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  • Izzy Cornelison, Staff Writer

Willamette’s plants give deeper insight into campus history and culture

Updated: Mar 18

Almanac of Willamette flora. Art by Lucy Devlaeminck

A walk around the Willamette University campus can often feel like a walk through an enchanted forest, a stroll through a fairy tale. The luscious trees dappled with sunlight, the gentle ebb of the Mill Stream, and the newly blossoming flowers signaling the arrival of spring all contribute to a place so aesthetic it almost looks staged. However, going beyond beauty, Willamette’s nature — particularly its plants —  tells a different story about the university if one looks closely.

“The most notable thing about a campus like ours is it is an old campus and the [agricultural design] choices have been where people have tried to make things both beautiful and interesting and sometimes just weird and wonderful so that [Willamette] feels like a different place,” said Biology Professor David Craig. 

In fact, the white oaks in the Sparks Center parking lot and around the University Apartments are some of the only plants on campus to predate intentional design. These trees have been here since before the American Methodist colonization and are more than 200 years old, having witnessed the entire university's life. “In some cultural contexts, old trees that were used in landscapes were called witness trees so those trees have seen and experienced everything,” said Craig. 

Beyond the white oak, there are over 2,000 trees spanning 125 species on campus. If community members are ever interested in learning more about them, there is a tree map that allows individuals to see where the different types of trees are located.

“The rest of the vegetation," Craig said, "everything reflects either an idea somebody had, [that] they wanted to plant something or a weed.”

Some of the plants, especially those around the science buildings, came about as part of previous biology theses or projects. Craig said, “There's some places, like the Olin science building, that used to be boring grass right up to the building that now has about 40 species of prairie plants that were planted for monarch [butterflies] as a special refuge for migration.”

Craig encourages both Willamette plant fanatics and those with an untrained eye to observe nature. For those who are curious about what plants they are looking at, Craig suggests using iNaturalist, an app and website that allows anyone to document the plants around campus. Users can look at photos and identifications done by others or upload their own photos for identification.

As a self-described champion of conservation and preventing extinction, Craig is particularly focused on Willamette's native plants. “Native plants are really important because through the last 2,000 to 10,000 years, through the last retreat of the glaciers, through the millions of years in … western North America, they have evolved and there’s a lot of relationships that depend on them,” said Craig. 

In addition to preserving native life, however, Craig believes that there is considerable merit to increasing the diversity of our plant life. “I don't think our campus should be completely Willamette Valley native plants," he said. "The reason is that our campus is a really unique place for many people from different backgrounds to come [together]. So if you have a Korean heritage or a Senegalese heritage or you’re going to be traveling and studying abroad in Australia, we have plants that are from those areas on our campus that you can start to connect to your heritage, ancestors or the places you will be visiting.”


Craig stressed the importance of asking questions about the surrounding environment, such as wondering what a plant is and where it's from. The iNaturalist app uses artificial intelligence to give a tentative identification of what plant one might be looking at, and then someone with more knowledge like Craig can confirm the identification.

When asked about his favorite plant on campus, Craig immediately replied that it was Tree Number 92. “Right now, it’s a very provocative individual plant. [It's] one of the big old oak trees in the parking lot [and it] has a whole bunch of biodiversity, including a lot of things that are making it diseased and architecturally dangerous to be in a parking lot. So we collaborated with the grounds staff, the city of Salem, and some other experts to go and do surgery on it, so now if it falls over it will be [safer],” said Craig. 

In his students' words, the tree looks sad or unfinished. Craig's plan for the tree is to cover it with birdhouses and other wildlife houses so that it not only serves a practical purpose but also as an art installation. Willamette's flora grows and changes just like the university itself and Tree 92 is a prime example. As the old white oak takes on its new life as an art installation, ready to witness and welcome new generations of students, Tree 92 and all of Willamette's plants teach us that the future is always sprouting.

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