Poisoned Toomer's Trees Make Comeback

Despite an attempt to kill the iconic trees at Toomer's Corner, an Auburn University landmark, the old live oaks are hanging tough.

Auburn, Ala. -- The extraordinary amount of work to save the historic Toomer's Corner oak trees may be paying dividends.

Anyone who has recently checked out the front gate entrance to the Auburn University campus has been able to see new growth leaves on the trees, which were poisoned last year.

A University of Alabama football supporter, Harvey Updyke of Dadeville, Ala., is scheduled to be tried in June on a felony criminal mischief charge and other charges after being arrested and charged with the poisoning.

A herbicide made specifically to remove trees was used in an attempt to kill the two large live oaks at Toomer's Corner, a location where Auburn fans gather to celebrate important school sports victories.

Dr. Art Chappelka, an Auburn University professor of foresty and a member of the Toomer's Oaks Task Force, says he is very encouraged by the resiliency of the old oaks that were not expected to survive the attack. However, a variety of treatments, including twice replacing the poisoned soil they were in, is giving them a chance to make it.

"To me, these tries to save the trees represent the Auburn fighting spirit," Dr. Chappelka says. "This particular herbicide is extremely lethal -- it is a very good herbicide. That is why it is used for line-clearing and fence row clearing.

"We know the concentrations that were applied to these trees were very, very, very high -- much higher than the recommended dosage to kill plants," he points out. "But as you can see, as of today these trees are alive."

Using a football metaphor, Dr. Chappelka says the trees were in trouble, like an Auburn team down 24-0, but are now trying to make a comeback of epic proportions.

"These trees may come back, we don't know, but if you look at them right now and compare them to what they looked like a month ago they sure look better," the professor says. "We are guarded in our optimism."

Celebrations like this one for the women's swimming team winning the 2006 NCAA Championship have been held for many years under the Toomer's Corner oaks.

During the treatment process, the trees have been surrounded by fences and are off limits to fans tossing toilet paper into the limbs, which is part of the celebration tradition. If the trees continue their comeback, there is a possibility university officials will give the green light to allow the rolling ceremonies to resume as soon as this fall, Dr. Chappelka points out.

Just how old they are is not exactly known but if they recover, they could be able to survive for a long time because the oaks can live for hundreds of years.

"There is a debate about how old they are," Dr. Chappelka says. "Some people say that they are over a 100 years old, some people say that they're under a 100 years old. The latest I've heard is they're probably around 80 years old."

Dr. Art Chappelka checks out one of the poisoned oak trees.

When the dirt around the trees was first replaced, activated carbon was put in the new soil to absorb the poison. When the ground was checked two weeks later there were still dangerous amounts of herbicide in the soil, which was again dug up and replaced.

"We removed the soil very, very carefully," Dr. Chappelka notes. "They were actually here with brushes, brushing the dirt from off of the roots, an extremely meticulous process. We started irrigating the trees regularly in the summer trying to see how they would respond to the herbicide. This herbicide is one that affects photosynthesis, the amount of food that plants store in leaves.

"What will happen is that the poison will be brought up through the roots, it will be taken up through the foliage and when it's in the foliage what it will do is essentially kill the leaves," he says. "The leaves will fall down and then it will repeat the process until the tree has no more carbohydrate reserves."

Former Auburn football assistant coach Al Borges is shown preparing to throw toilet paper during a 2006 celebration at Toomer's Corner.

When leaves from the tree fall they are picked up with a vacuum cleaner and treated as hazardous waste.

"The problem with this particular herbicide is that it is active for about five to seven years," says Dr. Chappelka, noting it is very effective at what it was manufactured to do.

To help the trees cope with the poison, in March the university hired a consultant to try another type of treatment.

"We had a person from Knoxville, Tenn., come in and essentially gave the trees an IV, which provided soluble sugar and is replacing the carbohydrates," Dr. Chappelka said. "It's a process that hasn't been done a lot. Some folks out of Texas have done it. They actually tried this on the Treaty Oak, which was herbicided in the 1980s, so that was kind of an experimental process."

That tree located in Austin survived, but suffered major damage due to the poisoning.

The Toomer's oaks have suffered damage, too, Dr. Chappelka points out.

"There is a lot of dead foliage on these trees and there is a lot of branch die-back and other maladies caused by the herbicide, but the trees are alive and we do have hope," he says.

In the next couple of weeks, dead branches are going to removed and treatments will continue. A lot of time and effort has been devoted to the project, but Dr. Chappelka adds he has no doubts that is what Auburn people want.

"We realize that these trees have had a lot of damage to them, but due to the efforts of a lot of people at the university they now at least having fighting chance," he says.

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