VU: Not a national arboretum

Lauren Piro

Red and gold foliage in autumn and fuchsia cherry blossoms by spring … Villanova’s landscape flickers with the sun and cultivates a feeling of home with beauty for all students. We appreciate the careful alignment of flowered walkways and are often distracted by signage posted on tree trunks, offering a dedication or information about the plant’s species. None of this is arbitrary, as one may guess. The campus’ overall look is key to attracting new students, as well as giving those enrolled another reason to want to stick around. It is not surprising then that the University’s campus used to operate as an arboretum.

Wait – used to? That’s not what we were told on our prospective student campus tours.

“We have not functioned as an active arboretum for about five years now,” says Chuck Leeds, the University’s horticultural supervisor. “There are a multitude of reasons, but time is a big factor. We are so involved in so many other projects and just don’t have time that we feel we can dedicate properly to the activities an arboretum should be involved in.”

But don’t think you’ve caught Blue Key with its pants on fire just yet. Although Villanova no longer updates a scientific database of the plants added each year or offers educational horticultural programs to those outside the University – two of the defining characteristics of an arboretum – there is still much the campus grounds provide to students that are more than pretty scenes to distract you from that calculus test.

The arboretum was officially commemorated in 1994. One hundred and fifty trees were identified and labeled in concordance with the 150th anniversary of the University, and many more are added each year.

“We’re just blessed with having a wonderful collection of plants on campus,” Leeds says. “We have over 100 species of trees and somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 varieties. That’s a remarkable collection for a small school.”

Leeds notes how the projects the Grounds Department is involved with now actually still reflect the original arboretum’s mission statement. This includes “providing for the continued beautification of the campus and educating about the diversity, environmental benefit and aesthetic qualities of plant materials.” One look around campus provides a first-hand glance at gardens and other areas that are constantly being updated.

One particular project the department will be concentrating on in the immediate future includes the area around the new nursing building, Driscoll Hall. Additionally, walking trails that were once characteristic of the arboretum may be reestablished in the future. Of course, it doesn’t take a trail map to walk through campus and appreciate the efforts of the grounds team.

“We do a lot of planting of trees,” Leeds says. “The Grounds Department makes that a priority.”

As far as the landscape’s educational benefits go, the Grounds Department often collaborates with the biology department, providing specimens of trees for students to identify in freshman courses.

Additionally, the grounds team works actively with Dr. Robert Traver in the department of civil and environmental engineering on sizeable stormwater projects. Examples of such projects are presently located on campus behind the Pavilion and also by the West Campus Soccer Complex.

“Stormwater management projects are designed for water infiltration,” Leeds says. “During a rainstorm, water is diverted from a lot of the storm drains into a basin, and it will fill up and slowly allow the water to percolate back into the soil, as opposed to dumping it into a stream, where it does all sorts of damage.”

On the edge of campus by County Line Road is also a man-made swamp. Reforming this land created a space where a lot of water from the parking lots could be collected and purified. Here, the water can be cleansed before release into the local stream. Leeds and his crew are also dedicated to planting as many trees as possible that are native to the area. These plants can thrive here easily and withstand local weather patterns and other natural elements. Hence, they can be maintained without much fertilizer or insecticides.

Leeds notes all of these initiatives as a practical, common-sense approach to the green movement.

“I’m a professional tree-hugger, but not really a tree-hugger; I’m a lot more practical,” Leeds says. “I go where there are a lot of practical things we can do that make a lot of sense. Planting native plants makes a whole lot of sense.”

Practical notions of the green movement are not the only thing about the Villanova grounds to which students can relate and appreciate.

Etched in each students’ brain are memories of Orientation commencement under the tree-shaded Grotto and the folklore surrounding the Southwest Corner’s willowy “kissing tree,” to name a few stand-out items.

And what about those people collecting fallen “ruffage” behind Sheehan Hall?

“What they’re doing is collecting chestnuts because they’re quite good to eat,” Leeds says. “We don’t invite those folks on campus, but we also don’t discourage them. They’re quite welcome to come and pick up the fallen chestnuts.”

It is clear that when it comes to horticulture and gardens, Villanova’s campus is much more than a pretty face.

“We have a wonderful campus here,” Leeds says. “[When I first came here in 1991,] there was a lot of excitement on campus about planting flower beds, planting gardens and planting trees, and there still has been good strong support from the University for doing so. We’ve worked hard to try to create an attractive and comfortable appearance on campus for our students.”

And as for the future for the now quiescent arboretum?

“We’re keeping that door open,” Leeds says.