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Smith's Champion Trees

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 date back to when the institution first opened its doors in 1875.

Of course, many trees have lived and died over the past century, but in 1896 when famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted devised Smith's original 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 requirement.

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 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.

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.

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.

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