University prepares for new trees on Palm Walk

Palm Walk, one of ASU’s most well-known features, will soon be getting a facelift.

Grounds Services is in the beginning stages of replacing the Mexican Fan Palms lining the walkway.

The oldest palms were planted in 1916 and are located at the north end of the walk, where it meets University Drive. The youngest palms were planted in 1930 on the south end of the walk.

Mexican Fan Palms typically live to 100, so some of the trees are nearing the end of their lifespans.

Byron Sampson, a University landscape architect, said Grounds Services discovered how old the trees are while doing research for another project.

Sampson said Grounds Services is taking many things into account before it starts replacing any of the trees, and it will have to consider the net impact on ASU’s infrastructure before action is taken.

Ellen Newell, associate director of Facilities Management who oversees Grounds Services, said the project will be complicated.

“One of the things we realized was that we needed to start planning ahead,” Newell said.

Byron and Newell said Grounds Services is doing price estimates and trying to decide whether to replace the trees in phases or all at once.

The department is also trying to sort out funding for the project.

The money to replace the trees would come from ASU’s general construction fund. However, Grounds Services is also accepting donations from the public made to the Friends of the Arboretum division of the ASU Foundation.

Palm Walk is one part of the larger ASU Arboretum, which was formally declared on the Tempe campus by University President Lattie Coor in 1990. The arboretum has been in development since 1900, when University President Arthur Matthews hired ASU’s first landscape architect.

Sampson said plants have been chosen for the arboretum because of a combination of factors.

In the earlier days of the arboretum, biology professors would bring back specimens from their studies abroad. As the campus's landscape continued to develop, architects began to choose plants that would flourish.

Sampson said the arboretum at the Tempe campus is in need of enhancement.

He said the Tempe campus has unique needs compared to other arboretums, such as the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, when it comes to its design.

“Our primary focus has to be the needs of students and faculty,” Sampson said.

Some biology and landscape architecture classes use the arboretum for classes, he said.

Sampson and Newell said Grounds Services wants to make the arboretum more interactive for the entire community, and the department has a goal of creating a phone app to supplement the signs around campus.

Students already have opportunities to engage with the arboretum beyond walking through it to get to class every day.

The arboretum houses special projects, such the ASU Date Palm Germplasm, which accepts student volunteers.

A germplasm is an offshoot of a tree that can be used to grow clones. ASU has an entire date palm grove at the Polytechnic campus dedicated to creating and harvesting these offshoots, in addition to the 65 date palms that are located around the Tempe campus.

Deborah Thirkhill, volunteer program coordinator for Grounds Services and the arboretum, said ASU started its germplasm more than 20 years ago, and it is one of only four germplasms in the nation.

Polytechnic’s date palm grove has 138 trees comprising 40 different varieties. Volunteers at the grove are responsible for the upkeep of the trees, including pollinating and harvesting them.

After the dates are harvested, they are sold at the ASU Farmers’ Market.

Thirkhill said ASU’s dates are a large draw for international people, especially those from the Middle East, where dates are eaten to break their fasts during the month of Ramadan.

Some of the volunteers who work the grove at Polytechnic come from places such as Sudan, Syria and Iraq, she said.

Mohannad Maleh, a biomedical engineering sophomore, has a personal connection with ASU's dates.

Maleh's family immigrated from Iraq 12 years ago, and he served as a U.S. Army linguist for four continuous deployments.

"As a boy, I used to play the dates-tasting game with my grandfather and other kids," Maleh said in an email. "The dates-tasting game is when you get blindfolded and given different kind of dates to taste and detect what kind it is. There is a lot more to dates than that but as a kid, that game and the awesome sweet taste of dates got me hooked."

He said he was surprised when he tried some ASU dates, and was certain they were the same dates he had eaten in Iraq.

Biology and society junior Bianca Zietal takes an active role in the arboretum’s maintenance as president of ASU Grow, a gardening club that takes care of the University’s vegetable and herb gardens located south of the Social Sciences building.

In addition to taking care of the ASU gardens, the club tries to raise awareness about food biodiversity.

“We try to teach people where their food comes from and how they can become involved with the food on their plates,” Zietal said.

The club has environmental goals as well. The gardens are kept organically, and members are encouraged to save the seeds from their produce instead of continuously buying new seeds.

The emphasis on seed saving has earned the club a grant from Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit organization in Tucson that promotes seed conservation.

Zietal said being intimately involved with the environment through actions such as gardening is a good way to learn about preserving the natural environment.

“It’s one thing to say you are in support of environmental ideologies," she said. "It’s another thing to do and act on them. There will always be nature, but you can choose to actively participate in it.”

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @amy_medeiros.

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