In 1903, marking the birthday of Baylor President Samuel Palmer Brooks, a ritual known as “tree-planting” was born. Each year, students would gather on the Quadrangle, speeches were made, and each of the seniors would scoop dirt around the roots of a new tree planted at Baylor University.
The annual ceremony was discontinued after 1919, but as the campus expanded over the century, the old traditions so well-established in the roots of the university meant that tree-planting became a part of the construction of every new building.
“Baylor has a rich tree-planting history dating back to 1903, when Baylor students began the annual tradition of planting trees to beautify the campus,” explains Andy Trimble, Aramark Facilities Management Certified Grounds Manager and a Certified Arborist at Baylor University who has been maintaining the trees on campus since 1996. “There are still groups that plant trees every year, continuing this tradition. In recent years class projects have planted trees across campus thus ensuring a beautiful landscape for generations to come.”
In April 2021, $30,000 was allocated by a Baylor Student Government bill, with additional funding from Baylor Sustainability, for the planting of 27 new trees across campus. At the time, former Student Government leader Kate Moffatt (BA ’21) said, “Trees help students cool as they walk to class, prevent erosion of the land, make our campus more beautiful, and may even reduce the risk of depression.”
According to Trimble, somewhere back about 20 years ago, administrators across the country realized that the landscape plays a big part in the decision-making process of prospective students and their parents.
“This realization strengthened the focus on landscapes in general,” he explains. “As anyone can see when arriving on the Baylor campus, trees are a major part of the landscape.”
Trimble acknowledged the devastations caused by weather events — especially noting the drought in 2011, and the winter storm in February 2021 — but is optimistic about the trees at Baylor.
“Trees are very resilient. They often do better without human interaction than with it. That being said, we actively work to ensure the long-term health of the trees on campus. Monitoring irrigation around the trees and keeping the soil healthy and aerified are key factors,” Trimble says. “Extreme weather events have killed trees on campus, and it’s a sad thing to have to remove an old tree from campus but it’s necessary from time to time for the safety of the students, faculty, and staff.”
He notes that they continue to replant trees every year, both to replace and replenish.
“We place the right trees in the right place,” he says, adding, “and that’s important and to make sure there’s a plant diversity that strengthens the landscape against devastation from disease or pathogens.”
Trimble is very aware of how important trees are for the environment, recognizing their role in taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, and the cooling effect they have on the landscape and surrounding buildings.
“All of these things are true and important. Yet the trees on campus are more than this. They are an element in the canvas that is Baylor,” he explains. “The students at Baylor make lifelong friends, and study and play in the shade of these trees. They might propose to their soulmate on a swing hung from one of these trees. Maybe they’ll compose a hit song or discover a link in the chain to cure cancer under one of these trees. Trees help us fulfill our mission, which is to maximize the student experience on campus by maintaining aesthetically pleasing landscapes — all to further the mission of Baylor University.”
Recently retired, Trimble had been speaking to classes each spring about the history of campus trees and the benefits they bring to Baylor and the environment in general. He senses a renewed interest from those he’s talked to.
“Our students today are environmentally savvy. They understand how the flora and fauna contribute to the overall health of the planet, and they appear to be interested in leaving a legacy for the future as has been left for them,” he says. “The Waco community benefits from the landscape as well as the Baylor family. There are many events throughout the year that invite the community to share in the experience that is Baylor.”
Given there are so many hundreds of outstanding trees on campus, we decided to put Trimble on the spot and select three trees that he considered to be exceptional.
“As you might imagine, many trees on campus are worth pointing out. It’s hard to pick just three,” he explains. “However, my first choice would be the 67-inch Live Oak, Quercus virginiana, in the Penland Dorm parking lot. Most of the trees on campus were planted as the college was developed, but this one predates the university in Waco. Chances are that this tree was already here long before Baylor. My second choice would be the 53-inch Burr Oak, Quercus macrocarpa, at Marrs McLean Gym. Standing under that tree is a truly humbling experience. That massive tree was small when the gym was dedicated back in 1938. And finally, I’d have to nominate the Ginkgo Biloba at the Quad on 5th Street; it has a plaque on it dating back to the turn of the 20th century. Ginkgoes grow slowly and are rarely found this large.”
According to Smith Getterman (BA ’04, MA ’07), Director of Sustainability & Special Projects at Baylor University, the university is in conversation with students and student government specifically about replicating the success of the tree-planting traditions of old. Meanwhile, he reports that the grounds crew is always evaluating the campus and looking for opportunities to plant new trees as the campus physically grows and changes with the growing population.
“Most recently, we were able to complete our first full ‘tree inventory,’ giving us a better idea of what kinds of trees we have on campus, their placement, and their locations,” he explains. “Arbor Day is not something we have celebrated on campus in some time, but we are in the very early stages of exploring becoming a Tree Campus USA member and, within that process, Arbor Day may once again become something that is noted within our community.”
He added that Baylor continues the tradition of decorating Christmas trees around campus.
“Baylor’s trees are a reason many are first drawn to our campus. But the longer you spend under their shade, the more you realize how much they have to offer us. They are a reminder of God’s faithfulness: deeply rooted, able to withstand every storm, and willing to comfort all who seek it,” Getterman said. “They are a reminder that ‘But blessed are those who trust in the Lord and have made the Lord their hope and confidence. They are like trees planted along a riverbank, with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought.’ [Jeremiah 17:7-8].”
Cover photo courtesy of Jeff Floyd