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The story of the 'Resilient Oak': MSU's oldest tree

April 11, 2023
The oldest tree on MSU's campus on a sunny spring day on Thursday, April 6, 2023. The tree, a white oak (quercus alba) that survived a damaging 2016 storm is estimated to be around 375-500 years old.
The oldest tree on MSU's campus on a sunny spring day on Thursday, April 6, 2023. The tree, a white oak (quercus alba) that survived a damaging 2016 storm is estimated to be around 375-500 years old.

What is now a severed trunk on the northeast corner of the Michigan State University  Museum was once a giant, flourishing white oak tree — a “quercus alba” to be exact.

The Resilient Oak Tree, thought to be the oldest tree on campus, has lived an estimated 375 to 400 years. Although it has taken a series of losses in its lifetime, it is still standing and thriving today. 

Following a terrible thunderstorm one July evening in 2016, now-retired professor of plant biology and curator of the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden Frank Telewski discovered the giant remains of what had been blown off of the Resilient Oak’s trunk. He sanded down a sample to count its rings.

Not only did he discover that the tree has stood there since before campus was established, but he also found evidence of trials the Resilient Oak had been through.

MSU plant recorder Carolyn Miller said there were pieces of metal found sticking out of the trunk, indicating it was one of many trees cut by MSU when it was first established in an effort to make the trees more bushy.

Unfortunately, cutting the trees at their apical meristem, or parts where sprouts form, left the trees vulnerable because rain water could easily seep into the trunk and rot it out. To combat this, MSU placed metal caps on the trees. Many trees didn’t survive, Miller said, but the Resilient Oak made it through.

In a more traumatic event, the Resilient Oak weathered a storm in 2016 after taking heavy damage.

“It loses its leaves every fall, it pushes out new leaves every spring and summer and it’s still going,” Miller said. “It really is pretty remarkable to see.”

College of Arts and Letters Dean Chris Long’s office overlooks the tree and he said he was inspired by its perseverance. To reflect this, he created the name “Resilient Oak.” 

“That image of the tree that had suffered during a storm so badly and yet still stands and still lives and still grows and, now we see seven years later, still really thrives, is a wonderful metaphor for resilience,” Long said.

Part of the Resilient Oak's beauty is that it's older than MSU, Long said. It serves as a powerful reminder that you can withstand some challenges and suffering and still go on and thrive.

“It grew up with MSU, and it also suffered as MSU has suffered, and yet it still persists,” Long said.

Generally, learning is a process that requires failure and the ability to be resilient through that and find ways to grow. Long said the Resilient Oak’s shedding each fall is a vital piece of its symbolism — as it is withering, yet persistent.

The Resilient Oak also represents MSU with its current survival mechanism. Long said the only reason the tree still thrives is because it is interconnected with its surrounding trees by a network of roots.

“When there is a tree in distress in the system, there is a mechanism by which some nutrients are provided from other trees to support the tree in distress,” Long said. “There’s an important metaphor there, around our network of relationships and community that we have here at MSU.”

Long said it is critically important to protect the old trees on campus because each one has a story to tell and their history is a vital part of campus.

“They are some of the most precious beings on our campus,” Long said. “Not only do they provide us with oxygen to breathe … but they also stand as a symbol of the enduring power of the campus and the enduring importance of education.”


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