Tales of Tufts' Trees

Arborist John Vik has cared for the stately inhabitants of the Hill for a third of a century
John Vik
John Vik’s roots as an arborist run in the family. He and his father often would take long walks in the woods, playing the “What-tree-is-this?” game. Photo: Kelvin Ma
September 26, 2013

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Across the centuries, myths and folklore express our wish that trees could speak. In 214 A.D., the Greek philosopher Philostratus wrote about an elm tree in Ethiopia that joined a debate. In Ireland a tree helps people look for leprechauns’ gold. And there are the tree-inspired Ents, the ancient shepherds in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth stories.

The trees on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus can’t speak for themselves, but they have John Vik, grounds supervisor, to tell their stories for them. He has been nurturing, healing and maintaining Tufts’ arbor culture for 33 years. Until you walk with Vik across the campus, you don’t realize how much you haven’t noticed before.

How about a remnant of the Mesozoic Era? That would be the dawn redwood, whose rough trunk and unusual foliage belie its California cousins. Just a bit taller than adjacent Goddard Chapel, it will one day be more than 200 feet tall, says Vik, a certified arborist.

The tree was once thought to be extinct, seen only in fossils. But in 1941 and again in 1944, strange, unusually tall trees were discovered growing in China, Vik says. They were identified in 1946 as the same Metasequoia, or dawn redwood, found in the fossils. It was the equivalent of finding a stegosaurus still thriving in the tropics.

A dawn redwood tree rises next to Goddard Chapel on the academic quad. Photo: Kelvin Ma

The seedlings for Tufts’ dawn redwood were planted in 1948, after the Arnold Arboretum in Boston sent an expedition to China to bring them back and distribute them to universities and arboretums worldwide for study.

“Can’t you just see this growing in a Jurassic swamp?” Vik asks.

A closeup of a tulip tree. Photo: Kelvin MaSharing the same space between Goddard Chapel and the Tufts cannon, a replica of one from Old Ironsides, is another Mesozoic survivor, the tulip tree, or yellow poplar. This, too, will one day be 200 feet high. Named for its tulip-like blooms in spring, in summer it sports a cucumber-shaped fruit.

While the Tufts tulip tree may be 80 to 100 years old, the species has been native to North America since the late Cretaceous period. East Coast Native Americans hollowed out its large trunks for canoes. Because of the fine grain of the wood, which is resistant to splintering, it is often used for the bottoms of drawers and for handles on tools, says Vik. Over the years, the wood has been used for ship building, too.

Saving a Classic Tree

On the Green between Ballou and Bendetsen halls is one of Tufts’ arboreal statesmen, the 150-year-old American elm, the state tree of Massachusetts. It is one of the last American elms still standing from the rows that used to line both sides of the academic quad, from West Hall down to Miner and Paige halls.

The holes in the American elm aren’t from bullets: they resulted from injections of life-saving fungicide. Photo: Kelvin Ma

It is still with us, thanks to the work of Vik and George Ellmore, an associate professor of biology in the School of Arts and Sciences. In the early 1980s, when Dutch elm disease was killing elms around the state, Ellmore developed a shallow injection system that improved delivery of a fungicide to kill the elm bark beetles that cause the disease. It worked.

“That’s why it looks like it’s riddled with bullet holes,” says Vik. “It was those shots that saved it.”

New trees are taking hold not far away. Just under the fire escape on the side of Barnum Hall, apple tree seedlings thrive behind a protective fence. They’re not just any apple trees—these are the descendants of Sir Isaac Newton’s tree that (theoretically) dropped the famous head-bopping apple inspiring the English physicist’s theory of gravity.

Alex Vilenkin, a professor of physics, convinced a colleague at MIT in 2009 to give him the cuttings from one of Newton’s trees that had been donated to MIT by England’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Vilenkin drops an apple on the heads of graduating Ph.D.s to inspire new thinking about physics (see “An Apple Tree will Grow in Medford”).

Ellmore grafted the cuttings onto orchard root stock in Harvard, Mass. The grafts took, and they have been maturing for two years. Vik says they will likely be ready to plant next year, though where has not been decided.

First on the Hill

The grand dame of the campus is the copper beech that presides over the hill behind Ballou Hall. Fittingly for Tufts, whose mascot is Jumbo, the bark looks like elephant hide. Its base so closely resembles the feet of a giant gnome, you think it might walk.

The copper beach tree on the President’s Lawn is showing signs of its age. And the rope? Maybe a token of affection. Photo: Kelvin Ma

Vik estimates the copper beech is nearly 200 years old. “She watched Tufts grow up around her,” he says. “She had a sister just back there,” he says pointing uphill a bit. “But she came down about 10 years ago, just slowly started to go. It’s hard to stand in the same place for 200 years.”

Carved deep into the trunk are many students’ initials, some now faint and others, higher up, enveloped by the bark, forever a part of the tree.

The remnants of initials carved in the trunk of the copper beech on the President’s Lawn. Photo: Kelvin Ma“They want to make a connection to something lasting,” Vik says of the students who autographed the bark. “I think my daughter’s name [Carolyn Vik, E07, who majored in chemical engineering] is up there.”

Vik’s roots as an arborist run in the family. “My father worked on the trees and grounds in the Reading (Mass.) cemetery, and I worked with him there in the summer,” he says. “When tree specialists were called in, my father would tell me to go help them, so they trained me and I learned.”

He and his father often would take long walks in the woods, playing the “What-tree-is-this?” game. “Sometimes he’d stump me, and sometimes I’d stump him,” says Vik.

The experience came in handy when he was studying plant pathology at UMass Amherst, and was given a job teaching other students because he was the only one who knew how to sling a rope over a high branch and climb up to closely examine the trees.

Vik’s lesson is this: walk slowly next time you’re on campus; look closely and listen. The trees have stories to tell.

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu