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Toomer’s oaks in fair condition

AUBURN | Fair condition may not sound like the most glowing report, but for trees like Auburn University’s Toomer’s Corner oaks, it puts them just one step away from being fully established.

The two live oaks were transplanted from a nursery in central Florida just over three years ago.

“The trees are in what we would call fair condition,” Auburn University arborist Alex Hedgepath said. “We’ve observed excellent root growth. We’re encouraged by the canopy shoot extension in the upper canopy. Basically, we’re just doing all we can to maintain and improve the health of the trees. It does remain a lengthy process given their size, but we are hopeful.”

The Magnolia oak, which was transplanted 39 months ago.
The Magnolia oak, which was transplanted 39 months ago. (Bryan Matthews/

According to Hedgepath, the tree risk assessment scale has five levels. In descending order, they are: Good, fair, poor, decline and dead.

“They’re not at a state yet where we can say they’re completely established and they don’t have any problems. They are still in that transplant, kind of a shock stage,” Hedgepath said.

“Anytime you transplant a large tree, or really any plant, it’s going to go through a period of shock. It was growing in one environment and now it’s growing in a new environment. We’re still seeing some of that in these trees even though they’ve been in the ground coming up on three years and this is the fourth growing season.”

Hedgepath doesn’t know when the trees will be cleared to take part in the traditional rolling of Toomer’s Corner after big athletic wins. Those decisions are made at a higher level, but he expects they’ll need to be assessed in good condition before it’s considered.

“They’re getting comfortable, they’re getting established,” he said. “We’ve seen some of the best growth from them since they’ve been in the ground this year. So we’re very encouraged.”

The trees are monitored in several ways. There are four in-ground moisture sensors that regularly collect data, shoot elongation is measured during the growing season and soil samples are taken and analyzed approximately every six months.

Back-to-back winter storms in the winter of 2017-18 were a setback in the tree’s development.

“Live oaks are not used to that. Those particular trees, which are from central Florida, were not used to that,” Hedgepath said. “It did a little bit of damage. Are you going to see any aboveground stress to that? It depends on how hard you’re looking but for the most part those trees are still chugging along.”

The trees have shown mostly vertical growth over the first three years, but Hedgepath expects the horizontal growth that is symbolic of established live oaks across the Southeast to eventually occur.

“I would say with time, they’re going to definitely get that shape,” he said. “Overall, they’re just going to want to continue to take up as much space as they can. The more light you give them, the more open it is, the more sprawling they’re going to get. We should eventually see that kind of overarching growth habit that’s typical of live oaks.”

It is believed live oaks can live for a millennia or more. The largest registered live oak, Seven Sisters Oak in Mandeville, La., is estimated to be within 500 to 1,000 years old. It has a limb spread of more than 150 feet.

The original Toomer’s oaks were between 83 and 85 years old. They were poisoned with Spike 80DF herbicide by Alabama fan Harvey Updyke in February of 2011, weeks after Auburn won the national championship. He was convicted, served 76 days in jail and ordered to pay $800,000 in restitution, most of which remains unpaid.

The oaks were replaced on Valentine’s Day in 2015, but less than five months later, the Magnolia Avenue oak was again replaced after not showing signs of growth. In September of 2016, the Magnolia Oak was burned after a win over LSU. The fire was started by Jochen Wiest, who pled guilty to felony criminal mischief, received probation and was ordered to pay approximately $22,000 in restitution.

After the fire and the College oak failing to establish, both trees were replaced with the two current ones on Feb. 18, 2017. There are 10 smaller live oaks that were cultivated from acorns of the original Toomer’s oaks that line the walkway from Toomer’s Corner to Samford Hall.

See a photo gallery of Toomer’s Corner and the Auburn Oaks below…