400 Year Old Engelmann Oak Tree Notification

Since last summer Caltech Facilities has received numerous inquiries asking whether or not Caltech's landmark 400 year old Engelmann oak tree has finally died. Anyone who grew up here in Southern California or who has been on campus long enough will already guess the correct answer to that question is 'It's hard to know.' During long periods of drought it is common for native oaks to suddenly turn completely brown, drop all their leaves, and go dormant; appearing completely dead until without warning green shoots reappear in the treetops once the rains begin again. Just like the slow, measured, metabolism which results in an oak's ironlike hardwood, testing for mortality in oaks is a slow process measuring different parts of the multiple trunks, canopy, and what are known as 'buttress roots.'

During the January meeting of the Trustee's Council on Institute Sustainability [CIS] their Oak Tree Task Force reported conclusive findings that the tree no longer supports enough viable tissue to recover, and so the council has formally declared the tree to be dead. As a venerable local landmark centuries before Caltech first built on this acreage in 1910 it will be sadly missed by many of us here on campus and our alumni, by our Pasadena and San Marino neighbors, and by all those campus visitors over its most recent century who have had their pictures taken under those massive branches outside Parsons-Gates.

Readers of the Caltech Ion's October 15, 2016 announcement will already know that 'the old oak by the chemistry building,' as it was referred to by students in Caltech first 1919-20 yearbook, was badly damaged by the big windstorm a few years ago, further weakened by sustained drought, and had recently been under treatment for a fungal infection.

In the case of an oak estimated to be more than 400 years old, it will not be a simple matter of chopping the tree down and replacing it with a fresh sapling from the local nursery. Arthur Fleming, who donated the land in 1908, was a lumberman and tree expert so the original campus master plan was designed around this tree as a central feature of the site. It will take both planning and consideration of the many variables involved to adjust the landscape to this loss while making proper use of as much of the remaining tree debris as we reasonably can. Samples for scientific study have already been requested from the Division of Geology and Planetary Sciences, as well as local and regional government agencies.

CIS, tasked with long term issues of resource use and campus infrastructure, formed the Oak Tree Task Force at the beginning of Fall Term with the expectation that the process of tree removal and regeneration of the site will take roughly a year. Already they are planning to use historical, scientific, and cultural data from the tree as the basis of a series of programs for Caltech's annual Earth Week and Arbor Day events; are working with the Office of the President to plan a ceremonial 'first cut' potentially during Alumni Weekend in May; while facilities staff are negotiating with a specialty arborist to fully dissect the tree starting after commencement.

It is anticipated that many of you will want to learn more about these plans and to make comments on the future use of both the tree remains and the location, so CIS will hold a campus wide Town Hall meeting as its first program on Wednesday, February 15 at noon in the Avery Dining Hall. The Oak Tree Task Force will post updated content as it become available on the www.sustainability.caltech.edu website and will accept all comments by email at sustainability@caltech.edu.

 

John Onderdonk
on behalf of the Council on Institute Sustainability