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Possibly the oldest tree on the Smith campus, this American Elm in front of College Hall predates the college's opening in 1875

100 Years And Counting
If These Trees Could Talk

Of the hundreds of trees that generously shade the Smith College campus, providing its verdant allure each spring, only a few remain that were here more than 100 years ago, and fewer still that date back to when the institution first opened its doors in 1875.

According to Maryanne Pacitti, a 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 the trees on campus that have lived 100 years or more.

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 enveloped in the project to record the campus’ 100-year-old trees, which she calls “heritage trees.” “This is something I really fell in love with. It’s really fascinating. Many of these trees are ‘champions,’” a word used in horticulture to describe rare, valuable trees.

It’s no easy task estimating the ages of the campus’ trees, says 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 were around more than 100 years ago.

This so-called Bicentennial Elm, next to Tyler Annex, is one of the campus' oldest trees

It would be infinitely easier, Omar acknowledges, to extract a core sample from the trees and count the rings to determine their exact age. That procedure, however, is harmful to the plant, and is therefore avoided—thus the long hours in the archives.

“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 100 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.

Another specimen, 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.

This Ginkgo tree in the Botanic Garden was part of Frederick Law Olmsted's original landscape plan in 1896

Two trees are known to have been planted around 1896, says Omar, in beds near the Lyman Conservatory as part of the original landscape plan designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the affirmed father of landscape architecture. One is a Ginkgo biloba, or Ginkgo tree. The other is known as a Japanese umbrella pine, technically called a Sciadopitys verticillata.

So far, about 15 “heritage” specimens have been verified. “Sadly, there seem to be very few,” says Omar of the centenarian trees at Smith. “These would be trees that were planted or existing at the time of the Olmsted Landscape Plan.” Several of these historic trees bear informational plates with their names and nicknames.

The 100-year-old trees on campus should be valued 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 don’t tend to live as long today because of the presence of more plant diseases, pollution and devastating construction projects. “That’s why we value them today.”

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 said.

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