Auburn oaks still hanging on
Poisoned trees may be healthy enough to be ‘rolled’ in fall
AUBURN, Ala. -- The ailing oaks at Toomer's Corner are a mottled mix of yellow and brown these days, but experts say there's still a chance the trees will be in good enough shape for Auburn football fans to roll them with toilet paper after wins this fall.
It's been about five months since school officials confirmed that the famous trees had been poisoned, and a fan of archrival Alabama is now awaiting trial in the attack. Emergency procedures that included removing poisoned dirt around the trees' roots have helped them survive this long.
Auburn horticulturist Gary Keever said no one is sure yet whether the trees will live or die. Fans have celebrated wins under the trees since at least the early 1970s.
"I don't want to give a sense of false hope, but we're not ready to say they're definitely not going to make it," said Keever, part of a team of experts monitoring the health of the trees and trying to save them.
It was in February -- not long after Auburn won the national championship -- that university officials said someone deliberately poisoned the stately oaks at an entrance to campus. They took soil samples after a man called into a radio show in late January to say he had used herbicide on the trees that flank red-brick pillars topped by stone eagles.
Harvey Updyke Jr. -- a 62-year-old Alabama fan with children named Bear and Crimson Tyde -- was indicted on charges including criminal mischief and desecration of a venerated object. Updyke pleaded not guilty, and his trial isn't likely to begin before football season.
The trees are now in what amounts to an open-air intensive care unit. Each is surrounded by a metal barricade with white signs in red letters that read "Please Do Not Roll Trees," and they get water every other day. Workers remove fallen leaves because tests have shown they are laced with herbicide.
The leaves on one are yellow and brown; the other tree had big patches of bare limbs where leaves used to hang. Just a few feet away, holly bushes and crepe myrtle plants are starting to show signs of poisoning too.
The trees are going through cycles of sprouting and shedding leaves because of the poison, Keever said.
"After the yellowing, browning and dropping off, the buds break out again and new, immature leaves will form," he said. "It's good that they still have the stored food reserves to do this."
Neither tree should look so bad this time of year, even during a severe drought and with temperatures in the mid-90s. But the constant changes makes it difficult to judge their exact health and confuses visitors, he said.
"People get mixed perceptions about the health of threes depending on where they are looking at it during these cycles," said Keever.
A university committee is looking at alternative ways for football fans to celebrate victories this fall, Keever said, but it's possible the trees will be healthy enough to roll. But will have to come up with a new way to remove the toilet paper once the celebration ends. High-pressure hoses that were used in the past might knock off delicate leaves, he said, but workers on cherry-pickers could remove the paper by hand without doing much damage.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the trees are still alive this fall that fans are allowed to roll them and celebrate in the traditional manner," he said.