Champion Trees on the UMass Amherst Campus
“I am so glad that the people who came before me decided not to limb this up into a broccoli head,” says Todd Cournoyer, head of grounds at UMass Amherst and one of the proud guardians of the campus’s many trees.
He’s speaking of the enormous sawtooth oak on South Campus between Memorial and Bartlett Halls, a Champion Tree whose massive branches swoop down to the ground, giving it an instantly recognizable form. The tree is nearly a century old and is just one of hundreds that make up the Frank A. Waugh Arboretum.
“People don’t realize that the entire UMass campus is officially an arboretum,” says Cournoyer, who often leads tree tours of the campus’s many sylvan treasures. “We often focus on the campus’s buildings, but the natural landscape is a huge part of the UMass experience. Too often, we’re removed from the trees, but when we let them grow like this,” he says, gesturing again to the sawtooth oak, “it lets us experience the tree in a more intimate way.”
Cournoyer has spent his adult life around these trees. He’s been at UMass for thirty years, as both student and staff. For the last decade, he’s been head of grounds, and one of the joys of his job is maintaining, planting and cultivating trees that will shade generations of students to come—a joy shared by UMass’s third and eight presidents, William S. Clark a William P. Brooks, both renowned botanists who traveled the world in search of trees to bring back to what was then called Massachusetts Agricultural College.
One of these trees, the Japanese Elm just in front of South College, was brought back from the Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University) in Japan by Brooks as seed in 1890, then grown and planted in 1899. It was the first of its species to be planted in the U.S. and, like the sawtooth oak, is now a Massachusetts Champion Tree, one of nine on campus, which means that it’s the largest tree of its species in the state.
When asked about his favorite tree, Cournoyer treks up to the Chancellor’s House and points out another Champion, an enormous 75-foot-tall tupelo. “I love the bark and the twisted form,” he says. “Their leaves are dark green and elliptical in the summer and the most brilliant, deep, intense red in the fall.”
Of course, nothing lives forever, not even the pin oak outside Munson Hall, which used to be a Champion until one of its largest branches fell off. Changing land-use patterns—adding parking lots or buildings, even the pattern of foot traffic—can negatively affect some of these old trees. But Cournoyer and his crew, including students, are always planting, cataloging and celebrating new ones.
“Trees are our history,” says Cournoyer. “Some of the ones standing today have witnessed the entirety of the UMass story, and they provide the atmosphere for learning, exploration and growth that defines our landscape. We need to take care of them.”