There are layers and layers of trees on the Whitman College campus.
Looming over or embracing massive buildings with wide branches, holding court on campus greens, somberly upright or quietly weeping — the community of trees on campus is many and varied.
Single specimens or dramatic ensembles, they are all ages: sprightly saplings, robust young trees rocketing towards the sky, Washington state champions, and aged denizens planted in 1906.
They are from near and far: evergreens of every hue and personality, blue spruce, somber sequoias, Brewer’s weeping spruce, incense cedars, pines and Douglas fir as well as broadleaf trees like elms, ash, maples, oaks, mountain hemlock, hackberries, golden rain trees, beech, birch and walnut.
The campus is a city of trees; 1,876 total with 175 different species. Strolling through their sobering heights, soft waving leaves and sculptural forms, one has the impression that we are in their city, not they in ours.
From the profusion and variety of the campus trees, to the wide span of ages and display of effort that has gone into caring for them, it is evident that from the early years of the campus, trees have been a priority.
Historic photos displayed in the basement of the Memorial Building show a rather bare campus in 1907 transformed to a tree-filled sanctuary by 1935.
Their supporters are many, from past presidents fondly remembered like former president Thomas Cronin (1993-2005) who claimed to have planted 1,000 trees during his tenure, to administrative assistants like Shirley Muse, who in 1975 thought the trees needed a voice and advocated for and documented the state champion trees, to present administrators, faculty and staff.
In her Introduction to Environmental Studies class, biology professor Susanne Altermann asks students to pick a tree on campus, visit it regularly to make observations on how it changes, and note how the tree makes them feel. She says almost universally the students report feeling calm when around their trees and regularly take visiting family members to see them.
Clare Carson, former associate dean and advisor, notes that some staff and community members mark the progression of the seasons through the growth changes of the campus trees, from the earliest breaking of dormancy to flowering, development of seed pods and fall color. Each change is expressed individually by each tree; each year is a ritual of growth.
“A lot of people are aware that trees make the beauty of the campus,” Carson said. “I think trees and plants in general help elevate your mood and the emotional connection is inspirational.”
Bob Carson, retired professor of geology and environmental studies, describes the physical benefits trees provide, such as cooling the campus and city with shade and evapotranspiration, limiting evaporation of water from the soil, carbon storage in the ground from roots, habitat for insects and birds, and cleaning and retaining stormwater.
The size and stature of the trees and fast growth rate reflect the excellent growing conditions in the area. Even the young trees grow swiftly.
The deep, fertile and moisture-retentive soil, a high-water table from springs and creeks, long summer daylight hours, and windy conditions all enable trees to quickly attain large sizes.
Kirk Huffey, a staff member and arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, said that the frequent windy conditions help young trees develop “reaction wood” in the trunk that increases strength and girth. He showed a recently planted Liberty elm on Boyer Avenue that grew 20 feet in six years, and a red oak planted in 2005 that is now more than 30 feet tall.
Bob Biles, a retired landscape supervisor, pushed for taking better care of the campus tree canopy and in 2013 started a database detailing each of the trees, their location, origin, planting date, work done to them, and issues or observations. Huffey and student workers tagged each tree with an identifying label.
“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” Biles said. “Each entry becomes a historical document that can serve to help manage and monitor the many trees and provide guidance for the future forest.”
Jeff Jenson, the current landscape supervisor now manages the database.
A campus trees and landscaping committee was started in the mid-1990s in an effort to manage the trees in the larger context of campus activities and future planning. It is composed of a variety of interested staff from the landscape department to staff, (the college treasurer-remove) faculty and community members.
Discussions range from questions on the care and preservation of individual trees to developing a sustainable vision for the campus grounds appropriate for the next 20 to 50 to 100 years.
The Arbor Day Foundation designated Whitman College a Tree Campus USA in 2018.