Davis Arboretum: A Forest on The Plains
By Cole Sikes, Multimedia Specialist, Alabama Forestry Commission,
with contributions from Patrick Thompson, Arboretum Specialist, Auburn University
Nestled behind the president’s mansion at Auburn University lies a 14-acre plot of land that is filled with forestry. This parcel of Alabama was reserved for the unique function of a living showcase of the state’s amazing biodiversity to anyone who desired to take a stroll down its trails and quaint outdoor corridors. From simple saplings to the pinnacle of pines, the Donald E. Davis Arboretum displays a small taste of what is truly Alabama. Donald E. Davis was a well-known professor at Auburn University where he taught his students the scale and importance of their natural resources. The idea of an arboretum at the university was first proposed by Dr. Davis during a School of Agriculture Teaching Seminar in 1959. A resolution was passed at the meeting asking that a plot of land located immediately south of the school president’s home be used as an arboretum for the native trees of Alabama. The plot contained woodland, swamp, and pastureland areas – a perfect place for forestry on The Plains. After final approval of the arboretum in 1963, the university and Dr. Davis started to get their hands dirty, planning the layout and future additions to the then 7.5-acre parcel. Among the cal-lused hands that contributed was the property’s first manager, William J. Reynolds. He worked tirelessly to develop the site. By the end of his tenure it contained 216 different labeled plant species, of which 146 were trees. Six acres of land, originally part of the university’s agronomy farm, were added to the parcel along with a new pavilion, just in time for the arboretum’s official dedication in 1977. The popularity of the land grew immensely over the next half decade which called for a rededication ceremony on May 29, 1982, recognizing Dr. Davis for his innumerable contributions to the facility. At that time, the property was officially named the Donald E. Davis Arboretum.
The arboretum trees grew for a couple more decades with a curator overseeing student workers on a ‘shoestring budget’ through the ‘80s and ‘90s, looking very much like a patch of woods in the middle of town, right on College Street. Mr. Reynolds was still a regular visitor over the years, proud to point out various trees he had planted as saplings that now towered overhead. “He would gladly give a tour taking you from the sand dunes in the south end of the arboretum to the hemlocks in the north, proud of the mission he had embarked on to display Alabama’s trees,” said current Arboretum Specialist Patrick Thompson. Since his employment with the university in 2001, Patrick has served as a member of the College of Sciences and Mathematics “Arboretum Team” that oversees the curation and preservation of the Davis Arboretum. Patrick is a true ‘Auburn Man’ with a pas-sion for nature and Auburn University, making him the perfect candidate for such a demanding job. After putting in countless hours spanning nearly two decades of work, Thompson has cer-tainly made his own imprint on the arboretum grounds during his tenure. Patrick also recalls numerous School of Forestry cohorts that have used the arboretum for an ‘outdoor classroom’ of their own. “A forestry student’s favorite class days are always the ones where they are able to come out to the arboretum and apply what they have learned,” said Thompson. Some of the courses exercised in the arboretum are dendrology, forest management strate-gies, mensuration, forest ecology, and many more. Students also provide paid and volunteer work within the property on a semes-terly basis to lend a hand with the upkeep. Near the beginning of Patrick’s employment, a university art museum was proposed to be placed within the arboretum. Unfortunately, this establishment would have displaced post oaks, white oaks, century-old longleaf pines, many loblolly pines more than 100 feet tall, and dozens of other species brought into the collection over previous decades. Included in those trees is the prized “Founders’ Oak” at the property’s north end. This post oak is known for its age and enormous size while serving as the beating heart of the Davis Arboretum. This particular tree also comes with some very intriguing statistics . . . its growth started in 1850; it was 6 years old when the university was first estab-lished as the “East Alabama Male College” in 1856; it was 91 years old when the United States entered World War II; it was more than 100 years old when the arboretum was established; it survived Hurricane Eloise which devastated the grounds in 1975; and it was 150 years old at the beginning of the 21st century. Founders’ Oak is also expected to still exist at the start of next century. Fortunately, the ‘Auburn Family’ spoke up on behalf of their quiet arboretum, and the museum was wisely placed just up the road where it sits today, also on College Street, pleasantly sited with a pond of its own. This landmark is known today as The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art. The time had come for the quiet patch of trees to find its voice and place in the world, before someone suggested another building should be built on top of it. A second full-time position was added to the arboretum staff in 2003, and the institution’s abilities doubled. A third full-timer was added just a few years later. The arboretum reached out to its peers in the Association of the Public Gardens of America (APGA) for guidance and sup-port, and they received it. Public gardens were stepping up all over the world to use their unique abilities to accomplish goals being set out in the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation. As the Arboretum’s capacity for care grew, they were able to put more work into expanding the collection to include woody shrubs and wildflowers to continue improving the horticultural displays and representation of the habitats and biodiversity across Alabama. In 2002, a report by Natureserve spotlighted Alabama as the most biodiverse state east of the Mississippi, and the fifth most biodiverse in the nation. The flipside to the state’s biodiversity is that Alabama has the highest extinction rate in the continental United States, furthering the importance of conserva-tion efforts such as the Davis Arboretum. While many public gardens were transforming large, expen-sive conservatories into engines of conservation for the tropical rainforests of the world, Auburn’s arboretum was blessed to have a focused mission in a state with plenty of diversity, as well as opportunities to show off plants that go unnoticed in the kaleido-scope of Alabama’s flora. As most people are aware, oaks and Auburn go hand-in-hand, making this species the garden’s first serious collection focus. The APGA sent a mentor to evaluate the collection for certifica-tion into their Plant Collections Network (PCN). This collection had mostly singular specimens of 27 of Alabama’s 39 oak species. Seven years later, the Arboretum received full accreditation for its oak collection, and was functioning at a world-class level. A plant accessions database was built to allow for an acorn collecting program that was awarded grants, tracking of provenance information, and bringing in the missing 12 species of oaks. The attention to detail meant that the new specimens would maintain value for education, conservation, research, aesthetic value, and as any native tree does, become a functional part of the local ecosystem.
The arboretum’s database now tracks more than 1,000 types of plants and over 3,000 individual specimens in the collection. The database received a huge boost in records when the univer-sity teamed up with Auburn’s School of Forestry & Wildlife Sciences to map every tree on campus, including more than 900 trees with more than 4 inches diameter at breast height (DBH) in the Arboretum. “This project provided us with more detailed information than we ever could have collected on our own,” said Thompson. As part of this collection building, the arboretum has partici-pated in a series of Tree Gene Conservation Grants funded by the APGA and the USDA Forest Service. These have been instrumental in strengthening the arboretum’s oak collection:
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