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Going out on a limb for Berkeley's venerable trees

Campus gingko tree  The trees of Berkeley: Online slide show

– Take away the lecture halls, the brilliant students, the Nobel laureates, even take away the Campanile and the tie-dye, and there'd still be a unique feel to Berkeley. Where to find it? Try the trees.

Trees have been an integral part of the Berkeley campus since before there was a campus. An 1873 survey – performed the year the first students attended the new University of California at Berkeley – reported there were more than 500 species of native and foreign trees and shrubs growing on the site.

 London Plane trees at the Campanile Esplanade
London plane trees along the Campanile Esplanade, awaiting their winter pruning, are one of the signature trees of the Berkeley campus. (Steve McConnell photo)
 

And that was only the beginning. Horticulture and agriculture were major fields at the school's founding, and planting seeds gathered from abroad or cultivated in campus greenhouses added hundreds more specimens to the tree inventory. The original campus botanical garden, located north of Doe Library on what is today Memorial Glade and adjacent building sites, introduced a number of unique specimens to campus, some of which remain today.

A handful of famous campus trees have even made it into the record books. Responding to an application by 50 residents in 1996, the City of Berkeley has granted legal landmark status to six exceptional campus trees or groves.

Other trees, while not officially landmarks, are notable in their own right. Several trees planted more than a century ago are dedicated as memorials to some of the founding fathers of the university. Other rare and beautiful specimens have served as popular meeting places, or have played a role in the history that took place beneath their branches.

But while history may grow on trees, the money to maintain them does not. Facing deepening budget difficulties, the campus has had to severely prune spending on tree planting and maintenance. The budget for tree replacement was already down to a mere $1,000 a year before the current state budget crisis struck. And the cutbacks come just as the campus's heritage trees are needing more and more care to help them reach a graceful old age. The tree crew spends considerable time – and money – treating diseases, bracing sagging branches and otherwise battling the ravages of time.

Those who enjoy the shapes, the shade and the green leafiness of Berkeley's trees now have a chance to give a little green back. Campus arborist Richard Trout has launched the UC Berkeley Tree Fund to support the planting of new trees, and to care for the campus's oldest and most cherished trees. The Tree Fund so far has raised more than $6,000, and will be forming a committee this spring to allocate the money raised to the campus's most pressing arboreal projects, like mitigating construction damage and aerating compacted soil around tree roots.

Sometimes the fund leads to direct benefits. Phil Cody, campus Grounds Services manager, relates the story of a Boalt Hall professor who was being wooed by an East Coast university. Boalt officials thought they might just be able to persuade him to stay, and to sweeten the deal they asked Cody to prune the trees outside the professor's office to restore his view of San Francisco Bay. The tree crew went to work (the trees had needed pruning anyway), the professor didn't bolt from Boalt, and in fact was so pleased that eventually he donated $500 to the Tree Fund and thanked the tree crew for its "amazingly prompt ... very thoughtful [and] professional" work.

To learn more about the trees of Berkeley, or to do your bit to keep the campus green (including making an online donation to the UC Berkeley Tree Fund), visit the Tree Fund website.