Stanford campus home to hundreds of different plants, including produce gardens

Many Stanford students and staff know about the university’s attempts to be an eco-friendly campus. Recycling and composting bins can be found every few yards and there are several sustainable farms growing produce. The campus is also home to all sorts of prolific, varied plants that are largely ignored, save by a small group of dedicated followers.

Stanford staff member John Rawlings leads a botanical tour on campus. (Photo courtesy of Tessaly Jen)

Among these followers is John Rawlings, Stanford bibliographer and plant enthusiast. Rawlings leads the occasional plant tour through the campus grounds, teaching his guests how to identify the many species of plants on campus. His encyclopedic knowledge of the Latin species names of each plant and its idiosyncrasies delights his audiences. With Rawlings’ guidance, the overlooked background of campus landscaping becomes so many fragrant blossoms, small edible fruits, and lessons in campus history and culture.

Rawlings stressed the importance of learning about plants. “This is stuff you absolutely have to know if you’re going to be a student at Stanford,” he said, explaining the differences between varieties of oak trees.

Even if that seems like less-than-crucial knowledge in these high-tech days, Rawlings has a point. In fact, the university’s founder, Leland Stanford, probably would have agreed. For example, the Roble and Encina buildings on campus are named after the Spanish words for oak trees found on the grounds. This nomenclature was by Leland Stanford’s order. He rejected the more classic “Persephone” as a building name in hopes that his students would come to know the names of the trees around them.

For the most part, students do not know. Even among those studying environmental sciences, where some engagement with the campus flora might be expected, there is still a lack of knowledge.

“Even students who are intimately engaged with plants in an academic way rarely take the time to look at the diversity of plant life we have at Stanford,” said Tessaly Jen, a Stanford senior in the Earth systems program. She urges students to seek out knowledge from experts like Rawlings about their local environments.

For the most part, however, students are without the guidance of the trained horticulturalists who designed the campus. Stanford has systems in place that ensure that its students learn both inside and outside the classroom. The Residential Education program, which promotes learning and community-building in the Stanford residences, offers support and programming from party-planning workshops to field trips.

Cora Gerdes, the associate dean of residential education, recognizes the importance of spaces for building communities. “A positive and beautiful environment stimulates creativity and fosters personal safety,” she said. However, official events that celebrate the beautiful gardens on Stanford’s campus are largely absent.

The potential certainly is there.  Plants around the campus act as landmarks, as points of interest for visitors, and as a legacy of the university’s past.  Some of the trees in the inner quad are original plantings, dating back to the late 19th century.  They are among the few remaining pieces of campus from its opening days.  Today, the university hires landscape architects to design the green spaces and gardens around campus for both form and function.  Planters near bike racks, for example, need to be seeded with extremely hardy species that can survive the hourly parking rush.  A recent initiative partners Stanford Dining with students to maintain vegetable gardens near the campus eateries to supply a portion of the produce consumed there.

Gardens in front of Stanford's Memorial Church date back to the 1891 founding of the university. (Photo: jillclardy flickrstream)

Whether or not they know the species names and histories of the plants, students have enjoyed the campus green spaces for as long as they have existed. And as Rawlings says, that can form lasting memories.

“People come back and get nostalgic,” he said, recalling one alumnus telling him, “This is where I had my first date with my wife.”  Rawlings recounted this story while standing in a garden with hanging white, lacey flowers from Chinese fringe trees and benches in the shade.

As the weather improves with the season, students are outside, enjoying the lawns and gardens of campus most afternoons. For Rawlings, this is a step in the right direction.  He urges students to look around. If they do, he said, “You’ll not only have met 10,000 friends on Facebook, you’ll have met 100 plants. Get to know their names; make them your friends.”


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