinson Rich

“You know me, I think there should be a big old tree right there. And let’s give him a friend. Everyone needs a friend. – Bob Ross, artist

Arboretums, deliciously known as “open-air tree museums”, are beautiful and peaceful places to visit.

But college and university arboretums are more than pretty green spaces. Arboretums promote a higher purpose – they serve as open-air classrooms and living laboratories, provide opportunities for scientific research, promote conservation, and engage in public awareness and education.

Schools are also finding that arboreta play a role in the mental, spiritual and physical health of students.

Washington & Jefferson College and the University of California, Pennsylvania both have outstanding arboretums that span all of their campuses and serve students, faculty and staff, as well as their communities.

Washington & Jefferson College

Walking around the W&J campus, it’s easy to marvel, as FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper did in “Twin Peaks,” “What kind of fantastic trees are you growing here? .

The 65-acre arboretum – proof that good things come in small packages – is home to nearly 1,200 undeniably fantastic trees of 109 species, both native and unnatural to the area.

Notable trees include Osage orange, American elm, willow oak, gingko, sugar maple, Douglas fir – the tree that captivated Det. Cooper – and the imposing London plane.

On every tree on campus, there is a metal tag stamped with information about it.

“Many people who walk around campus regularly, or who live or work in the area, enjoy walking around the arboretum,” said Dr. Jason Kilgore, associate professor of biology and curator of the arboretum. “The beacons give them a lot of good information. “

The arboretum was born in 2012, when Kilgore and alumnus Kyle Karwatski worked on creating a database of the location and identity of trees on campus.

Kilgore, originally from Michigan, was assistant curator at Michigan State University’s Clarence E. Lewis Landscape Arboretum before taking up his post at W&J.

Kilgore has also spent much of his career studying how forests respond to wildfires and climate change, and he uses the knowledge he has gained over decades to develop the arboretum and increase knowledge of the environment on campus.

Over the past decade, Kilgore has worked with facilities manager Tim Lucas and students at W&J to place the college on the national campus arboretum scene.

Notably, the arboretum has achieved Level I accreditation from the ArbNet Arboretum and Morton Arboretum accreditation program, and for the eighth consecutive year, W&J has been recognized by the Arbor Day Foundation as an Tree Campus higher education college.

For Kilgore, the arboretum is a labor of love and his passion for trees is contagious.

“We humans are so busy living our lives. A tree simply grows, reacting to gravity, soil and other conditions year after year with a calm feeling of only dealing with what is around it, ”Kilgore said. “It’s powerful and it gives me strength and peace. With the arboretum, I offer them a place to live and protect them.

The W&J arboretum is also an educational tool, used for a variety of lessons including chemistry, forest ecology, – students harvesting Norway’s sugar trees and maples and making syrup – art and the story.

Every two years, Kilgore and his students re-examine all the trees on campus to measure growth in diameter and calculate how much carbon they collect from the atmosphere. This information is then used to determine the ecological footprint of the campus and how to make it greener.

Another mission of the arboretum is to diversify tree species on campus. Thus, Kilgore has set up thematic plantations.

A highlight is the Southern Rocky Mountain Garden, which includes species found in the Southern Rockies, including ponderosa pine, yucca, trembling aspen, Oregon fir, white holly, and hedge flower, a member of the sunflower family that turns bright orange and red. .

On Burnett Hill, a hill above the Howard J. Burnett Center, Kilgore and his students establish a pine grove and nurturing forest.

The pinetum – an arboretum of pines and other conifers – includes a giant Sequioa, white spruce and pines, and a Dawn Redwood.

The food forest is made up of trees from which food can be harvested – the native paw paw tree, which produces an edible fruit whose flavor is similar to that of a banana or mango; Chinese chestnuts – American chestnuts would die from chestnut blight; sumac and elderberry.

“I think an arboretum like this gives people options and ideas about what to plant in their landscapes. I think food resilience and climate resilience are not mutually exclusive, ”said Kilgore. “We have to think about food and climate resilience and the plants that are in our environment and we have to start bringing them all together.”

Burnett Hill also offers a popular Hammock Grove, an environmentally friendly way for students to hang hammocks without damaging tree trunks and branches.

