Treehop: The Barnard Magnolia Will Rise Again

Maggie 2 proudly standing in her sister’s place on planting day last spring

Published on Bwog on October 10, 2017.

Bwog has done lecturehops, peoplehops, clubhops, and roomhops, but this is our first time “hopping” an entity far greater than ourselves: the Barnard magnolia tree. But wait, you might ask – didn’t that tree die last year? In fact, while Maggie’s main body may be gone, her spirit and her genetic material live on. Senior staffer Betsy Ladyzhets talked to Greenhouse manager Nick Gershberg, who gave her all of the leafy details.

Almost two years ago, the Barnard campus stood still as Maggie, our beloved magnolia tree, was uprooted from her home in front of Lehman Hall, hoisted into the air with a forklift, and moved 30 feet to the left. Although administrators and horticulturists alike were optimistic that the tree would survive the move, the ensuing winter proved fatal. Maggie was pronounced dead that following summer, and the campus mourned the loss of one of its greatest hallmarks (and best crying spot).

However, what many Barnard students don’t know is, the magnolia was never entirely dead. Before the move took place, student workers at the Arthur Ross Greenhouse, led by Greenhouse Manager Nick Gershberg, took five cuttings of the tree. Two of those cuttings grew into saplings that are full clones of Maggie; one of them was planted on the Diana lawn last spring, and the other lives in the greenhouse.

“Whenever you move a large tree, even a tree substantially stronger than [the Barnard magnolia], there’s always a chance that it might not make it,” Nick explained to me yesterday. “The administrators who were responsible for its move decided that it might be a good idea to take some cuttings as a fail-safe.”

In order to take cuttings, the greenhouse team used a technique called “air layering” that allows a gardener to isolate larger pieces of plants that will be able to form roots and grow into full new specimens. Essentially, they cinched down a copper wire to almost entirely cut through the outer layer of the bark, then wrapped that area with wet sphagnum moss (a material often used in potting soils that holds water well) wrapped in plastic. The balls of tree and sphagnum, about the size of softballs, were dusted with rooting hormone and left on the tree for about two months. After roots grew into the sphagnum, the air layers were separated off, and the cuttings were brought to the greenhouse. Nick considers it lucky that, of the five cuttings he took, two survived through that initial period. The gardeners now lovingly refer to them as “Maggie 2” and “Maggie 3”.

In the greenhouse, the two magnolia saplings were taken care of similarly to all of the other plants there (periodic watering, fertilizing, checking for pests, and so on) with one exception: during the winter, these saplings were placed outside of the greenhouse on the Milbank roof. Magnolias don’t do well if kept warm all winter long; they need to live outside for a couple of months to maintain a regular life cycle. The first winter was stressful for the greenhouse workers because the cuttings hadn’t had long to establish root systems before they were put outside, but both saplings survived.

This past spring, both saplings had made it through two winters, so it seemed the right time to let one spread its wings (or, its roots). Around the same time, the administrators responsible for the construction of the Teaching and Learning Center and the re-landscaping of the Diana lawn, as well as a team of students brought on to consult, were deliberating what tree should be planted in Maggie’s place. Some considered finding another large tree of the same species, but the students were adamant that it should be the same magnolia – one of the clones.

Now that the new sapling has been planted, it should be growing like any other tree. “We needed to make sure that an irrigation system was put on it so that it wouldn’t dry out,” Nick said. “It’s a young, sensitive plant, and hasn’t really rooted in. I did give it an additional bit of organic fertilizer, about a half dozen times throughout the growing season.”

The clone remaining in the greenhouse is currently being maintained as a backup if the planted clone doesn’t make it through the next couple of seasons. In the future, however, if this planting is successful, the second magnolia sapling will find a new home – likely on Barnard or Columbia’s campus, although it may be offered to a sister institution as an act of goodwill.

I asked Nick what the timeline might look like for the sapling in the Diana lawn, if it survives. In response, he quoted an old gardener’s adage: “The first year, the plant sleeps; the second year, the plant creeps, and the third year, the plant leaps.” The first spring, the plant is busy building its root system. The second, it adds more foliar growth – new shoots, a larger canopy. And then, by the third year (this writer’s senior spring!), the young tree should be “growing with full vigor.”

The best thing Barnard students can do right now to help Maggie 2 grow, right now, is actually to give her some space. This means both literally and figuratively. Literally, spending too much time sitting around/taking pictures of/crying under the young tree could compact the soil beneath it to the point at which it would have trouble growing roots. Figuratively, we need to be cognizant of the fact that trees simply do not grow that fast, and be patient enough to let Maggie 2 set its own pace.

“A lot of growing plants is doing the preparations necessary for them to thrive and then just letting them do their thing and giving them the space that they need to do it,” Nick said.

One might ask, are these new trees really the same as the old Maggie? Nick would say yes. This is a parallel situation to a bow of the original magnolia stretching down far enough to touch the ground, and forming roots at that bow; in other words, the new saplings are an extension of the old tree. Whether they are also extensions of Maggie’s spirit is a more philosophical question, to which I believe the answer is also yes. This tree has been a part of the Barnard community for over sixty years, and there’s no reason for her to leave that community just because she needs to regrow for a little while.

“There are times where a particular specimen is really old, or has grown in a very interesting or special way, and so it’s venerated as a life form or even just as an object because it’s a superlative – like the redwoods, or the Bristlecone pines that are thousands of years old,” Nick said towards the end of our interview. “This tree was neither that old nor a particularly interesting specimen. It’s a very common hybrid, you can find thousands of them around the city. It was large, but it wasn’t the biggest one anyone had ever seen. Really, what made it special was the community that was active around it… I think, in that sense, that community… can continue things through, and fill that gap until there’s a new tree growing that people will hopefully have the same experiences around.”

Maggie can grow back bigger and bolder than ever, as long as the Barnard community gives her space and cheers her on. I, for one, am confident that I’ll see her flowering again soon.

Our new favorite tree via Nick Gershberg


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