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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Ostentatious Austin

By Jim Bishop.

After graduating high school and without giving it much thought, I enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering program at the University of Texas in Austin. Compared to Houston, Austin was a breath of fresh air. With less rain than Houston’s 50+ inches, Austin is slightly dryer with just 35 inches. It is sunnier and often has a southerly breeze and is somewhat removed from the Gulf Coast haze and humidity. I would spend the next 6 years in the garden spot of Texas.

I arrived at UT in the middle of an oil boom. UT was set up as a land grant university in 1839 with the original intent for agricultural lands to provide an endowment to fund the university. By the time UT actually opened in the 1880s worthless barren west Texas land had been designated for the endowment. In a Texas-sized twist of fate, one of the largest oil reserves in the US was discovered on those lands in the 1920s and by the 70s UT was flush with oil money and an endowment larger than Harvard.

A sizable part of the endowment was poured into football and a building boom. Overlooking the campus, the LBJ library had recently opened. It was landscaped with live oaks and massive beds of azaleas. The contemporary building clad in sheets of Texas limestone was a stark contrast to the more traditional red tiled roofed buildings of the main campus. To join the various styles of buildings limestone planters and walls were being erected around the existing live oaks and pecan trees that lined the perimeter of the campus to separate it from the city of Austin...euphemistically called the Great Wall of UT. In spite of the alkaline soil, UT installed huge beds of azaleas, spirea, ferns and other acid-loving plants.

LBJ Library overlooking the University of Texas Campus in Austin

At the center of campus is the 307 ft. Main Building, better known as The Tower, with 14 1/2 foot diameter clocks on each side and a 56-bell carillon at the top. From the tower, south, east and west malls lead to various parts of campus. Rumor is there is no north mall because the original 40 acres of UT land was donated by confederate George Washington Littlefield under the condition that no buildings on campus faced north or included the word “north” in their names. The grassy south mall terrace is the most beautiful of the three, situated on a slight slope and lined with massive live oak trees. At the top of the slope is a statue of George Washington facing south towards the legally protected unobscured view of the State Capitol and downtown Austin. Lining the slope are 6 controversial statues of southerners including Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and James Hogg (James Hogg was the first native governor of Texas and father of the Ima Hogg I wrote about in the April 2012 newsletter). At the bottom of the slope is a large World War I memorial, the Littlefield fountain. The statues and fountain were commissioned by George Washington Littlefield and created by Italian sculptor Pompeo Coppini. The fountain is famous for its very un-Texas nude Mermen being sprayed by huge jets of water and riding finned seahorses while pulling a warship and a statue of victorious Columbia returning from war. In the 1970’s, the planter in front of the fountain was planted with hesperaloes which bloomed with red flower spikes and seemed unfazed by the Texas heat and humidity.

Like the south mall, the west mall was originally grass-covered. As part of the 1970s building boom and with much controversy it was paved over and raised limestone planters were added. The original design included a large round fountain at the edge of campus. However, by the mid-70s the energy crisis and student protests about the inappropriate use of electricity resulted in shelving plans for the fountain and instead a large round flower bed was installed.

After the death of George Washington Littlefield’s widow in 1935, the Victorian Littlefield house was donated to the University of Texas. The high-style Victorian house was completed in 1894 at a cost of $50,000. Besides the beautiful red granite façade with iron verandas, the property is famous for the large Deodar Cedar (Cedrus deodara), or "Himalayan Cedar" imported from the Himalayas and planted on the property by the Littlefield’s. The tree is one of the most distinctive on campus and today is 58 feet tall and nearly as wide. Littlefield even had the soil where the tree was planted dug up and replaced with Himalayan soil.

Pen & Ink of Littlefield Home by Jim Bishop

Across from the Littlefield home are 3 large pre-civil war live oaks. All other oak trees in the area were cut down during the civil war to build a fortress around the capital. Years later, the oaks were to be cut down to construct the Biology Laboratories. Fortunately Dr. William Battle, for whom the oaks are now named, started a successful movement to relocate the building and save the oaks.

Other notable trees on campus are several other tree species that were new to me. There was a small stand of Ginkgo biloba, (when I heard they were “living fossils” I hunted them out). Behind one building were 2 large-leafed Aesculus pavia, known as Red Buckeye. These are native to the southern portion of the US and put a beautiful spring bloom display. On one side of campus runs Waller Creek. Alongside the creek are many native bald cypress, Taxodium distichum. In the courtyard of my dorm were a few evergreen pears (though not evergreen in Texas), that bloomed in late winter. Papershell pecan grew along the street in front of the dorm.

Today, UT has about 4900 trees on campus and was named “Tree Campus USA” in 2008.

Jim Bishop has been a member of San Diego Horticultural Society since its first meeting and was elected SDHS President in August 2011.

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