WMU earns sixth Tree Campus designation, finds rare tree species

Contact: Jeanne Baron
Photo of faculty, staff, students, alumni and volunteers in front of the large dwarf hackberry tree.

Stephan Keto, second from left in the front row, and Todd Barkman, in the red shirt, with students, alumni and volunteers in front of the large dwarf hackberry tree.

KALAMAZOO—The Arbor Day Foundation announced in January that it has named Western Michigan University a Tree Campus for the sixth consecutive time, in recognition of WMU's commitment to effective community forestry management.

"Being recertified as a Tree Campus for 2013 recognizes the hard work and dedication of our landscape services staff and so many others across the University," says Darrell Junkins, WMU grounds supervisor in landscape services.

Tree Campus USA is a national program launched in 2008 and supported by a grant from Toyota Motor North America. It honors colleges and universities and their leaders for promoting healthy trees as well as engaging their students and employees in the spirit of conservation.

Notably, WMU's deeply rooted emphasis on environmental stewardship is helping to preserve a population of dwarf hackberry trees that was only recently discovered. Rarely found as far north as Michigan, dwarf hackberrys are listed as a species of special concern in the state and also are protected under Canada's Species at Risk Act.

Botany students make big discovery

WMU's trees were located by Dr. Todd J. Barkman, professor of biological sciences, and his fall 2011 and 2013 Systematic Botany classes.

The classes were exploring campus natural areas as a field-plant identification exercise when students began spotting examples of the scarce species in woodlots southeast of the University's Stadium Drive Apartments. Barkman says the trees are unusually large, so students in his fall 2013 class used DNA sequencing to help confirm the identity of several of them.

So far, 29 dwarf hackberrys have been identified near the apartment complex by Stephan Keto, WMU's manager of natural areas and preserves, and his student assistant, Dean T. Simionescu. They include possibly the tallest dwarf hackberry known to exist in the country: a 46-foot specimen that unofficially surpasses the current national champion by 5 feet.

Official measurement for the Michigan Botanical Club Big Tree Program and the National Registry of Champion trees will be completed this spring.

"These trees were associated with the now-rare bur oak savannas that were part of the pre-settlement vegetation of Kalamazoo County. The ones we've discovered at WMU have been slowly surrounded by a forest of invasive species and larger trees that will eventually shade them out," Keto says.

"Volunteers, including faculty, staff and students are working with our landscape services personnel to conserve these rare trees by removing invasive species, establishing associated native plants and managing the area to encourage dwarf hackberry survival."

University is committed to trees

WMU has more than 131 acres of woodlots and 4,800 landscape trees on its main campus, plus almost 180 acres of tree canopy at its Parkview Campus and Asylum Lake and Kleinstuck preserves.

Along with the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, WMU was among the nation's 30 inaugural Tree Campuses. They were the only state schools to earn the certification until 2012. WMU formally acknowledges the accolade during its annual Arbor Day celebration, which is usually held in mid-April.

To be recertified as a Tree Campus each year, schools need to meet five core standards for sustainable campus forestry. They must:

  • have a tree advisory committee,
  • develop and implement a tree-care plan,
  • dedicate annual expenditures for their campus tree programs, 
  • sponsor student projects that combine learning and service, and
  • observe national Arbor Day.

The dwarf hackberry

Celtis tenuifolia—the dwarf hackberry—is native to Eastern North America and fairly common in the southern U.S. states. This small, gnarly tree is part of the Cannabaceae family and related to the common hackberry, another native tree of the Midwest. It usually grows to a maximum of 18 feet, but with an average height of 6 feet, is often mistaken for a large shrub.

Dwarf hackberrys live in dry areas with poor soil. In Michigan, they are found in sandy wooded dunes and remnant oak savannas as well as openings in oak-dominated forests. Loss of habitat has these trees increasingly rare in the moderate Great Lakes climate of Michigan and Ontario, Canada.

Additional information

For details about WMU's Tree Campus status, contact Darrell Junkins at darrell.junkins@wmich.edu or (269) 387-8557. Questions about the University's dwarf hackberry trees should be directed to Stephan Keto at steve.keto@wmich.edu or (269) 387-8561.