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The giving trees of Ohio State

April 28, 2017

Ohio State's leafy giants are more than just appealing to the eye. They have the capability to save the university as much as $1 million each year.

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Buckeye Grove

Buckeye Grove contains one tree for each of the 186 football players named a First Team All-American.

A resident of the Oval and longtime Ohio State supporter has pledged nearly $12,000 to the university: Platanus occidentalis, sycamore tree just south of Hopkins Hall, will provide in-kind donations of storm-water management, air-pollution removal, HVAC services and other benefits to be delivered over 25 years.

In all, about 14,000 donors with roots in the Columbus campus — many of them actual buckeyes — have made similar pledges totaling more than $25 million over the next quarter century.

Everyone knows trees are beautiful — try to imagine Mirror Lake Hollow or the Oval without their leafy canopies — but who knew they actually contribute to the university as lifelong donors?

Constitution tree Once part of an entire grove of trees that lined the Oval when the university was founded, this sycamore in front of Hughes Hall is verified to have existed before the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

“Instead of considering them service providers, people tend to think trees are just there,” said Mary Maloney, director of Chadwick Arboretum and Learning Gardens at Ohio State.

Of course, shaded buildings cost less to cool in summer than those in full sun; in winter, mature trees can slow harsh winds and reduce heating expenses. But because trees behave in predictable ways, it’s also possible to calculate less obvious benefits.

That aforementioned sycamore? At 240 years old, it sequesters nearly 2,500 pounds of carbon dioxide per year along with ozone, nitrogen, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter — airborne gunk that contributes to heart attacks, strokes, asthma and other dangerous maladies. It also diverts some 7,800 gallons of rainwater annually from university sewer systems.

“A good chunk of Ohio State’s operational funds goes toward handling rainfall runoff,” Maloney said. “The more hard surfaces we have, the more costly that becomes.”

And that sponged-up water allows trees to mitigate heat in yet another way as it wafts from leaves as vapor; the process actually lowers surrounding air temperature — a welcome outcome on urban heat islands such as the Columbus campus.

A new era in tree stewardship began in 2010, when two ancient sycamores blocked a temporary service road to be built during medical center construction. Some Ohio State employees noticed a plaque stating that the trees, thought to be 250 to 300 years old, marked an Underground Railroad trail along an old stream linking Mirror Lake to the Olentangy River.

A grassroots effort by staff, faculty and students saved the sycamores and prompted Maloney and other arboreally minded folk to launch Arbo-Blitz, an effort to track university trees. Nearly every Friday year round, arboretum staff member Chris Voise traipses around campus with volunteers to record the vital statistics of every tree. Today’s goal is no net loss — not only in the number of trees, but also in the level of service they provide. 

Many mature specimens have made way for campus construction, and a few others died of natural causes. The average campus tree is now 17, but it takes 25 years for a tree to start doing serious magic. Lopping off an 80-year-old tree and planting a compensatory sapling elsewhere would be, in human terms, like replacing a brilliant physics professor with a 10-year-old kid who shows promise in science.

Underground railroad trees Two sycamore trees flanking John H. Herrick Drive, thought to be 250 to 300 years old, marked an Underground Railroad trail along an old stream linking Mirror Lake to the Olentangy River.

Maloney explains that while buildings depreciate from the moment they open, trees gain value as they grow. While many buildings have risen and fallen since the university’s founding in 1870, another sycamore on the oval — the Constitution Tree — has been sucking CO2 from the air since at least 1776. In fact, trees’ longevity makes them ideal commemorative markers.

Buckeye Grove, for instance, boasts a tree for each of the university’s 186 First Team All-Americans. An English oak just south of Thompson Library was one of four saplings awarded to Jesse Owens during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin — one for each of his gold medals. Living history, Maloney calls them.

Yet, you need not be a world-class athlete to have a buckeye or oak in your name. Slipping in a department promotion, Maloney noted that for a $3,000 donation to Chadwick, you, too, can have your own Ohio State tree. Among her green dreams is to find an affordable way for interested students to plant trees during their time here, or to leave one behind when they graduate. 

“Wouldn’t that be marvelous? You could have your own tree to visit when you came back to campus,” she said. Such plantings would benefit generations of stressed-out students to come, she added. “Research shows that trees lower people’s anxiety levels and increase concentration. When a space has lots of trees, people just feel better, even if they don’t know why.”