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Northwest Arboretum History

The Northwest Missouri State University campus serves as the home to some of the oldest and most majestic trees in the region and was designated in 1993 by the Missouri State Legislature as the official Missouri Arboretum. Since 2013, the campus has been identified as a Tree Campus USA by the Arbor Day Foundation for its commitment to effective urban forest management, and the Missouri Arboretum achieved Level II accreditation in 2018 for meeting management standards and professional practices outlined by the ArbNet Arboretum Accreditation Program. 

The plants growing in the Missouri Arboretum create a welcoming atmosphere for Northwest. Visitors to campus have the sense of entering a residential neighborhood rather than an institutional setting.  However, the trees and other plants are only part of the experience; benches, gardens and gathering areas provide places for people to enjoy each others’ company in beautiful surroundings. 

The history of tree management dates back to before the institution’s founding when 85 acres of today’s 330-acre campus were part of a tree farm and nursery established by Thomas Gaunt in 1857.  Northwest was founded in 1905, and the Gaunt home, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, now serves as the residence for the University president and his family. 

During the campus’ earliest days, groundskeepers planted fast-growing, short-lived trees with slow-growing, long-lived trees that rapidly provided beauty and shade for the new campus. After the sturdy, slow-growing trees became established, weaker, fast-growing trees were removed. President Uel Lamkin brought gingko trees from China between 1921 and 1945, and they still stand today at the southwest side of the Administration Building. In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, graduating classes donated trees to the campus. Flowering crabapple trees planted behind Colden Hall were donated in memory of President Robert Foster’s mother.

Maintaining the campus trees has had its challenges. In the 1970s, Dutch elm disease wiped out all but one of the American elm tree on the University campus. A December 2007 ice storm damaged more than 40 percent of the trees on campus. An August 2011 “super storm” brought winds in excess of 80 mph, defoliating nearly 80 percent of the trees, stripping bark and severing limbs, resulting in the removal of 24 trees. Drought conditions have caused groundskeepers to adjust their irrigation practices to promote the trees’ longevity. 

Managing an arboretum that is used as a workspace and laboratory on a busy campus is a challenge.  Trees are planted, pruned and, at times, they may have to be removed. Sometimes they are in the way of construction projects; sometimes they decline due to age and due to the conditions in which they are growing. 

Just as trees growing in other environments compete with surrounding plants for sunlight, essential elements and water, trees growing on campus compete with lawns for moisture and essential elements.  Additionally, they may be growing in soils and environmental conditions that are different from the places where they grow best. The Missouri Arboretum cares for its trees in a way that maximizes their growing potential, including placing mulch around the trees to discourage competition from grasses.  The mulched areas also keep mowers and weed trimmers from damaging the vulnerable root crowns at the base of the trees. The Missouri Arboretum’s trees are pruned to improve their form, minimize conflict with people and vehicles, and to maximize pedestrian safety. 

Among the Missouri Arboretum’s many honors is the 2000 Communitree Award, presented by the Missouri Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council and the Forestry Division of the Missouri Department of Conservation, for “exemplary stewardship of community trees.”  In 2001, the Arboretum, Northwest and the city of Maryville, received the Communitree Award again for the bypass project east of Maryville at the intersection of highways 71 and 136.  The Northwest campus also was named one of the “50 Most Amazing University Botanical Gardens and Arboretums in the U.S.” by