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The Root of the Problem: Keeping Trees Alive

The August loss of a beloved old tree—a giant red oak, Quercus rubra, near Tyler Annex on College Lane—prompted Michael Marcotrigiano, director of the botanic garden and professor of biological sciences, to offer his thoughts on keeping campus trees healthy:

“A campus is a challenging environment for trees. Most landscape trees are native to wooded areas where roots live in soil that is evenly moist, loose and airy. Root systems on trees can expand far beyond the tree canopy. Helping trees live a long life means taking care of their roots. In cities and on campuses, root damage commonly results from soil compaction. This commonly happens when vehicles or construction material are parked over roots. Excessive human foot traffic also causes compacted soil. If roots die they cannot provide adequate water and nutrients to the tree, and the limbs die. With water, mulch, proper pruning, and the avoidance of compaction and unnecessary excavation, we can help tree roots thrive. Educate your colleagues on the risks of stressing trees. Protecting a tree’s root zone will help our campus trees live for centuries.”

Visit for more from Michael Marcotrigiano on the red oak.

The Tree List

Because the Smith College campus was planned and planted in the 1890s as a botanic garden and arboretum, it should come as no surprise that today the campus landscape encompasses 125 acres and includes more than 1,200 varieties of trees and shrubs. Some of the trees are over 100 years old and unique to this area, yet still able to survive New England winters. A walk across campus offers evidence as to how trees enrich the open spaces among academic buildings, the walkways across campus and vistas around paradise pond while serving as learning resources to students.

With thanks to the staff at the botanic garden, here are 10 champions of Smith’s tree population.

One of the oldest on campus
Maidenhair Tree, Ginkgo biloba, near Sabin-Reed Hall

One of the most unusual
Dove Tree or Handkerchief Tree, Davidia involucrate, near College Hall

One of the largest of its kind in New England
Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata, behind Tyler Annex

Most fun to hide in
Weeping Beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’, beside Hopkins House

Most valued wood
Black Walnut, Juglans nigra, between Lawrence and Morris houses

Most beautiful fall color
Sour Gum or Black Tupelo, Nyssa sylvatica, between Alumnae Gym and Washburn House

Now extinct in the wild
Benjamin Franklin Tree, Franklinia alatamaha, near Lanning Fountain

Said to be the most disease-resistant American elm
Valley Forge American Elm, Ulmus americana, recently planted on College Lane not far from the main gate

Said to be the embodiment of all history
Cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani, in front of Wright Hall

Most recently mourned
92-foot-tall Northern Red Oak tree, Quercus rubra, which had to be cut down in August after extensive studies determined it to be a safety hazard

For a nifty brochure that offers an easy, self-guided walking tour of campus trees, stop by the Lyman Plant House or visit the Smith Botanic Garden at

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