Oval trees 101: Do you know their history?

One cannot picture the university’s iconic Oval without its cherished, giant elm trees. Many of the trees date from the 1880s and 1920s and their size and beauty make the Oval a popular icon of the university, likely the most photographed location on campus, as well as a site for graduation celebrations, weddings and festivals.

The Oval is the heart of campus, and it is said that a true Ram has a heart shaped like an Oval.

The trees encircling the Oval and lining the inner sidewalks are all American elms and, according to university arborists, are all in generally good health, and are not being ravaged by Dutch elm disease.

Oval has a colorful history

Before the Oval became “The Oval,” the first two rows of American elms were planted – the trees that line the north-south sidewalk – in the spring of 1881, when the Oval was a problematic swampy area. In 1891, part of the Oval was used as the university’s baseball field. Oval Drive was originally built in 1910, designed by Aggie civil engineering students and faculty as a model to show how roads could be constructed from native materials. Once the drive was in place, plans to add buildings around the grounds started to take shape, and by 1919, the Oval became the heart of the developing university.

Many of the large elm trees that circle Oval Drive were planted in 1922, as 1-inch saplings, and until 1924, the center Oval was an alfalfa and grain field. In 1925, a grass lawn was planted, and what is today’s Oval was born.

The Oval has seen its share of hardship, surviving through multiple floods – 1938, 1951 and 1997 – nearby fires, with the loss of Old Main in 1970, and significant damage from early fall and late spring snow storms.

About 20 years ago, long-term planning began to keep the trees on the Oval vital with routine and proactive maintenance. Within the last two decades, the university began replanting elms as needed. Many of the trees planted in that era are Valley Forge elms, somewhat resistant to Dutch elm disease.

There are 99 elms circling the Oval and lining its walkways, with about 40 more trees nearby, outside of Oval Drive.  Some of the trees are 80 to 90 feet high, with roots that are one-and-a-half times their height.

Source: “The Oval,” by G. Hap Hazard

Support for the Oval trees

state your purposeToday, Facilities Management maintains routine pruning of the trees to help prevent damage and keep the trees healthy, an investment of $125,000 or more each time the trees are pruned. Costs are supported through university funds. The Oval Tree Preservation Endowment was created several years ago to devote resources specifically to preserving the elms, and contributes a fraction of the costs until it reaches a sustainable level. To support the Oval Preservation Fund, visit the website.