Keeper of the Grotto

     Perhaps Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., saw the legendary sycamore tree standing in the rear of Corby Hall, at the University of Notre Dame du Lac (Our Lady of the Lake), in 1842? Planning his landscape to build a Catholic University, some 500+ acres bequeathed to the Congregation of Holy Cross, no doubt this tree was standing tall even back then. This past October I had a most memorable collegiate experience, planned by my friend “Chuck”, which included my “Wingman” Tony. Notre Dame football is legendary: Knute Rockne, the Four Horseman, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, 11 Consensus National Championships, 7 Heisman Winners, 195 First Team All-Americans, Joe Montana, Joe Theismann, “Touchdown Jesus”, “First Down Moses” … the list could go on for pages. Needless to say, our experience watching the “Fighting Irish” take on the USC Trojans, for The Jeweled Shillelagh Trophy, was epic!

     Stunned by the fact that Notre Dame has only 8,600 undergraduates, I thought it was much more, the campus is simply magnanimous. A contagious and courageous spirit can be felt throughout the entire campus. The Collegiate-Gothic style architecture and khaki-colored brick of Notre Dame’s stadium, is punctuated by outstanding plant material with spatial development always considered. Our host for the weekend, “Chuck”, a proud alumni of the Mendoza College of Business Graduate Program, gave us an unforgettable and encyclopedic experience of all things Notre Dame. And while we marveled at the history, architecture and grounds, Chuck and his family were struck by our commentary, our “eye” if you will, speaking directly to our discipline, plants. The University of Notre Dame, in my opinion, does “nothing halfway”. Their plant palette has repetition and includes a superlative collection of trees and shrubs. Redbuds, Ginkgo, Viburnum, Sweetgum, Kentucky Coffeetree, Horse Chestnut, Tuliptree & Dawn Redwood are all well represented. And if this isn’t enough, there are still other trees, prominently displayed, that simply put our experience “over the top”.

     The Katsura allée, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, welcomed us as we entered the Compton Family Ice Arena. Hopeful and anticipating the spicy aroma their leaves sometimes produce, reminiscent of cotton candy, I was denied. However, its typical fall color, yellow and apricot hues, more than made up for the scent. Bald Cypress, Taxodium distichum, are in front of Ara Parseghian Gate B entrance, Notre Dame’s legendary coach. Still in their adolescence, they will someday soon provide shade and outstanding fall color. Separating the stadium from some serious tailgating, we appreciated their fernlike foliage, but missed their rusty orange markings produced in the fall. Perhaps the most abundantly planted tree on campus is Paperbark Maple, Acer griseum? A tree notorious for slow growth, thus its price tag, difficulty to propagate, exfoliating bark, tri-foliate leaves and prodigious fall color, this tree was everywhere. The best representation, I could find, was on the corner of the Club Naimoli-Purcell Pavilion, close to the stadium. Roughly 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide, this Paperbark was PHAT & full! In fact, every tree I encountered, on campus, was Grade A.

     Now for the pièce de résistance, Notre Dame’s Landmark Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis. “A great and noble tree,” standing in the rear of Corby Hall, near the Grotto, this tree has a storied past. Its unique form and low branching is said to be attributed to “a wronged Indian whose spirit had entered into the tree and formed its unusual shape” ( Father John J. Cavanaugh referred to it as “The Vengeance Tree because it had the shape of an open hand outstretched in a pleading gesture.” The Forestry Department at Purdue University has assessed the tree to be at least 200 years old, as the tree’s circumference has measured over 20 feet. Other academics contest that Notre Dame’s sycamore could be nearly 400 years old. None the less, this American Planetree epitomizes a native beauty when given generous room to develop. Cream-colored to white inner bark, complete with its mottled appearance, has an outline far greater than what textbooks say it will do. One can’t help but wonder what this tree has seen and heard throughout Notre Dame’s rich history.

     “Notre Dame has one of the most effective combinations and commitments to athletics, academics and student life anywhere in major college sports” ( Much can be said about Notre Dame’s values, sense of community and family. Vocabulary I would use to describe its residents and alumni would be respectful, proud and intense, with many saying, “welcome to Notre Dame.” However, the best quote I have heard about Notre Dame is by Joe Theismann, “If you could find a way to bottle the Notre Dame spirit, you could light up the universe.”