Catch a Falling Leaf

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Eight weeks ago the class of 2019 gathered in the amphitheater for First Collection. About seven months from now, the class of 2016 will sit together in the same place for our Commencement ceremony. The amphitheater is where we symbolically begin and end our time at Swarthmore. Situated at the border between the Crum Woods and campus, it is a place of peaceful transition.

Our first introduction to campus and our last goodbye feel humane because of the solid rock beneath us and powerful trees above us. As a literal transition from campus, the Crum Woods seem so much more approachable when you begin by meandering through the amphitheater and picking up one of the many trails behind the stage.

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The tall, statuesque trees dotting the amphitheater are tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera). Tulip trees are not closely related to the bulbous flower of the same name. Rather, they have leaves that look somewhat like two-dimensional tulip flowers and tulip-like flowers in the spring. The tulip trees in the amphitheater were conserved during the amphitheater’s construction because they are fast-growing (more than 24 inches a year!) and reach heights of up to 120 feet (36.5 m), providing an impressive canopy.

You might not have realized it, but if you’ve spent much time on the east coast you’ve probably encountered tulip trees in a number of other places! Tulip trees are often used as telephone poles due to their strong apical growth, which is a technical term that means the tree grows up, rather that out. If you take a minute to look out the window from where you’re reading this, the leaves being puppeted around by the wind are most likely from tulip trees. They’re great to chase and try to catch.

While tulip trees are native to the northeast, they weren’t always so abundant. Much of the land in Pennsylvania and surrounding areas of the country was heavily farmed. Because tulip trees spread their seeds through wind dispersal, they can easily continue to reproduce and regenerate, making them viable for more urban environments.

However, other tree species that rely on animals to carry seeds would have been less successful in such a landscape, as birds and mammals have smaller populations in open and heavily managed areas, leading to reduced regeneration of trees that used that strategy.

The tulip tree leaves are now turning a vibrant yellow. There is no better place to appreciate autumn on our campus than in the amphitheater and on into the Crum Woods. I guarantee it will be a perfect place to take a photo and show your friends back home how #gorgeous your campus is.

If you want to see a particularly impressive specimen, our very own Crum Woods is home to a Pennsylvania Champion Tree. It is the fourth biggest tulip tree in Pennsylvania, pulling in 373 “Pennsylvania Big Tree Points” (height (ft) + circumference breast height (in) + ¼ maximum crown spread).

Find the trail that starts at the water tower behind the Science Center, and walk downhill. Just where the trail starts to veer left, look straight ahead into the woods. It’s rather treasured by the Scott Arboretum and other tree enthusiasts so the best thing you can do is stay on the trail and admire from afar.

Happy leaf catching!

This article is part of an ongoing column called the Crum Woods Chronicle. The Crum Woods Chronicle will be periodic updates and observations about subjects related to natural history, interesting species found in and around the Crum Woods, and exciting events you can get involved in. My hope is that some of these topics will interest you, strengthen your connection to the Crum Woods, and inspire you to explore your backyard a little more often.

Natural areas do not maintain their character and quality independently, especially when they are heavily used by people and embedded in urban environments. Educating yourself about aspects of the Crum Woods that interest you and understanding how your individual use of the Crum Woods impacts it (and how you can reduce that impact!) are important steps every one of us should take.

“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” –Baba Dioum

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