Solving the Mystery of Tree Number One

By Hannah Rozear, Librarian for Instructional Services

What do librarians do all day? While many imagine we spend our days squirreled away reading books, the truth is that we’re often chasing down obscure sources and helping people find the information they need—no matter how hard-to-find or esoteric. These questions may come in as instant messages, phone calls, emails, or in person at the service desk.

Occasionally, they involve tracking down trees.

Have you ever noticed the tiny numbered metal tags attached to seemingly random trees around Duke’s campus? Alexandra Gil (T‘05) and her friends were particularly intrigued by them. When they were students here, they made it their personal mission to locate the lowest numbered tree on campus. Sadly, the closest they ever came was Tree No. 3.

Fast-forward twelve years and a question lands in our general-purpose “Ask a Librarian” inbox, reviving anew the quest for Tree No. 1:

I’m writing to you in search of help… My wife (a proud alumna of the university) and I will be visiting the campus this weekend. It’ll be her first time back at Duke since her graduation, 12 years ago, and she will be reuniting with some of her alumni friends. One of the things they are excited to see again is “Tree #3”… We’ll be celebrating our 6-month anniversary this weekend, and I thought finding “Tree #1” would be a nice surprise.

Any chance you know where on campus the tree is?

— Itamar Ben Haim

Alexandra Gil and her friend Noel Bakhtian (T’05) celebrate finding Tree No. 1, at last.

Knowing nothing about the history of Duke’s trees or this tagging system, I found myself wondering (like Dr. Seuss’s Lorax), “Who speaks for the trees on Duke’s campus?” After some initial digging, I reached out to Bryan Hooks, Director of Landscape Services in Duke’s Facilities Management Department. Bryan was just the sort of expert who might help us solve the mystery of Tree No. 1. He quickly replied with a map revealing the location and also sent along information about the species, Platanus occidentalis, also known as the American sycamore.

So what’s with the tree tagging system? The tags are part of an inventory that helps landscaping staff monitor the overall health of trees on campus. They identify a sample of trees of different species in different stages of their life cycles. If problems are noted, then grounds crews can check other trees with similar characteristics to see if it’s a bigger issue.

Thanks to the map acquired by her thoughtful husband (with the help of a librarian and the Director of Landscaping Services), Alexandra and her friends were able to take a proud selfie in front of Tree No. 1. In case you’re wondering, it’s located off Science Drive, between Gross Hall and the Biological Sciences Building, just a few steps away from the enigmatic “camel statue” of legendary Duke biology professor Dr. Knut Schmidt-Nielsen. Mission accomplished!

Now where’s Tree No. 2?