The Crimson White

UA arboretum untapped resource

Lauren Ferguson

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Not far from the University of Alabama campus sits a small cinder-block building surrounded by towering trees, a collection of greenhouses and a wooded entrance to nature trails. Inside the office space, Monica Watkins sifts through dusty file folders as she prepares for her new position as the University’s arboretum director.

“[Becoming the director] was always something that I had hoped would happen, since I really enjoyed my time as an undergraduate,” Watkins, a UA alumnus and former arboretum volunteer, said. “But I didn’t actually think it would work out where I would come back here and be at the arboretum, so it’s really nice that it’s worked out.”

The University’s arboretum, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008, has come a long way. Before the University’s acquisition of the arboretum property, the land belonged to the federal government and had been allocated to Tuscaloosa’s Veteran’s Administration Hospital.

“In the mid-1950s Dr. Henry Jay Walker, who was chair of the biology department, Dr. Gibbes Patton of the biology department and Dr. Fred Maxwell, who was in the engineering department, got together, and they had a vision for an outdoor laboratory,” Mary Jo Modica, former arboretum horticulturalist, said. “So they approached the V.A. about that land. They had that mission for themselves. They wanted a place so that the science students could go and measure and do experiments.”

(See also “Garden project promotes growth“)

According to University records, in 1956 UA president Oliver Carmichael submitted an application to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare for the allocation of 136 acres of federal land from the V.A. hospital. The land donation was required to have educational and recreational components, so Carmichael’s proposal included 93 acres for an arboretum, an area for ecological study and a lake, as well as 27 acres for a nine-hole golf course.

“An arboretum is an area that is set aside permanently for the cultivation, propagation and preservation of trees, shrubs and other woody plants for the teaching of biology and scientific research,” the proposal stated. “Arboretums are usually open to the public for educational purposes.”

The proposal further stated that while arboretums, at the time, were not as common in the United States as they were in Europe, Tuscaloosa County “was ideally situated, in terms of climate and geography, for the assemblage and cultivation of representative woody plants for the study in the Southeast.”

Carmichael’s 1956 proposal also requested that the University golf course, which would sit adjacent to the arboretum property, be named Harry Pritchett Golf Course.

After the proposal’s submission, there was initial dissent among biology department members and administrators over the possible redistribution of land between the arboretum and the golf course. The original acreage proportioned for the golf course was deemed too small. More land would either need to be purchased or taken out of the allotted arboretum acreage.

“We are in full agreement that the University should construct not only a good, standard golf course but that the needs of both the arboretum and the golf course should be given equal thought and due consideration in planning the usage of the 136 acre tract,” a February 1958 report from the biology department stated. “We feel that the statements in the President Carmichael’s Dec. 3, 1956, application were made in good faith and that they should be kept.”

(See also “Groups to donate 30,000 trees to areas uprooted by tornado“)

The golf course area was later expanded to create a standard 18-hole course.

UA media relations spokesperson Cathy Andreen said development of the arboretum officially began in 1958, and roads were completed to fully access the property in December 1959. The arboretum opened under the direction of Gibbes Patton, a biology professor at the time, and was followed by Joab Thomas, a former University president, as the second director.

Growth over the years

Over the course of several decades, the arboretum has become home to an increasing collection of plant and tree species, both native and non-native.

“One of Dr. Thomas’ goals was to bring in as many interesting plants as he could,” Modica said. “One of the things he did that I was always really grateful for was — say you have a sweet gum [tree] in Alabama. Well there would be a mirror one from southeast Asia from when the tectonic plates were together. Then they separated, of course. So when the tectonic plate shifted, that was something he was interested in, those kinds of sister plants.”

Modica said the arboretum is also home to a species known as Croton alabamensis, which is only known to be found in a few places in Alabama, North Carolina and Texas.

“We have the national champion Alabama Choke Cherry, Prunus alabamensis,” Modica said. “It’s the largest one measured in the country. They just got the designation for that I think last year.”

Under the leadership of Modica, who served for 34 years as the horticulturalist, the arboretum grew a loyal following of volunteers and visitors. Through volunteer help, Modica said she was able to develop demonstration gardens, a wildflower garden, a Black Belt garden and a vegetable garden.

“We had University students that were education coordinators who worked to introduce children to Alabama’s native habitats,” Modica said. “What I loved about that, over my 34 years, is that so many of these children have come back as adults, and they say, ‘Oh we used to come here as kids, and I really want to make sure my child was here and got to know it.’ We grew an audience if you could think about it that way.”

1983 marked the 25th anniversary of the arboretum and its first plant sale. They celebrated throughout the year with monthly events, be it a speaker or arboretum walk, and culminated with a public plant sale. At the time, gardening was a developing fad. Modica said it was rare to find homegrown herbs or vegetables, so the arboretum grew them for the plant sale.

“We grew all the plants for the plant sale, like yellow cherry tomatoes and all kinds of herbs,” Modica said. “Nobody was doing that. They didn’t exist: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and interesting bed plants like flowering annuals and perennials. That’s how we started out, and that’s what we became known for.”

Currently, the arboretum offers around two miles of walking trails, a nationally-recognized tree platform built into the canopy level of a white oak tree, an outdoor amphitheater, greenhouses, a field station and a pond for native aquatic wildlife.

Grover Ward, a UA professor emeritus who taught biology for 32 years, used the arboretum as a teaching resource for his ecology lab classes.

“I used it as a multi-class exercise in measuring vegetation, trees largely,” Ward said. “I would take classes out, and they would identify trees, we would measure their diameters and we would count them. Then we would come back and over the course of several weeks do analysis and then write a paper.”

Ward said that while some were not fond of outdoor class experiments, the majority of his students enjoyed and benefited from the learning experience.

Looking forward

With the arrival of spring weather, warm temperatures give way to budding vegetation and what Modica said she believes is the best season at the arboretum. The longer days yield more time for visitors’ afternoon hikes.

“From this point through May, I can just feel the energy coming up from the ground,” Modica said.

For those who have not visited the arboretum, it can often be misidentified with the former golf course operated by the University from 1959-2003. Andreen said golf course membership and overall rounds of golf played have declined, making it financially unfeasible for UA to continue to operate and maintain the course.

The property now serves as a cross-country course and a venue for occasional arboretum events, and Andreen said the University does not currently have any new plans for the space.

Watkins said the key distinction is the former golf course area is not a part of the arboretum, even though the signage and entrance to space often confuse visitors.

While Watkins has only been director for a few weeks, she said she looks forward to the many opportunities that await the future.

“Since I’ve graduated from the University, it’s been over 10 years, and the University has changed in leaps and bounds,” Watkins said. “I don’t feel like there is anything wrong with the arboretum, but we need to catch up. Provide a lot of the services and expectations of the experience. A lot of that is not having someone here for a couple of years.”

The number of visitors at the arboretum has grown significantly over the years, yet the space has maintained its sense of quietude, which draws in many students and community members.

“I think people just enjoy the peace and relaxation,” Watkins said. “The students just love to come out and take a walk and look at the trees and learn something. I want to make it easier for them to get a little bit of education value out of it, because people are curious. I know students are curious.”

(See also “UA greenhouse lends space for research“)

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Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894
UA arboretum untapped resource