Heritage Trees: Exploring the Campus Arboretum

April 12, 2011

Today, a Monday as a matter of fact, Tanya Quist, director of the Campus Arboretum and a professor in the Plant Sciences Department, kneels beside a shrub outside the Arizona State Museum. On hands and knees, she strips leaves off a branch of the tecoma stans, also known as Arizona Yellowbell. Researchers at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine had emailed her a request for six pounds of leaves from the plant. They are testing it for therapeutic properties to treat tumors.

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“One of the functions of an arboretum is to maintain an inventory of our tree collection and to make it available to the public,” explains Quist. “We have a database and maintain a web interface that allows anyone to search for plants in our collection. And we’re happy to provide plant materials to other institutions for research.”

Along with the Arizona Yellowbell leaves, Quist recently was out gathering seeds fromargania spinosa, whose nut provides an oil used in the cosmetics industry.

The University of Arizona was designated a TreeCampus USA nearly a decade ago, but maintaining the collection of trees has been a priority since the early days of the University, 125 years ago. One of the first orders of business when the University was founded was to plant trees, says Quist, pointing out a grove of silvery olive trees on the west side of campus. “Those trees are as old as the University.”

Today, the campus boasts nearly 8,000 trees representing 400 different species from around the world. When Quist and her students give campus tours to students, faculty, staff and visitors, they like to tell the stories of the heritage trees.

“There are 21 trees with that designation,” says Quist, “and each one tells a story about the unique history of this place.”

Take, for example, the “Moon Tree”—a sycamore grown from a seed that went to the moon on the Apollo 14 mission in 1976. “The scientists wanted to know if experiencing zero gravity would have any discernible effect on the trees, so they took the seeds into space and then later grew them into seedling. As a land grant university, we were given one of the seedlings to plant on campus,” says Quist. Today, the Moon Tree flourishes beside the Space Sciences building.

Starting in the early Spring, Quist and her students will be offering 30-minute tours of the Campus Arboretum focused on themes that will interest the community: edible landscapes, trees that thrive in the Tucson climate, medicinal plants, and the perennial—pun intended—favorite: trees in bloom.

“The variety of life growing around us compels us to notice, and marvel, and appreciate the cycles of life and of the seasons,” says Quist, “and our interconnection with nature.“

Visit the University of Arizona Campus Arboretum at http://arboretum.arizona.edu/