The Tree Mappers

Creating a computer catalogue of Haverford College’s historic Arboretum

By Eleanor Durfee

It was a warm day in early December, and Mike Startup, one of the Haverford College Arboretum’s three horticulturalists, was almost done for the day. First, though, he had to plant several new dogwood trees—and then input them into a computer program.

The new technology, which will help Startup and his colleagues to catalogue the many plant species and ages, is a far cry from the olden days of the Arboretum, which was founded in 1834.

Since the, the campus of the Main Line college has been remade by many different horticulturalists, sometimes with little to

Nature Trail at Haverford's Arboretum

tie the old and new together.

Now, the Haverford Arboretum’s new management, led by the plant curator Martha Van Artsdalen, is attempting to bring the Arboretum into the 21st century, a task that involves a complete computer inventory of it’s plants and trees. The technology represents the latest in landcape management. Still, many aspects of the work haven’t changed since the college started.

Startup pushes away the old roots from the planted tree, snipped off several hours earlier, and gently pours a jug of water over the mound of earth at its base. After covering this with fallen leaves, he pulls a metal tag out of his pocket, with the name of the species pressed into the metal.

“The white tags they come with just look cheap,” Startup explained. The new tags are made by the arboretum workers and lovingly tied around the young trunks, loose enough so that they won’t choke, waiting for the professional plaques that label all of the older trees on campus.

Startup used to work for Longwood Gardens, a botanical garden about 30 miles southwest of the College in Kennet Square, Pa. Longwood is well-known for its jaw-dropping cultivated gardens, which require immense amounts of precision and attention to detail from their teams of designers and horticulturalists.

Now, Startup has a different focus.

Describing Haverford’s atmosphere as “relaxed”, he summed up a year’s work in humble terms. Most of his work involves caring for the campus’s trees, many of which are rare or state champions, and tending to its many gardens. He and the other horticulturalists are also deeply involved in the reimagining the grounds, with each member responsible for a certain area of campus. Startup was deeply involved in the design of athletic center’s gardens. His favorite tree, a rare pine from Australia, sits near there.

There is a fixed cycle to Startup’s life. Planting and leaf blowing in the fall. Shoveling snow in the winter. Cleaning up the paths of mud, encouraging the flowers in the spring. Mowing and maintaining the grounds in the summer. It repeats, year after year after year; the pattern is “reliable” by now, he said.

However, to this seasonal upkeep the Arboretum staff has added on a new task: it is changing from paper to electronic records. In the process, it is cataloguing almost every plant on campus. Startup is collaborating with the Arboretum’s Plant Curator, Martha Van Artsdalen, who began the project in early fall of 2011.

The project is intrinsically historical, examining the college’s Special Collections documents to determine the correct aging of the many tress and plants on the grounds using modern software, called BG Base.

“It’s like a detective story,” Van Artsdalen said.

To enter each plant into the database, Van Artsdalen researches its species, age, range, where it came from, and any other notable information, such as its current health condition. She held up pages of handwritten notes, from previous Arboretum administrations, scrawls of various plant distributors, donors, prices, and common plant names.

The task is intricate. To keep track of each document and plant, her office is littered with “cheat sheets,” as she calls them, which keep important information neatly organized. “So we can keep our sanity,” she added.

Martha Van Artsdalen

Van Artsdalen also uses pictures and plans of how the campus used to look to gather evidence. One cheat sheet contains the year every campus building was built. If a picture of the new or recently built building shows a new tree, Van Artsdalen and Startup can use those dates to get a good guesstimate of its age. Once Van Artsdalen found official documentation of a tree they’d guessed on.

“We were off by a year,” Van Artsdalen said.

To enter each tree into the database, Van Artsdalen and Startup first give the tree a unique number corresponding to an enormous grid overlaid on a map of the present campus. In letters A-Z across and over half a dozen panels down, the two have driven all around campus, noting the location and condition of each tree older than a sapling.

Many of these can be traced using the records kept by the Arboretum and the college; but many others grew spontaneously or weren’t recorded. These are marked with a big H, and a number according to their place in the grid.

“Longwood has L,” Startup explained. “Haverford, H.”

Every day after lunch, Van Artsdalen and Startup work through one grid at a time; each tree, marked on the map with its number and a white circle, is repeated to Van Artsdalen to put into the computer and then marked off with a green highlighter.

“It’s very tedious,” Van Artsdalen said, with a sigh. “But it’s a treasure hunt.”

As to how long it will take, neither has any idea. They’ve been working since last October, slowly crossing off one square of the map at a time.

The transition to computerized, GPS-guided arboretum management is certainly a far cry from the original arboretum management plan.

Haverford was founded in 1833, as a college for “young Quaker gentlemen.” A year later, an English gardener named William Carvel was hired to design and care for the grounds.

Carvel modeled the campus after the designs of a famous 18th century English gardener named Sir Humphrey Repton, who had a firm belief in a distinctive transition from house garden to open pasture view, with what the Arboretum calls a “serpentine” path thrown in for good measure.

