Until a couple weeks ago, I had been greeted every morning by a pair of men’s gray boxer shorts that had been hanging for several months from the bare branches of the tree outside my third-floor dorm-room window. Like some fall leaf perversely hanging on until spring, the boxer shorts left as mysteriously as they arrived, quietly giving in to gravity one day while I must have been in class. The next time I peered out my window expecting boxers, I saw instead that the trees in my courtyard had burst into bloom: not more boxers this time, but magnolia blossoms. I’m not sure if the boxers chose to time their fall to the blooming of the magnolias or if it simply happened. Whatever the reason, the juxtaposition of these objects in my trees reminded me that the magic of spring at Princeton never ceases to amaze me. Coming from the near-perpetual summer of Los Angeles, I have never quite understood the concept of spring, when, strangely, plants literally spring into bloom. It’s enough to make one paranoid. Were those daffodils there yesterday? Wasn’t Prospect Garden just mulch the last time I walked through it? As the forsythia, one of spring’s earliest and hardiest bloomers, begins to illuminate the campus with its saffron-colored flowers, the whole campus seems to let out a breath we didn’t realize we were holding. We’re not aware just how bleak winter has been until the magnolia and fruit trees start flowering and the freshly-fertilized grass turns bright green. Yet, while I certainly do not take the “If you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all” attitude, my appreciation of the beauty and variety of spring at Princeton never went much beyond admiring the way the sun dapples the pastel-colored flowers that burst forth from trees around campus, or attempting to recite clichéd sonnets about spring to my unenthused friends; I rarely stopped to think about just what it was that I was seeing.
Jim Consolloy, the University’s Grounds Manager, is in charge of a team of more than forty people dedicated to keeping the campus looking the way it does. On a recent afternoon, as he takes me on a tour of the plants and trees around campus Consolloy says to me: “There’s an old story where a Harvard kid is bragging about their arboretum and he asks a Princeton kid: ‘do you have one?’ and the Princeton kid answers: ‘No, our campus is one.’”
Our walk begins outside Consolloy’s office in MacMillan, the utilitarian group of bungalows that are the site of the Building and Grounds Services departments, which students tend to forget exist until we’ve lost our key or our rooms are flooded. Consolloy’s office is cluttered with gardening books and large maps of Princeton, one of which plots every tree on campus. On a large aerial photograph posted by the door, you can spy the Princeton greenhouse, which is hidden in the woods on the other side of Lake Carnegie. Consolloy pulled out a list of the eleven species of magnolia that can be found on campus, explaining that only two are native to the area and that not all eleven species and their sub-species bloom at the same time. Many will not show their flowers until May or June.
And now we head outside into a perfect spring day – sunny, maybe sixty degrees with a light breeze – and run into our first magnolia of the walk, an M. stellata or “Star Magnolia,” which has relatively small white petals. The star magnolias are the first magnolias to bloom on campus and they all seem to have organized their blossoming clandestinely one night a few weeks ago; their delicate petals are already littering the ground as Consolloy, who worked as a grower for fifteen years before coming to Princeton, searches for an intact flower to explain to me the structure of the magnolia. He plucks one and points out the various parts of flowers as I peer into its O’Keefian center. “These star magnolias can just light up a room,” he concludes. He will keep the flower clasped in his hand for most of our walk.
Magnolias have been a feature on the Princeton campus since the early 1900’s, when Beatrix Ferrand, a famed landscape architect and one of the founders of the American Landscape Architects Association, was hired as the consulting architect for the Princeton campus. She served from 1913 until 1943 and was responsible for planting magnolias that are still alive today, such as the espaliered saucer magnolias—the quintessential magnolia species, with its abundance of fist-sized pinkish or purplish-white flowers—found along the south wall of Pyne Dormitory and on the wall of Dickinson Hall that faces into McCosh courtyard.
“She said she wanted the ‘view from every window to be a vista,’” Consolloy remarks as we pass Pyne’s espaliered saucer magnolias and a giant Southern Magnolia – which grows well despite Princeton’s colder climate due to its convenient location above a steam tunnel vent – both of which were planted under Ferrand’s watch. As we turn onto Blair Walk, which once led to the original dinky station by Blair Arch, we are greeted with an abundance of pink and purple saucer magnolias, planted to welcome visitors. We pass a bush growing up the wall of Laughlin Hall. Consolloy pauses. “No one knows how it got here,” he says. “A student must have planted it.” Consolloy, who can tell you where to find nearly every tree, flower and shrub on campus, occasionally encounters mysterious plants such as this one, which he first noticed when it turned out to be a variety of tamarix native to New Mexico. He liked the plants’ fuzzy yellow blossoms so much that he ordered some and planted them around Alexander Hall, where they should be blooming in a few weeks.
As we progress up campus, the number of flowering trees decreases noticeably. “We’re about a hundred feet above the lake now and the higher elevation makes for colder temperatures and less early bloom,” Consolloy explains. “It’s also much windier with all these buildings so it makes a micro-environment and we can grow species here that wouldn’t grow otherwise.” Consolloy is trying out some hardier magnolia trees over by the University chapel, and a few unusual yellow magnolias just across the street from the chapel and next to Frick laboratories. We wander over to see how the yellow magnolias are progressing. Consolloy planted them only a couple years ago and has yet to see them fully blossom. At the moment, they’re only buds. I can sense that he cannot wait to see them bloom. “These should open up in a few weeks,” he says, looking pleased. “It’s nice to have things blooming when the students are here.”
As we head back to MacMillan, we pass through the Woodrow Wilson School plaza, whose central fountain is surrounded by mostly pink saucer magnolia trees in full bloom, their flowers dancing in the gentle breeze. Sunlight reflects off the water and people sit under the shade of the magnolias reading, talking or just looking around. A couple years ago the University redid the courtyard and, during construction, Consolloy came by frequently to check on the magnolias and even to wash off the dust that had settled on the trees. All but one of the trees survived the construction.
I realize as we get back to MacMillan that we have walked around the campus for little more than an hour but that I have seen more trees, flowers and other plants than I ever knew existed on the Princeton campus: species and subspecies of magnolia, different types of flowering cherry trees, tulips, daffodils, witch hazel, flowering dogwood. These are only some of the names that I have scribbled down while Consolloy points them out to me.
In the days that follow, I will find myself noticing more of the incredible variety of plants, trees and flowers at Princeton. They seem to pop out at me from all sides or to peek from behind corners. I know that Consolloy has thought carefully about where to put each plant, even taking into account how their colors will look against a certain building. Even though my bunker-style courtyard itself still looks like something out of “Hogan’s Heroes,” the magnolias will, for a little while, allow for the view from my room to be nothing less than a spring vista. And while I now know that outside my window there is a star magnolia tree, whose white blossoms truly do light up the courtyard, and one saucer magnolia of the purplish variety, I can no longer remember whether the boxers were Joe Boxer or Calvin Klein.