Under Stanford’s transplant program, trees flourish in new homes

Since 1996, Stanford has transplanted 1,048 trees on campus, including oaks, olives, redwoods, pines and cedars, providing shade for people, habitats for birds and squirrels, and landscapes that help new buildings “settle into” their environs.

Once a parking lot, the plot of land next to the David Packard Electrical Engineering Building is now an oasis: Three wooden benches rest on a soft carpet of needles, leaves and bark under the dappled shade offered by cedars, redwoods and oaks.

A palm tree in front of the Gates Building is among the trees from around campus that are part of the transplantation program. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Each tree bears a round aluminum tag stamped with the letter “S” and a number that identifies it as part of Stanford’s transplanted tree program.

“These coast redwoods were 30 to 47 feet tall when we transplanted them in 1999,” said Julie Day, a horticulturist at Stanford, standing in the grove one recent winter morning. “Now they’re between 50 and 90 feet tall.”

Under the program, which began in 1996, Stanford has transplanted 1,048 trees all over campus, including olive trees along Campus Drive East, coast live oaks on the Knight Management Center campus and London plane trees along the grand entrance to Bing Concert Hall.

Transplanted trees are a small part of the total tree population on campus, but speak volumes about the university’s commitment to sustainability and to its stewardship of the 8,000 acres bequeathed by founders Jane and Leland Stanford.

“Large trees and their canopies play a significant role in campus sustainability, creating shade and habitat, cooling buildings, converting carbon dioxide to oxygen and mitigating storm water runoff,” said University Landscape Architect Cathy Blake, associate director of the office of University Architect/Campus Planning and Design, which collaborates with Buildings and Grounds Maintenance on the program.

Blake traced the roots of the program to the planning associated with construction of the university’s original Science and Engineering Quad, completed in 2000, whose landscaped grounds were designed to form a connective link between the east and west ends of campus.

Rather than remove the coast live oaks on the 41-acre construction site, Stanford decided to move the California natives to new permanent homes on the site and protect them from harm while the new buildings rose around them.

At that time, coast live oaks were not considered viable for transplanting, so the project was an experiment, said Judy Chan, the former associate director of planning who is now associate director of space management and planning on campus.

Working with the Valley Crest Tree Company, Chan staged the tree relocation in two phases – boxing the trees one fall and transplanting them the next fall.

Thus was Serra Grove – a leafy greenbelt along Serra Mall that extends from Sequoia Hall to the Packard Building – established on the west side of the Main Quad. The grove mirrors the Dohrmann Grove on the east side of the Quad.

Another legacy of the project is the protocol Stanford grounds staff use to monitor the health of the trees, which lose much of their root mass when they’re uprooted. Initially, the trees need more water to regrow their root systems, said Deborah Canino, a campus planner who coordinates the program.

Over the years Stanford has refined the selection of transplant candidates, methods of boxing and moving the trees, and the appropriate levels of care required at each stage of the process, resulting in an impressive 85 percent survival rate, she said.

Canino, who keeps lists of sites that may be removing trees and those that need them, said mature trees help new buildings “settle into” the campus landscape.

“Mature trees bridge the gap between the scale of people, the scale of landscapes and the scale of buildings,” she said. “They provide immediate shade and an immediate people-friendly environment.”

Transplants – here, there, everywhere on campus

These days, trees chosen for relocation are boxed and stored on campus while they await new homes.

Some trees destined for resettlement can be seen in the median between Serra Street and Campus Drive East. In the makeshift grove, huge wooden boxes house ginkgo trees, whose fan-shaped leaves turn a bright yellow in fall, and Chinese pistaches, known for their glorious red and red-orange fall colors.

Another batch of future transplants – tall California sycamores packed in giant wooden planters – can be seen behind the Littlefield Center.

Max Pinedo, supervising arborist at Stanford, said thriving transplants can be seen all over campus.

“There are redwoods behind the Littlefield Center that are so tall it’s hard to believe they were transplanted,” he said.

Among the most recent transplants on campus are the coast live oaks set in a row near an outdoor courtyard at Bing Concert Hall. They were returned to the site after being stored in the Stanford Arboretum for two years.

Pinedo said some of the London plane trees lining the concert hall’s grand entrance were stored for safekeeping in the Stanford Arboretum for about two years before they were returned to the site.

“Instead of cutting them down or planting smaller trees, we put them back in the same place,” Pinedo said.

The transplanted tree population also includes a group of slender olive trees near the Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering, two Canary Island palms in front of the Gates Building and two cork oaks in front of Memorial Auditorium.

Sadly, the first transplanted tree – a coast live oak – didn’t survive. But its sister, a venerable coast live oak bearing the tag “S2,” still spreads its wide, leafy branches near the front door of Montag Hall, home of the Office of Undergraduate Admission and Financial Aid, on Galvez Street.

Canino said birds appreciate the program. She recalled the day she saw a blue jay hitchhiking a ride on a branch of a boxed tree being transported across campus on the back of a flatbed truck.

“The bird seemed not at all bothered that the tree was being moved,” she said. “The bird was just glad that it still had a tree with a big canopy.”