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Long live Larry: Iconic 80-year-old magnolia tree removed from Rutgers Gardens

A magnolia tree, known as Larry, was a famous attraction at the Rutgers Gardens before it was recently removed by staff.  – Photo by Rutgers Gardens / Facebook

Rutgers Gardens recently announced the removal of the majority of the large 80-year-old kobus magnolia tree named Larry on its premises, according to an email newsletter.

Larry, which stood 30 feet high and 35 feet wide, had experienced a decline in health over recent years due to age and other natural causes, including a summer drought last year, which prompted Rutgers Gardens staff to uproot most of the tree for safety reasons, according to the newsletter.

Lauren Errickson, director of Rutgers Gardens and Campus Stewardship, said that amid removing the tree's dead branches, staff members were able to preserve an offshoot of Larry, and they now intend to nurture this offshoot into a self-sufficient tree over time.

"Instead of being a branch on the main tree of Larry, (it is) now supported by its own roots, and we're going to try to encourage this branch to shift to a more upright position so that it can actually exist on its own as a new tree," she said. "It's really a part of Larry … Larry Jr., if you will."

Larry was first planted at Rutgers Gardens in the early 1940s as part of the Shrub Garden restoration by Ben Blackburn, a botanical designer and University professor, Errickson said.

"The space that (Larry) occupied was really a visual focal point," she said. "Anyone walking into the Shrub Garden would see, straight across this grassy expanse, this beautiful white flower and magnolia tree."

Regarding the name of this magnolia tree, Errickson said that a student intern had called the tree Larry during a tour of Rutgers Gardens for local second-graders, and the name remained informally.

Additionally, Errickson spoke about the history of Rutgers Gardens and said that the space officially joined the University system in 1916 to advance on-site research of fruits and vegetables but shifted toward its current state as a botanical garden through the mid-20th century suburbanization of New Jersey.

The expansion of the landscaping industry and the rising demand for house and ornamental plants created a need for the University to research landscape plants, which extended the space's role for public display of these plants, she said.

"Homeowners (and) community members who live nearby and throughout New Jersey started to come here and also enjoy this space," she said. "From there, it kind of continued to evolve into the public garden that we are today."

Errickson said that Rutgers Gardens has evolved into a space for other important community activities, including a weekly farmers market for local growers and vendors, a student-run farm for organic fruits and vegetables and an initiative to donate produce to the Rutgers Student Food Pantry.

Rutgers Gardens has also supported various University departments in both the sciences and arts, she said. For example, students in the Mason Gross School of Arts have used the greenspace for creative thinking, and students can enroll in a landscape architecture class offered at the Gardens.

On the issue of access to the green space, she said that she recognizes the difficulty students and other community members without personal vehicles face when visiting Rutgers Gardens due to the lack of pedestrian and bicycle paths.

She said that she hopes to implement a way to improve access for visitors in the near future, such as a shuttle bus or a designated stop on the University's bus routes.

Alongside increased food security and experiential learning opportunities, Errickson said a significant benefit of the outdoor space is the ability to use it to support students' physical and mental health.

"Take in the beautiful scenery that we have here, and really take the time to enjoy this space," she said. "Go back to class or go back to work feeling refreshed, maybe with a new perspective, and reducing stress that can otherwise be hard to manage if we don't have the chance to spend time in green space."

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