Know your tree friends: WU creates online Arboretum database

Elia/Longyu Zhang | Contributing Writer

We pass by trees every day on campus, probably as often as we pass our friends. But how much do we know about the nature around us?

Washington University is currently developing an Arboretum database through which campus trees are catalogued. Information about these trees is published on the website, and data of these trees is being recorded for research.

Photo by Grace Bruton

Each tree featured on the site has a QR Code passersby can scan to learn more information about it, according to Kent Theiling, grounds and landscape design manager of maintenance administration.

“This project began approximately four years ago with 25 trees,” Theiling wrote in a statement to Student Life. “Tree Tags have been installed to create curiosity as people walk by them…Currently there are 58 trees on Danforth Campus with Tree Tags. Later this Fall there will be 85 trees with Tree Tags.”

Cassie Hage, sustainability manager in the Office of Sustainability, pointed out the University’s recognition as a Tree Campus USA by the Arbor Day Foundation. Wash. U. has achieved level one status by cataloging 25 trees and is now pursuing level two status, which requires 100 trees to be tagged.

“The project is a collaboration between the Facilities Department and the Grounds team and the Sustainability Exchange team,” Hage said. “The collection of students that changes over the semesters and professor Stan Braude who’s been…coaching the students and then the Office of Sustainability that aims to help with the coordination and be a resource also promotes the final product to the campus community and the broader community.”

Senior Jackie Wong, one of the student managers of DevSTAC, a group of Student Technology Services (STS) employees who can be hired to work on new technologies for the Wash. U. community, expressed her excitement for working with people across disciplines when developing the Arboretum website.

“It’s been really cool [because] we all come from different backgrounds,” Wong said. “Some of us with our [computer science] background…doing developer stuff, some of us do more of these Sam Fox, graphic design work and then some of the students come from the environmental and sustainability focus. So it’s really cool seeing all of us coming from so many different backgrounds working on this one higher goal that we are working towards.”

Professor of Practice in Biology Stan Braude compared the Arboretum project to an “alive” museum.

“If in a museum you have a collection of pictures, in an arboretum you have a collection of trees,” Braude said. “And like museums there are two jobs for the Arboretum: one job is education, and the other is research.”

Hage highlighted the educational function of the project, as local St. Louis school children as well as visitors to campus will be able to interact with the tree tags.

“The kindergarten through 12th grade classes could utilize these resources by coming in to campus and interacting with the tree identifications and creating programming curriculum around that,” Hage said. “Prospective students and their families, alumni, those types of groups that are visiting campus, can take this tree tour and utilize this in different ways such as learning more about campus. From an alumni perspective, you could look back at what a tree looked like when you were here thirty years ago or whatever and see how those trees have grown over time.”

According to Braude, two examples of research questions that the Arboretum project tries to answer are how campus trees grow differently from forest trees, and what the effect of climate change is.

“[T]hese trees have different light, different temperatures because of the buildings and concrete, they may also benefit from the watering for the grass…” Braude said. “The biggest question that people are just beginning to have solid answers [is] how climate change is affecting the plants and animals. This Arboretum is brand new, so we are just beginning to collect that data. But we will be able to see over the next 20 or 50 years… We won’t know if we don’t keep collecting data every year.”

Theiling expressed his appreciation for the students who work on the project.

“This would not have been possible without the help of students enrolled in the Sustainability Exchange program doing the [research] for each tree and students from STS developing the website,” Theiling said. “Both groups have used their photography skills as well for pictures for the trees. There are other peer universities which also have Arboretums with identified trees. However, I feel ours is unique because of the student involvement with the project.”

Braude noted that the greatest advantage of the Arboretum project is that it gives students the opportunity to gain a different view of the world by seeing trees as unique.

“I would say the biggest benefit to the students is once you learn the trees and you see each tree as an individual, the way you see the world changes completely,” Braude said. “Just like you could tell me, ‘Which friends did you see today in the Bear’s Den?’…[Students in this project] see the trees the same way. Even though you didn’t look for those friends, you could still tell me you remember. They see the trees like a friend, like an individual, just by walking past, and they notice.”

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