Campus in Bloom

Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the Eliot Circle cherry blossoms. Maybe you’ve been told that they came from a thesis project involving grafting the flowering branches from one species onto the trunks of another species, creating the spectacular burst of light pink blossoms that showers down upon us in the springtime every year. Unfortunately, the origin of the beloved Eliot Circle trees and the spectacle they produce is not so grandiose. There is no record of such a thesis in the library’s database, and the grounds worker who has been at Reed longest, Ed McFarlane, remembers planting the trees but has no recollection of student involvement.

Eliot Circle was created in 1967 as part of the major campus renovations of 1977-1981, which replaced a large parking lot with Vollum, the main path leading toward the library and science buildings, and new landscaping. The renovations established much-needed new classrooms and office space in addition to reducing traffic and parking in the middle of campus, which had been the cause of many safety and atmosphere complaints, and came with a wave of ornamental plants and landscaping. An invitation to the reception celebrating the completion of Vollum in 1981 shows a drawing of a flat, empty Eliot Circle with no trees. In aerial shots from 1987, the Eliot Circle cherry trees are in full bloom.

Since their planting, the trees have become a symbol, featured repeatedly on printed course catalogs, admissions materials and the Reed website. They are also a much-awaited springtime spectacle, drawing Reedies, community members, and neighbors to stop and gaze up at the clusters of pink in awe.

While the legend of the Eliot Circle trees being the product of thesis is not founded in history, the trees are indeed grafted. According to professor of plant evolution and ecology Keith Karoly, grafting is a common horticultural practice used to create combined plants with features from multiple species. For example, a desired species being introduced to areas where it is not equipped to survive can be integrated with the trunk and roots of a different species better suited to local soil and pest conditions. Plum and cherry can be grafted together because they belong to the same genus, Prunus, making them genetically compatible. This is common practice, since grafting desired cherry branches onto a plum trunk is faster than growing a cherry tree from seed. In the case of Eliot Circle, flowering Japanese cherry trees Prunus serrulata supply the elegant flowers atop the sturdy trunks and roots of plum Prunus nigra. Current admissions tour guides, who were already suspicious of the legend, simply tell visitors that the trees are grafted, plum on the bottom and cherry on top.

Despite it not being true, the legend of the Eliot Circle trees being a thesis project has the pleasant feel of folklore. The idea of a senior cherry blossom enthusiast whiling away, working to create something special and amazing right in the center of campus, is certainly appealing. Thesis or no thesis, we still gather under their branches every spring.