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Our Significant Trees

Written by Janice Murphy, integrated pest management coordinator, Grounds
March 15, 2016

As winter comes to a close, I find my focus and gaze turning groundward. Early spring means soil and compost and tiny seedling emerging from the earth. But before our region bursts into the riotous, glorious green world of full-on spring, I'm taking a moment to honor our significant trees on the Seattle University campus.

We are blessed by the efforts of many individuals who had the foresight to frame this campus as an urban oasis filled with grand and iconic trees. Most notably, Father Raymond Nichols, Fugitaro Kubota, and Ciscoe Morris planted, nurtured and protected our living legacy. In their time, the environmental benefits of trees, their "ecosystem services," were not as well documented. 

We now know what an important role trees play in countering the effects of climate change. They remove carbon dioxide from the air, store carbon in their branches, trunks and roots, and act as green stormwater infrastructure by absorbing and slowing stormwater runoff. Trees of great size create a cooling effect in the summer heat, and perform essential functions in the complex systems of wildlife habitat. Seattle University has been in the unique position of providing a substantial contribution to these ecosystem services to our locality, particularly as urban density fills in around us and green space is lost as a result.

But I'm also thinking about trees in a way that's closer to the heart. Recently in my neighborhood, three large Cherry trees were removed from a decommissioned Seattle City Light Substation. The soil beneath them was found to be contaminated with 70 times the legal limit of a pesticide banned in 1970 (but that's another story!) I like all trees but Cherry trees are not high on my list of favorites, too many problems plague them here in our rainy Northwest climate. But I witnessed many neighbors with a deep emotional attachment to those trees come out to mourn their loss. In a very charged atmosphere, it was clear that something was at work here beyond the checklist of environmental benefits that those trees provided. It was a connection to the heart.

I know from talking with many people on campus that different trees perform that role for different people. We have our beautiful Giant Sequoia with its stately presence at the south end of the Pigott building. It speaks to many visitors and locals alike. The massive Red Oaks on the upper mall across from the Administration building are from Father Nichols' legacy. He loved the grand European landscape tradition and saw these trees as providing that grandeur for a future Seattle University.

We have many Kubota Heritage Trees throughout campus. Most of our mature evergreens are in this family and they are the meat and potatoes of the "awe" affect that our campus grounds have on visitors. But one of my favorite Kubota trees is the lovely "Bloodgood" Japanese maple that lives at the front entrance to the University Services building. It's perfect and eloquent branching pattern calms my heart every time I pass under it, summer and winter.

For some, the harvest from the Brown Turkey Fig in the Ciscoe Morris Biodiversity Garden is the time for their yearly pilgrimage to its fragrant canopy. As our Edible Campus fruiting trees mature, many families are fed and connections are made with these bountiful trees.

I see passersby photographing the full bloom of a young Usuzmi Flowering Cherry near the 1103 E. Madison building and I smile to myself. I know that it was a gift from Father Howell's brother, Bill. It's a variety developed at WSU to be particularly disease resistant.

Another much photographed tree is the Sargent Magnolia near the entrance to the Administration building (pictured above) . Striking in bloom and then fading into the background, it has a special place in history too. George Pinyuh, longtime King County extension agent, gave the tiny sapling he had grown from seed to Ciscoe Morris to plant on the SU campus in the early 1980's. We saw the first few blooms in 1998, enormous tissue-paper-like creatures on otherwise naked branches. Now it is breath-taking, filling the sky with its pinkish white blossoms in early March.

There are many more trees with a backstory that call our campus home. Look for a new self-guided walking tour map coming this spring, "Our Significant Trees." Find it on our webpage and do some exploring, maybe learn the intriguing history of the tree outside your window.