ASU Begins Replacing 100-Year-Old Trees Along Palm Walk

Published: Thursday, July 28, 2016 - 4:32pm
Updated: Thursday, July 28, 2016 - 5:40pm
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(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Crews planted date palms along part of Palm Walk this week.

If Arizona State University’s Tempe campus were an open book, Palm Walk would be the binding. It’s a north to south walkway right through the middle of campus that’s been there for about 100 years.

And yes, the same trees planted there originally stand there now. The university decided, however, those trees have passed their prime. 

On the south end of Palm Walk, a crew has already removed 35 Mexican fan palms and is replacing them with date palms.

“A lot of our students are saying we need shade on this campus,” said ASU landscape architect Byron Sampson. “They loathe going through this campus in the summer or the hot months because there’s no shade.”

Palm Walk might be convenient, but the 110 fan palms standing from 50 to 70 feet tall provide almost zero shade. Sampson said the shorter, leafier date palms are expected to provide dappled shade over the whole walkway. 

“Mexican fan palms really did that great job of creating that strong sense of oasis and character, and now we’re just taking that to the next level,” Sampson said.

And not just with shade; the trees will also produce dates for the annual campus harvest. They plan to replace all the palms by 2018. It’s costing the school about half a million dollars to put in these first 35 new trees.

Aerial images show changes on the ASU Tempe campus over the past century. Palm Walk is pictured near the bottom of the photos.

If the old palms could talk, they would have a lot to tell us about their past 100 years at ASU. Since they can’t, university archivist Rob Spindler does the talking. 

“So what we’re looking at here is a large leather bound account book,” Spindler explained, leafing through the book in the university’s archives and special collections office.

Spindler looked through old handwritten ledgers to try to piece together the backstory of palm walk. He pointed out some items in one ledger.

“$38.45 cents for trees in March 1917,” he said.

Another $200 for trees that same year. Then university President Arthur John Matthews was notorious for his love of gardening. But the first reference to palm trees, specifically, is in 1918.

“$7 for palm trees from Blasingame nurseries,” Spindler said.

He places the planting of Palm Walk somewhere between 1916 to 1920, but back then it was called Normal Street. It was an actual city street.

“There was a time when it ran all the way from University Drive to Apache Boulevard,” Spindler said. 

Just a few feet high, the new palms were witness to a student lifestyle that students today might balk at.

“During the hot summer months, individuals would actually sleep outside in these screened-in porches,” Spindler said.

These were called sleeping porches.  

“And they would wet their sheets in order to stay cool during the hot summer nights.” 

The original seven or eight buildings on campus eventually became many - all with air conditioning. The palms grew taller as Tempe Normal School became Arizona State College, and finally Arizona State University. 

They saw the school mascot change from the the bulldog to the Sun Devil. Throughout the years the palms appear as a poster child for the campus.

“When you look at the college catalogs, you’ll see references to the college palms in 1926,” Spindler said.

A 1967 campus map makes the first reference to the name Palm Walk. Spindler said it had become an icon, and one of the most photographed places on campus. He said that’s something that should be preserved.

“Having historic places that look the same, that remind our alumni of what it was like to go here whenever they were here - the 60s, the 70s, the 1990s - is really important,” Spindler said. 

So the new trees, just 18 feet tall, have quite a legacy to uphold over the next hundred years.

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