“One of the psychologists here on campus said that the most important mental health recreation on campus, as the students noted, is the hammock grove,” Kilgore said, noting its use as a place of good. -be recreational and emotional.

Community outreach efforts include an Arbor Day project where Washington high school students helped plant ginkgo trees – which have remained relatively unchanged for the past 250 million years – behind the library.

Fun fact: Female ginkgo trees produce a fragrant seed that looks like vomit when it breaks down. Much to Kilgore’s relief, two of the three ginkgoes are male, and he hopes the third is as well.

University of California, Pennsylvania

On the university’s campus, nestled on 190 acres by the Monongahela River, stands a tree that was once thought to be extinct over 5 million years ago: a Dawn Redwood.

“It is the only tree in the world that we know from the fossil record before ever having seen a living specimen,” said Dr Robert Whyte, director of the arboretum. “We call it a living fossil.”

The story is fascinating: in 1944, a forester at a Chinese university stumbled upon a small grove of redwoods in the rice fields of a province in the south-east of the country.

After the end of World War II, scientists determined that indeed, about 1,000 dawn redwoods – which lived in North America during the Cretaceous Period – lived in isolated groves.

In 1947, an American expedition collected seeds and distributed them to botanical gardens and universities around the world, helping to save the dawn redwood from extinction – still considered endangered in the United States. wild state.

“It’s an interesting tree, and it’s a cousin of the giant sequoia. It won’t grow that high, but it’s impressive, ”Whyte said.

The arboretum is home to over 500 trees and shrubs representing nearly 110 species and includes almost all varieties of trees native to Pennsylvania.

Most trees are marked with post labels that provide students and visitors with information about them.

Some of the trees contain commemorative markers that can be purchased in honor of a former student or other loved one.

“It’s so nice to have this arboretum on campus because it’s really a living lab that’s used for a lot of classrooms,” Whyte said. “And it connects the local community to the campus. We receive visitors from out of town, schools, garden clubs and other organizations. I get so many inquiries – emails, phone calls – about the arboretum. People want to come and visit, they have questions about specific trees, they want to plant trees around their homes. It’s a great way to connect with the community, and it’s so important to do so. “

The first plant list and the first tree guide were created in the early 1990s, and staff and students in the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences continue to document the arboretum.

The oldest tree on campus is over 200 years old, a towering London sycamore tree that was planted around 1810.

Other notable trees include pebble oak, bur oak, chewing gum – its round, spiky pods are unpopular to the barefoot students who sometimes walk on them – weeping willow and red oak, whose tassels cover the campus when they fall.

Whyte’s favorite tree on campus is a tulip tree, with large, showy yellow flowers that resemble tulips and soft-shaped leaves. Tulip trees do not flower until they are around 20 years old.

The trees, Whyte said, grow tall, straight, dense, and are highly valued as lumber.

Whyte, who grew up in New York City, was director of the 1,200-acre Antioch College Nature Preserve before taking the helm of the California Arboretum 16 years ago.

He spent his summers with his grandparents in upstate New York and fell in love with the Catskill Mountains and its trees.

“Trees are magic,” Whyte said. “They are so majestic. They just sit there watching everything that’s going on around them, taking in everything. But they are not static. They change with the season, change with age – they are never the same tree from day to day.

At Cal U., Whyte has dedicated his efforts to the conservation of native trees and shrubs.

The arboretum has incorporated native ornamental plants, such as flowering dogwood, with eastern hemlock – the official tree of the state of Pennsylvania that can take 250 years to mature – and maple trees.

In one of her classes, Whyte teaches students to identify the “Christmas trees” on campus, fir, spruce and pine.

Near the quad, groves of a Kentucky coffee tree grow where a huge coffee tree stood for decades before being struck by lightning.

The coffee tree, a member of the legume family, contains large, thick pods that contain beans, Whyte explained. The seeds can be roasted and used as a substitute for the coffee bean, although it has a weak flavor.

Whyte still regrets the loss of the Kentucky coffee tree and feels responsible for protecting the trees, much like the fluffy orange character in Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” who guarded the Truffula trees.

“I don’t have a mustache and I certainly don’t look like the character from ‘The Lorax,’ but I like to think that at least in Cal U, I’m the ‘spokesperson for the trees,’ said Whyte. “Although I certainly cannot save the Kentucky coffee tree.”

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