The original master plans of Carvel’s designs have been preserved by the College, and show almost exactly this design. Only two buildings existed at the time: Founders, where the young men lived and studied, and a farmhouse called Woodside Cottage, now the English department.

Carvel cleared the land and planted trees in odd-numbered clumps, visible from Founders; each path and road leading to the College was lined with trees and shrubs. Repton was honored, too, by a distinctly serpentine path leading from Founders to Woodside.

While the serpentine path was removed after around 100 years, the rest of Carvel’s legacy remains. Founders looks out over an extensive lawn, now called Founder’s Green; the Barclay dorm now overlooks the pasture views, with several of the original trees still alive.

However, the campus has experienced a number of changes since Carvel’s day. While the functions of the Arboretum haven’t changed much, its philosophy has.

In 1902, the first form of today’s Arboretum Association, called “the Campus Club”, was organized by students and faculty to preserve the college lawn, catalogue the college’s rare trees, and teach interested parties about ornithology and forestry—very similar to today’s mission.

However, a dedication to environmentalism that marks the modern administration was missing. The Arboretum was created as a collection of rare and exotic trees, donated or purchased by the College from all over the world. Even the Duck Pond, now a hallmark of the campus, was once simply a marshy area that often froze over in winter, to the delight of the students, who took to skating on it. In 1930, with student and alumni support, it was dammed to form a permanent pond, which now requires almost constant aeration to prevent an algae takeover.

The modern Campus Arboretum Association was formed in 1974, and has responded more vigorously to the modern environmental movement. Like the Main Line, though, there is a constant interplay of old and new.

The Pinetum, for instance, contains a collection of exotic pines and spruces, which are cared for as part of the ongoing preservation effort. Yet the open center of the Pinetum, once severely mowed, has been allowed to transition to wild field.

This has had tremendous impacts on the runoff problem the college and town has faced. Several years ago heavy rains would cause flooding on the busy road next to the Pinetum. Now, the native plants are much more successful at absorbing water than the grass, and flooding hasn’t been as big a problem since.

Mike Startup (left)

Startup has played a large role in the college’s switch to planting mainly native plants in their gardens, such as the Hilles Hill behind the science center. The space was also allowed to grow somewhat wild, which would encourage the growth of unplanned native plants. However, this also opened the space to the invasive Burning Bush shrub, which has begun to take over.

Startup shrugged, as he described the scene.

“We try to make visitors on our tours aware of the situation,” he said.

Van Artsdalen said that upgrading to the modern age is important to the Arboretum.

“Everyone knew we were limping along,” Van Artsdalen said. “We had to upgrade.”

Upgrading to the new software offers a slew of benefits. For one thing, keeping notes on each tree in one place, instead of the scattered hard copy notes, will allow for better horticultural care.

“You can see, ‘Oh, that tree has been innoculated 10 times and it still looks terrible’,” Van Artsdalen explained. “You can also see why a tree needed to be replaced. Disease, climate conditions…”

“Mower damage,” Startup added. “That’s the worst, when you have to admit it was your own people.”

The Arboretum serves as an important link not only between alums and the College, but also with the local community and prospective students. The staff work hard to use the Arboretum to convey a sense of Haverford’s commitment to Quaker values of simplicity and grace.

“You turn in off of Lancaster (Avenue), and suddenly you see the oaks, the duck pond,” Startup described. It’s this beatific scene that attracts so many visitors from the local area.

“That nature trail, it’s practically a highway out my window,” Van Artsdalen joked. It’s packed year-round with joggers, dog-walkers, and bird watchers of all ages. On a beautiful day dozens of families come to feed the birds in the Duck Pond.

The arboretum also holds close ties to the school. Freshman plant a tree to commemorate their class in an honored ceremony during their first week, and each student receives a freshman plant.

Although Haverford’s biology department is largely devoted to microbiology and medical research, the faculty have recently developed an Environmental Studies section, chaired by recent hire, Jon Wilson, who specializes in plant evolution.

Wilson makes frequent use of the Arboretum in his research, asking students to use new handheld machines to measure photosynthesis rates, for instance. In the future, Arboretum mapping software could be used to study the campus ecology more in depth.

This could represent a new face of the Arboretum—as supporting the educational component of the college more strongly. However, what the Arboretum can do is limited by the amount of student and member support. Most of the developments since Carvel’s original work—from the Duck Pond to the Nature Trail—were designed by students or alums.

“Mike used to have students who’d work with him all four years,” Van Artsdalen added. “Now, they drop in for a semester or two, and then move on.”

Meanwhile, since Carvel’s day, “the campus to be maintained has doubled,” Van Artsdalen said. “People expect more.”

By 3:30 p.m., Startup and Van Artsdalen were wrapping up another session working on the cataloguing project. They had been able to put in four more trees—almost one complete square—in about an hour and a half. But Startup had to leave for the day, and Van Artsdalen also had a number of errands to run.

“We started last October,” Van Artsdalen said, when asked if she knew when they’d finish. “And then we’ll start on the shrubs.”