By Eric Sean Weld
If you travel back in time and decide to
stroll the Smith campus at the turn of the 20th century, you'd
better bring a wide-brimmed hat, since records indicate that the campus
had far fewer trees.
Of the hundreds of trees that generously
shade the campus now, providing its verdant allure each spring,
only a few remain that are more than 100 years old, and fewer still that
back to when the institution first opened its doors in 1875.
course, many trees have lived and died over the past century,
but in 1896 when famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted devised
landscape plan, the layout of campus trees was sparse.
Today, a handful of trees
remain from that plan. According to Maryanne Pacitti, a former botanic garden
worker, fewer than two dozen trees on campus have lived
more than 100 years. Pacitti should know. For the past year or so, she has
given her time, eyesight and effort to a project that seeks to verify
the age of all
these older trees.
Her project began after she measured the
diameter of several trees for botanic
garden records. "Then one thing led to another," says Pacitti, and
she became absorbed in the project to document what she calls "heritage
trees." "This is something I really fell in love with. It's
really fascinating. Many of these trees are ‘champions,'" a
horticultural term for rare, valuable trees.
It's no easy task estimating
the ages of the campus trees, explains Tracy Omar, collections manager in the
Botanic Garden, who is helping with the project.
Pacitti and her associates have logged countless hours in the College Archives,
poring over old photos of the campus to see which existing trees meet the age
It would be infinitely easier, Omar acknowledges,
to extract a core sample from the trees and count the rings to determine
age. That procedure,
is harmful to the plant, and is therefore avoided; thus the long hours in
"It takes a lot of work," says Pacitti. "I've looked
at every photo available of trees in the archives. Hundreds." The project
is further complicated, explains Pacitti, because through the years, many buildings -- used
to identify tree locations -- have moved or been removed. "You really
have to know what you're looking for. Sometimes, it's like looking
for a needle in a haystack."
As samples of heritage trees, Pacitti points
to the college's American
elm (Ulmus americana), one of the first sights to greet visitors to campus as
it towers in front of College Hall. That tree, which stands more than a hundred
feet high in front of the Grécourt Gates, is likely one of the oldest
trees on campus. Pacitti estimates its age to be 150 years.
the so-called Bicentennial Elm, which was likely here when Smith first opened
its doors, stands nearly seven stories high next to Tyler
Annex on College Lane.
Two trees are known to have been planted
around 1896, says Omar, in beds near
the Lyman Conservatory as part of Olmsted's plan. One is a Ginkgo biloba,
or ginkgo tree. The other is known as a Japanese umbrella pine, technically called
a Sciadopitys verticillata.
So far, some 15 "heritage" specimens have
been verified. "Sadly,
there seem to be very few," says Omar. Several of these historic trees
bear informational plates with their names and common names.
The Smith community
should value these trees for their rarity, longevity and endurance, emphasize
Pacitti and Omar. "It's probably less common
nowadays than it used to be for a tree to live that long," Omar notes.
Plants today have a shorter lifespan because they must endure more plant diseases,
increased pollution and devastating construction projects.
Ultimately, Omar hopes,
the identification project might influence decisions about where to plan new
construction projects and how to go about them. "If
they're going to have to take down a 200-year-old tree, they might give
a project more consideration," he says.