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Barking up the right tree: Campus arboretum reflects years of dedication

By Rachel Bink (BSFR ’22)

New mobile-friendly maps offer fresh air and ideas to explore campus


Beyond its historic buildings and gardens, the University of Georgia’s campus is known for something that surrounds us, yet too often goes unnoticed: its trees.

Designated as an arboretum decades ago, now a new series of online, self-guided tours allow visitors to get outside, enjoy the outdoors and also learn about the trees that provide beauty, visual interest and a respite from the sun. An arboretum ensures sustained tree planting and maintenance, while also providing opportunities for research and learning.

“A lot of folks walk by on the sidewalk and never notice what surrounds them,” said Kim Coder, a member of the UGA Campus Arboretum committee and Professor of Tree Biology & Health Care at the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. “If you just have a good pair of walking shoes you can take short walks and never run out of new things to see on campus and the landscape.”

The idea for an arboretum began decades ago with the goals of maintaining and enhancing the plant diversity on campus. This is accomplished by mapping, labeling and otherwise promoting the existing and future plant collections. UGA’s main campus includes almost 7,000 trees, according to a 2020 study by Warnell faculty and students, representing 201 species.

In 2019, horticulture student Kendall Busher, as an intern with the UGA Office of Sustainability, began to create a series of interactive maps to highlight various walking tours on campus. Now, these mobile-friendly maps are assembled can be accessed at Hosted by UGA’s Office of Sustainability and UGA’s Campus Arboretum Committee, the website offers interactive walking tours of North Campus, Central Campus, South Campus, Founders Garden and Oconee Forest Park.


A growing process

The process of creating a campus arboretum began more than 20 years ago, spearheaded by now-retired UGA horticulture professor Michael Dirr and legendary football coach Vince Dooley. Their passion for plants brought them together decades ago.

Dirr is responsible for the introduction of more than 50 new plant varietals and has been recognized as the No. 1 academic contributor to the landscape industry by Landscape Management magazine. His “Manual of Woody Landscape Plants” and “Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation” are essential resources for the landscape and nursery industry.
Dooley, the coach of UGA's six-time SEC and 1980 National Championship-winning football team, was a close friend of Dirr's. Dooley's passion for horticulture grew in retirement.

Once Dirr and Dooley had a vision for the future of campus trees, they began inviting UGA professionals to attend an inaugural meeting to discuss goals and plans for this new initiative.

“We actually received paper invitations, because this was before the age of email” said Warnell professor Scott Merkle, a fellow member of the UGA Campus Arboretum committee.

Professionals from a variety of disciplines comprise this committee, each bringing their own unique expertise, with the unified goal of making UGA’s campus arboretum better. For example, Merkle consults on proper signage and adding new species, while Coder’s focus is trying to encourage more Georgia native species.

Today, this committee includes campus representatives from the forestry, horticulture and environmental design disciplines, as well as the UGA Office of Sustainability and the UGA Grounds Department. Grounds Department staff assisted in designing the tours, and also provide day-to-day maintenance and care of the trees and their corresponding signs.


Student benefits

With the designation in place, UGA’s Office of Sustainability stepped in to assist in the development of mobile-friendly maps to highlight certain specimens. Not only are the maps useful for visitors to campus, but they also play a role in day-to-day education. The diversity of woody plants serves classes in plant biology, forestry, ecology, horticulture and landscape architecture. Students in art, photography, literature and other disciplines use the campus arboretum as a natural extension of the classroom.

“This is so great for students to use as a study tool because they can see the exact location and the specimen is normally an accurate representative of the species or varietal,” said Merkle. Throughout campus, small signs at the base of various trees show its common and scientific name. “The online campus arboretum walking tours offer short descriptions of each tree.”

Of the 201 total species on UGA’s main campus, the most common are flowering dogwood, crepemyrtle and water oak. The top 15 species account for nearly half of all the trees across campus, which points to the effort needed to include a greater variety of species, said Coder.

“That diversity has come from doing a campus inventory of different species, their locations, and saying, ‘Well, we have a lot of this one, we need more of that,’” said Coder. “Or ‘You know, we don’t have enough Georgia natives’ or ‘We don’t have some of these unique trees from around the world that should grow here.’ So, the (Campus Arboretum) Committee helps try to formulate what we can do to make the outside environment of our campus a tree-filled and healthy place.”


Keeping an eye out

Among the thousands of trees on campus, there are more than a handful that can catch your eye. Here are a few highlights to look for when out and about.

Weeping gold white willow (Salix alba “Tristis”): Native to parks of Africa, Europe and Asia, this tree has become naturalized to parts of the United States. Historically, this tree’s bark has been used to treat aches, pains and gout due to its naturally occurring salicilin, a precursor to the main ingredient of aspirin.

Athena Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia “Athena”): Notable for its “jigsaw”-shaped peeling bark, Chinese elm is a hardy species that has become invasive in our area. The “Athena” cultivar was developed and promoted by UGA horticulture professor Michael Dirr, who also co-founded the Campus Arboretum Committee.

Heart of Gold redbud (Cercis canadensis “hearts of gold”): This native tree flowers from its stems and trunks from April to May before becoming legume pods in June. Native Americans would consume this redbud's flowers and seeds by boiling or roasting.

Chaste tree (Vitus agnus-castus): This Mediterranean ornamental's lilac blooms attract butterflies during the summertime. Chaste tree has medicinal uses tracing back millennia and is used in modern herbal medicine to regulate hormones during menstruation and menopause.

Coder noted that trees also contribute to an area’s overall health and well-being. By lowering temperatures of the pavement, preventing erosion and providing softness to the right angles and glare of a built landscape, trees are an asset.

Now, with the arboretum in place, it provides a mechanism for more people to understand the urban forest that surrounds them.

“The campus arboretum was here well before we ever did anything to formalize it, and it will be here a long time after all of us are gone,” said Coder. “It needs to be used for the experience of a tree-covered campus and for the educational value of it all over campus.”

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