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The university in their forest

While Duke University is by no means the only institution to claim the title of ‘University in the Forest’ (e.g. Drew University), it has done so since early after the time its indenture was written and has made good on its claim to the title through the prolific work of the School of Forestry (formerly housed in the Reuben-Cooke building, then the Biological Sciences Building, until being formally absorbed into the Nicholas School of the Environment in the 1990s). 

Walking around the campus perimeter or between campuses makes abundantly clear that the buildings that compose Duke are all recent intrusions into a densely forested elevation. The land East Campus now occupies changed hands between wealthy Durhamites several times before it was donated to Trinity College, but West was always a forest. The CMA acknowledges that both campuses sit on the ancestral lands of the Shakori, Eno and Tuscarora people who doubtless knew the trees and other native plants with intimate indigenous wisdom. Duke students today engage with the campuses mostly through the spaces built not by natural ecological processes but by architectural firms and construction contractors. The knowledge of which trees tower over you as you walk the quad or fill your camera roll come springtime is not part of first-years’ orientation, and besides those who specialize in the local ecological flora as an object of study, most students never acquire that knowledge. 

In an effort to inspire more connection to the plant biotic community we live with at Duke, and in another series of archetypes, I hope to demonstrate the worth and wealth of meaning present in the trees on campus that contain no less brilliance in their accomplishments than the university in their forest. 

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THE WILLOW OAK: The obvious lead in the cast of campus trees, Quercus phellos dominates much of the main quads of both East and West Campus. A native species used most frequently by urban planners and landscape architects as ornamental trees because of its balance between axial and radial dominance, the common name derives from the obvious difference that this tree bears in distinction from its other oak siblings—leaves shaped like long blades almost like grass or a willow tree’s leaves. A fast grower and producer of a prolific acorn crop (the main supplier for all the campus squirrels), this species lines the quads and creates Duke’s central canopy. The four in the quad between WU and the Rubinstein Library in front of the Chapel include one of the oldest on campus, present in some of the films and photos from the 1930’s. They pose statuesque in front of Languages, Social Sciences, Few, Kilgo and Craven, and they provide the shade that makes a day dwelt on the quad so possible and pleasant. 

THE MAGNOLIA: A species so old that it is common to both the southeastern US and east Asia due to their contiguity when the continents touched in eons past, the Magnolia tree has been used medicinally by peoples indigenous to both areas for millennia. Taking the bark, crushing it thoroughly, boiling the pulp and drinking the tangy tea has been used to aid sleep, treat anxiety, reduce muscle spasms and soothe stomach problems. Contemporary research gives scientific backing to such use—the major compounds magnolol and honokiol act on GABA receptors in the nervous system similar to benzodiazepines, quieting overactive nerves and generating calm, something the students at Duke would unequivocally benefit from. With large, leathery white flowers that evolved before bees and depended on giant beetles for pollination at first, the magnolia is not only medicine but art as well, producing one of the most powerful and complex fragrances each spring and summer. Two varieties, grandiflora (the white-flowered one), and liliflora (the deep pink-flowered one), fill everyone’s spring and summer with an ancient beauty. Next time you pass by one near the Chapel or Social Sciences building, take a minute to look. 

THE CHERRY TREE: Ornamental Prunus subgenus Cerasus fill many corners of the quad, and the two weeks in the spring when they flower and fill sightlines with white, then pink, then green are a new performance every year that never gets old. Often known as Japanese Cherry or sakura because many cultivars derive from Japan where they produce the country’s national flower, this northern hemisphere plant has represented the volatility of change and mortality because of the brief period of its flowering in the spring. A significant reminder that beauty is not absent, even in death. 

THE EASTERN REDBUD: Along with the cherry blossoms each spring, the shorter Cercis canadensis or griffithii produce the deep pink flowers you see along Chapel Drive and dotted around the campus buildings. Best known for their showy flowers that blossom on their branches and sometimes on the trunk itself, the floral beauty is not uncommonly eaten, boiled, fried or raw. The spice in the twigs has been used to season game meat such as venison throughout Appalachia, giving it the name ‘spicewood tree’ in some parts of the mountains. Perhaps when Chef’s Kitchen opens back up there might be a tasting for all its different applications. 

THE WISTERIA: A large genus of bines (twining vines) that are related to legumes climb up all around campus and produce abundant purple flower clusters throughout. Named by botanist T. Nuttal after the American anatomist Caspar Wistar, Wisteria like Magnolia and cherry blossoms have a significant connection to east Asia as well as eastern North America. Frequently seen as a symbol in Japanese heraldry, the species produces a jasmine-like fragrance that is fullest in the middle of spring. So fast-growing that it is considered an invasive species for the southeastern US, the mature plant can be incredibly hardy and grows up and around the trunks of the trees around it, ornamenting them with their floral bunches all while fixing nitrogen in the soil. 

THE DOGWOOD: The state tree of North Carolina, Cornus florida dots a few spaces around campus and between East and West, showing off its four-part floral bracts each spring with sunny flair. They grow best in North Carolina’s upper southern climate, and send down their drupes each season to propagate more. Often when I pass by them, I think of the particular disease-resistant cultivar named ‘Appalachian Spring’ and hear the music of Copland’s symphony start swaying through the tree’s crooked branches. 

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Next time you take a walk around campus, notice the trees that compose the forest our university sits within. I have identified only the smallest portion of all the trees you can find on campus, let alone the immense variety of other plants that pop up everywhere from Duke Pond to the Bishop’s House. But I hope that by knowing a little bit more about the plant biological reality you live in as a student, work in as faculty, staff or administrator and pass by as a visitor, you might come to orient yourself with the living things around you that aren’t merely human. 

Nicholas Chrapliwy is a Trinity senior. His column “archetypical” runs on alternate Fridays.

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