It is a late Monday afternoon, and a group of Stanford community members is assembled at the corner of Lasuen and Campus Drive. Each person holds the leaf of a lemon-scented gum tree, one of the many varieties of eucalypt found on Stanford’s land. They are about to partake in a “campus contemplative walk” organized through the Contemplation By Design Summit. As the walk begins, they turn their attention to horticulturist Sairus Patel ’91.
The scene is common to Patel, the current editor of the Trees of Stanford website, which catalogues more than 400 species of trees found on Stanford’s campus. In a discussion with The Daily, he reflected upon his tree walks and the status of forestry on campus.
“When I was an undergrad here, trees were mostly green blobs that I biked past,” Patel said. “Paying attention to the kinds of trees around us and learning them gives us an appreciation for, among other things, when they are not there — when they are removed or when they go extinct. We can’t notice what’s gone unless we know what was there before.”
The website grew out of the work of electrical engineering professor Ronald Bracewell. After his arrival at Stanford in the mid-1950s, Bracewell spent nearly 50 years studying Stanford’s diverse tree population and recording his observations in a series of spiral-bound notebooks. His work was ultimately published by the Stanford Historical Society in 2005 in a book titled “Trees of Stanford and Environs.”
“If people try to become acquainted with their trees, it would enhance their lives,” wrote Bracewell.
Shortly after the book’s publication, former Stanford librarian and Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve docent John Rawlings used Bracewell’s research to create the Trees of Stanford website, adding a number of his own supplemental entries on various shrubs and vines, new species of trees and Stanford’s landscaping history.
After coming across the book via a friend’s recommendation, Patel reached out to Rawlings to express interest in the project and ultimately became editor of the site.
“I was thrilled by Bracewell’s lively, intellectual, curious sense of humor,” he said. “The way he wrote about the trees was really fascinating.”
Patel strives for active curation and botanical accuracy while simultaneously retaining Bracewell’s voice.
Today, in addition to cataloguing various campus tree species, the website includes a “What’s in Bloom” feature that keeps viewers up to date on seasonal occurrences.
“Fall color crests this month, with Chinese pistache and liquidambar or sweetgum being our show-stoppers,” the current description begins.
The site also provides a number of maps — including an interactive Google Map — detailing the trees present in specific parts of campus.
Patel, who currently works full time as Adobe’s font technology principal and strategist, describes Trees of Stanford as “a passion project” and “a labor of love.”
Growing up in India, he was intrigued by numerous mythical stories around trees. For instance, the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment under the Ficus religiosa.
“When I stand under or near a really massive tree, there is a sense of awe, a sense of an organism that has preceded many of our lifetimes and will outlive us, sometimes, by a couple hundred years,” Patel said. “I get a bit of a sense of perspective and a desire to conserve these amazing creatures.”
Patel first started teaching tree identification with Canopy, a nonprofit organization in Palo Alto. He now leads tree walks on Stanford’s campus.
“The website’s role is to help educate people, but the main thing is to get people out and walking and looking at trees,” Patel said.
His tree walks weave in historical anecdotes with botanical knowledge. Stanford’s history of conservation dates to the late 1870s, when the Stanford family began buying land with the vision of developing an arboretum. Following her husband Leland Stanford’s death, Jane Stanford delivered a 1903 address in which she called for preservation of the arboretum in her husband’s honor.
“No buildings of any kind whatever should ever be erected within the grounds of the original Arboretum,” she said at the time. “It should always be retained in its present condition as a Park for drives and walks so long as the University exists.”
From the deodar cedars lining the road to the Mausoleum to the blue gum eucalyptus along Governor’s Avenue, plants cultivated during the Stanfords’ time continue to thrive on campus, but contemporary issues such as climate change have caused concern.
“Right now, Stanford’s policy towards planting the Dish is to plant only native trees,” Patel said. “Because of climate change, should we consider planting trees in the Dish that are not native to the area, but that might have a better chance of resiliency in the next 500 years?”