Let ISU history take root in your yard


A bicyclist rides past Sycamore Row on the east side of campus. Photo by Amy Vinchattle.

If you're in the market for some new trees at home -- and you're a history buff to boot -- keep reading.

The ISU Alumni Association is selling seedlings from Iowa State's beloved Sycamore Row as part of the Heritage Tree program. The program was established last fall with the sale of seedlings from a nearly 100-year-old catalpa tree removed near Pearson Hall.

History of campus sycamores

Sycamore Row is a stretch of 42, century-old sycamore trees that runs parallel to what used to be the Dinkey rail line. The row starts near the Landscape Architecture Building and continues east along a path that runs past the Lied Center, CyRide and the Lied recreation fields. The trees continue across University Boulevard near Brookside Park, and end at Squaw Creek.

History indicates the sycamores were planted between 1910 and 1920 by Arthur Erwin, an ISU horticulture professor who also served as the university's superintendent of grounds. Erwin believed the large canopy of sycamores would shade faculty, staff and students as they made their way to Ames by train or on foot.

Buyer, be aware

Though they are beautiful, mature sycamore trees are large. Consider your planting space before purchasing a tree.

  • Height: 90-100 feet
  • Width: 70 feet
  • Best known for: White bark, architecture of branches, water tolerance

Preserving history

About 100 years later, another ISU horticulture professor with a dual role on campus is preserving Erwin's legacy and ISU history. Students working with Bill Graves, horticulture professor and associate dean in the Graduate College, gathered seeds from Sycamore Row last winter for the Heritage Tree program.

"This project is about preserving historical trees, and the sycamores are among the most notable trees on campus," Graves said.

With Graves' supervision, students planted and nurtured the seeds in a campus greenhouse for a few months until they were strong enough to move outside. The seeds yielded more than 100 sturdy, 2-foot-tall sycamore seedlings.

Buy them before they're gone

Graves said about 50 plants still are available for sale. Some smaller sycamore seedlings may be added to the mix if the original lot sells out.

The seedlings cost $50 for one plant; $35 each for two or three; and $25 each for four or more. Order online through the ISU Alumni Association. Shipping is $20, but you can pick up the plants for free on Oct. 3, 17 and 24 at 106 Horticulture (open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.). All seedlings come with a certificate of campus heritage.

If you miss out on this year's sycamores, Graves said next year's seedlings may be from a swamp white oak tree.