On Saturday, specialists in the care of live oaks from the regional office of Bartlett Tree Experts in Tucker, Ga., will perform a horticultural version of “Extreme Makeover” on the historic trees at the southwest corner of College Street and Magnolia Avenue, where Auburn University meets downtown Auburn. For much of the day, curbside traffic lanes at that corner will be closed and traffic through the intersection will be constricted while the Bartlett crew works on the trees.
Bartlett personnel will evaluate the structural integrity of the trees, remove dead or damaged limbs, install cables to brace weak branches, break up compacted soil around the roots, add organic matter and fertilizer around the base and treat for insects.
“We hope to improve the condition of the Toomer’s oaks through this work,” said Auburn horticulture professor Gary Keever, who is helping the AU Facilities Division develop a long-term care plan for the iconic trees. “These are not old live oaks; if we can provide better growing conditions, they could live much longer.”
The trees have been a fixture at the junction of the campus and town for more than a century, and live oaks often live for 400 years or more. In addition to the stresses common to urban trees, the Toomer’s oaks are further endangered by their most dedicated advocates — tens of thousands of football fans who celebrate victories by tossing rolls of toilet paper over the trees after every victory in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Several times in recent years, celebrants have set fire to the paper, causing further damage to the trees.
The morning after each celebration, cleanup crews wash away the toilet paper with high-pressure hoses. This knocks many leaves and buds off the trees, putting additional stress on them.
In an unintended but beneficial side effect of the post-celebration cleanups in 2007, the damage was partially offset by water reaching the roots of the trees during some of the driest conditions on record. Keever said the inadvertent watering paid dividends this spring, when the trees put out substantial new growth.
However, the horticulture professor noted that high-pressure hosing is not the best way to water trees, even during a drought. If football fans could find an alternative to draping the trees in toilet paper, the Toomer’s oaks could rapidly be restored to good health and a long life, he said.
Despite signs of decline over the past decade, Keever said the trees are far from being candidates for the chipper, as evidenced by a flush of dark green foliage. The larger tree has even shown signs of recovery from a gaping wound incurred a few years ago, when a vehicle crashed into it.
AU foresters are growing young trees from acorns harvested from the two oaks, but Cathy Love of AU Campus Planning and Space Management said replacement trees would probably not last long in that vicinity unless conditions change. “If there were no change in the tradition of rolling Toomer’s Corner, we would have many of the same problems with new trees,” she said.
Love and Keever said various groups and individuals are looking for a long-term solution that would preserve both the trees and the tradition. In the meantime, they said, the university is taking steps, such as the current treatment, to improve growing conditions for the trees.