As mature trees reach the end of their life cyle, saplings pick up the slack — and the college has planted well over 800 in the last two decades.
From native plant gardens buzzing with honeybees to flowering shrubs to “celebrity” trees and all the flora and fauna in between, the campus brims with natural beauty. Maintaining its luster for everyone to enjoy is a team effort.
With spring in full bloom and summer fast on its heels, many Whitman students have gone home, bidding farewell to yet another semester of college. For now, the 55-acre grounds are quiet and still. But here’s a hint: there’s no better spot in town for a nice, scenic stroll on a hot day, and all are welcome.
From the xeriscape water-wise garden on the northwest corner of Isaacs and Penrose avenues to the edible food garden east of Maxey Hall, sustainability is a major focus. So is magnificence: take the state champion weeping cherry tree that graces the entrance to Marcus House, blossoming briefly yet spectacularly each March. Many iconic trees dot the campus, including another state champion, the golden rain tree by the tennis courts, or the charming mimosa tree in the backyard of Penrose House.
It’s no wonder the Arbor Day Foundation has declared Whitman an official Tree Campus USA two years running, in recognition of good stewardship of the environment. And that takes time, energy and elbow grease.
“One of the things that I really admire is the passion and the respect our landscape specialists show in taking caring of this place,” said Amy Molitor, senior adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies and co-chair of the Trees and Landscaping Committee. “They’re extremely committed to providing a certain type of aesthetic as well as a respite — that coolness and shade.”
Established by former Whitman president Tom Cronin in the mid-1990s, the Trees and Landscaping Committee meets once a month to monitor outdoor projects and make recommendations. There’s a lot to talk about — in addition to the dazzling tree canopy, think about all the flower beds, bushes and lawns like Ankeny that require frequent weeding, mowing, irrigation, fertilizer or other forms of TLC. (Fun fact: Contrary to popular belief, the college doesn’t artificially heat Lakum Duckum — the reason it doesn’t freeze in the winter is due to the stable temperature of ground water sources and the constant flow.)
“A typical day can vary a lot,” explained landscape lead Shawn Stalberger. “I like that one day I can be 50 feet up a tree and the next I can be painting a lacrosse field. Our duties change depending on the season as well. We get a lot of help from students who work part-time throughout the school year and during the summer. The variety of both native and exotic trees on campus is really broad.”
Those towering evergreens (more than 180 of Whitman’s 1,500 plus trees are over 50 feet tall) are more than just eye candy. They, along with their deciduous cousins, commonly found on the east coast have an important role to play. Not only do they shield other plants and passers-by from the sun, they also help fight climate change through a process called carbon sequestration.
Thanks to photosynthesis, trees suck up carbon from the atmosphere and store it. By Campus Sustainability Coordinator Elissa Brown’s calculations, every year Whitman’s forest sequesters carbon equivalent to approximately what is produced by 10 passenger cars driven for one year, nine homes’ annual electricity use, combusting 5,000 gallons of gasoline or charging more than six million smartphones.
Some conifers have fascinating histories, too, such as the dawn redwood on the banks of College Creek. According to Bob Carson, Grace Farnsworth Phillips Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies Emeritus and a founding member of the Trees and Landscaping Committee, that special heritage tree is thought to have sprung from some of the first seeds collected in China by famous paleobotanist Ralph Chaney of the University of California, Berkeley in 1947.
Arborist Kirk Huffey (Whitman College Class of 1995) specializes in climbing such trees, and has spent the past six years cataloging them.
“The most rewarding part of my job is the tree work and teaching Whitman students,” he said. “The thing I don’t think many people realize is that I’m doing something that no one has ever done for this college … I can properly prune all our giants using ropes. I take a lot of pride in the skills that I have worked on for the past 10 years. I care very deeply about the canopy.”
He’s not alone.
This fall, Senior Lecturer of Biology Susanne Altermann will teach a course on tree biology, with the campus as her laboratory. When the new dining hall opened in 2018, it was built around two trees to avoid removing them, resulting in a structure with 23 sides.
Despite this attention to upkeep, however, some favorites inevitably succumb to poor health. For instance, the Catalpa that once stood outside Reid Campus Center rotted in the middle and grew sideways instead of up, until it was unfortunately deemed a safety concern.
As mature trees reach the end of their life cycle, saplings pick up the slack — and the college has planted well over 800 in the last two decades. That keeps groundskeepers busy — so busy that retired landscape supervisor and 1974 Whitman graduate Bob Biles has estimated that even if crew members service 300 trees per year, it will take five years to get to all of them.
In the meantime, why not come for a walk? Community members interested in locating any of the areas mentioned in this column can visit whitman.edu/map.
Gillian Frew is the media relations strategist at Whitman College.