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Is the UW campus’ greatest asset in jeopardy?

Assessing the state of UW’s famous cherry trees

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Back in September, UW appeared on Architectural Digest’s “The 53 Prettiest College Campuses in America” list. While the campus’ gothic architecture was highlighted, it was the iconic Yoshino cherry trees that were labeled as the campus' greatest asset. 

Seeing the cherry blossoms is a quintessential UW experience. The endless sea of floating pink clouds mark the end of the gray Seattle winter and reintroduce students and visitors to the beauty of the historic campus. Not to mention, UW’s admitted students day always falls around peak bloom in March. 

The absence of these trees would not only result in missed photo opportunities, but also a decline in outside visitors. Kristine Kenney, director of campus architecture and planning and university landscape architect, highlighted the importance of the continuity that the trees bring to campus. 

“This is generational,” Kenney said. “You are a student here now, you could've had a parent or a grandfather, or you could have a grandchild that goes here that can have the exact same memory that you do in the exact same space.”

For many families, even those simply from the greater Seattle community, visiting the trees every year is a cherished tradition. However, factors such as climate change, poor drainage on the Quad, an aging irrigation system, and increased drought are all threatening factors for the trees. 

In the past decade, one tree was replaced, and a replacement was lost, but apart from that, the original trees are doing very well, according to Sara Shores, urban forest specialist and campus arborist at UW. 

The cherry trees are estimated to be about 90 years old. Originally planted in the Washington Park Arboretum, they were moved to UW’s campus in 1962 when the Interstate 520 bridge construction began. In general, the trees have a lifespan of 100 to 110 years, although, according to Shores, they could last longer.  

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In the next few decades, an inevitable decline in the trees’ health will occur. What happens then?

In order to ensure the success of new trees, Shores said that ideally the drainage, pathways, and all factors that currently impede the trees’ prosperity should be fixed. Then, all of the trees would be replanted. Replacing trees one at a time does not target internal and structural issues, but it does ensure that the Quad will continue to have its signature spring bloom. 

For those close to the issue, such as Shores, Kenney, and UW ground staff, the issue of what to do next is heavy on their minds. 

“As we get closer to needing to make those decisions, we will be having bigger conversations with [university officials and] the outside community about what we are able to do to keep the trees around,” Shores said. 

The goal for now is to keep the trees healthy and safe for as long as possible. 

Reach contributing writer Sofia Schwarzwalder at Twitter: @schwaarzy

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