Main quadrangle oaks: persevering through the centuries

When the bagpipes sounded the kick-off of the University of Chicago’s 515th convocation in the main quadrangles earlier this summer, graduates strolled under canopies of oak trees that predate the University itself.

The multi-year transformation of the main quadrangles, the historical heart of campus, into the peaceful pedestrian pathways it is today is well known to students, staff, and faculty. Not so well known, however, is the fact that the stately oaks standing proudly in the main quad today were once considered second-class to American elms grown on the east coast.

Before the University of Chicago campus was built, the site was a mixture of Lake Michigan dunes and marshes. Within these ecosystems, native plant species and oak trees thrived as they had for centuries, steadfastly enduring the sandy soils, harsh winds, occasional flooding, and continued lake water level fluctuations.

Native Black, Swamp White, and Burr oaks flourished unperturbed in these relatively undisturbed ecosystems. Recently, one was removed after it had fallen on its own, and its tree rings showed it was more than 180-years-old.

In those early days of the campus development, many University trustees wanted to fill the campus with American elms, which were considered much more fashionable in late 19th Century America. Not just any elm would do – these elms were imported from the east coast, as University leadership at the time felt east coast elms were superior to elms grown in the Midwest. Thus, many east coast elms were planted throughout the main quad.

As the elm was not native to the Great Lakes shorelines and the sandy soil, each tree was planted in expansive pits, excavated, and filled with rich, black Illinois prairie topsoil. These elms were planted amidst the oaks in both formal allees or two rows of trees planted with a walkway in the middle and also scattered through the main quad. 

Unfortunately, the emergence of Dutch elm disease in the 1970s doomed hundreds of thousands of elms throughout the Midwest and east coast. Only a few of the once-preferred elms remain in the main quadrangles today.

The oaks, however, have continued to thrive, and from this, the University has taken its cue to maintain the leafy tranquility of the main quadrangles – plant native oak species. They like it here.

As the tree canopy within the quadrangles is such an iconic image of the University, successive generations of trees are planted as part of a thoughtful, comprehensive maintenance program.

These “new” oaks have proven to be a good investment in both time and resources, with the goal that they, too, survive 180 years and beyond to witness future graduates receive their diplomas under the familiar shady canopy.

-- By Richard C. Bumstead, associate director, campus environment

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