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Sunday, March 03, 2024 — Houston, TX

Campus arborist Dawn Roth-Ehlinger talks trees

Dawn Roth-Ehlinger stands outside the oak tree in Martel College’s quad ­— her current favorite, she says. Amelia Davis / Thresher

By Hugo Gerbich-Pais     1/30/24 10:21pm

Bearing witness to late-night anxious walks, romantic strolls and inebriated shenanigans, the trees at Rice are a backdrop to the campus experience.

Dawn Roth-Ehlinger serves as Rice’s head arborist, working with her team of arborists and groundskeepers to tend to the more than 4,000 trees that make up the Lynn R. Lowrey Arboretum that covers 300 acres of Rice campus. Rice is celebrated for its tree-lined campus, which has won numerous awards and requires constant care.

“When you work in commercial tree care and you work on a [client’s] tree, you aren’t going to see that tree for another three years, if ever,’’ Roth-Ehlinger said. 

Working at Rice, however, has allowed her to tend to the same trees over the years. 

“My favorite tree on campus changes, but right now it is definitely the oak tree in the Martel [College] quad,” Roth-Ehlinger said. “It’s grown out down into the quad and has this big, beautiful umbrella.” 

The arboretum has faced numerous challenges recently as a result of climate change and extreme weather, Roth-Ehlinger said. The severe freeze that affected Texas in 2021 killed all of the bottlebrush trees on campus — and tough weather conditions haven’t let up.

“Either it’s [a] drought or it’s extreme heat or it’s extreme cold, but those events are coming more and more frequently,” Roth-Ehlinger said. “That’s just now part of the process of how we think about our landscape and budgeting.”

The arborists must consider long time-spans, as many of these trees can live for far longer than the students on campus.

“Here, every decision that I make is going to be impacting campus for 20, 50, 100, 250 years,” Roth-Ehlinger said. “That was the project I wanted to be a part of.”

Roth-Ehlinger also said that climate change has altered the way that certain tree species survive and thrive. As Houston’s native flora and fauna evolve, plants that once couldn’t survive now can — and vice versa.

Beyond the changes in climate, the campus’ built environment has also changed, presenting both challenges and opportunities. Roth-Ehlinger was involved in the academic quad redesign, helping to select the trees that would be planted. 

“I love the way they have reimagined using that whole space, and the trees are going to be a huge part of that,” Roth-Ehlinger said. 

Beyond caring for the trees, Roth-Ehlinger also spends time educating students, which was one of the factors that drew her to Rice. Among the most popular educational experiences is her famous “tree walk” for students, tour groups and camps hosted on campus.

 “I knew that [education] was going to be part of the role … it’s a part of the job I enjoy,” Roth-Ehlinger said. “We had an environmental and social justice workshop here. Journalists came from all over the country and I did a big tree walk, where I walk them all through campus and talked about our species and what we’re trying to do here.”

Diego Garcia, a Wiess College freshman, said that the trees on campus provide a much–needed respite from college stress and city living.

“I love going for walks with my headphones on and being able to look up at the trees. It definitely relaxes me and reduces my stress,” Garcia said. “The trees are so nice, especially because Houston is such a concrete jungle and [campus] is such a break from that.”

For Angela Cai, the trees are an integral part of Rice’s culture and campus.

“The trees are pretty, it’s like a fairytale forest,” Cai, a Jones College sophomore, said. “I feel like Rice wouldn’t be Rice without the trees.”

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