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St. Jude Arboretum: How an idea takes root

Paula Naidu has a full view of the only Live Oak tree on campus from her office window.

Paula Naidu has a full view of the only Live Oak tree on campus from her office window.

​"Stopping to smell the roses" is a familiar adage about taking the time to enjoy life's simple things. In Paula Naidu's case, the phrase "looking up at the trees" may be more appropriate.

Naidu, director of clinical trials management in the Department of Global Pediatric Medicine at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, typically parks in the on-campus garage nearest her office and walks to her building.

On a busy day on campus in 2018, Naidu parked in a garage farther from her office and walked the diagonal path southwest across the campus.

The minor inconvenience soon blossomed into a pleasant discovery as Naidu noticed the unusual variety of tree species along the path.

"I saw some new trees planted near the garage. That area has the bald cypress, crepe myrtles and some magnolias," Naidu said. "I started doing an inventory in my head, and I realized I had seen at least 10 different trees. I knew there were at least 20 other species on campus, which would be 30 total and enough for an arboretum."

How did she know the number of trees it takes to qualify for arboretum status? Naidu completed the Tennessee Naturalist Program course a few years ago at the Memphis Botanic Gardens where she learned more about the state's native flora and fauna.

Naidu submitted a suggestion to the hospital’s employee Town Hall site that suggested St. Jude apply for arboretum status. She provided facts and information about the trees she'd seen. At the same time across campus, Elizabeth Adderson, MD, an associate faculty member in Infectious Diseases, was also thinking St. Jude should explore an arboretum. She also submitted a Town Hall suggestion based on a conversation with her neighbor, Jim Waldron, EdD, a local arborist and frequent St. Jude blood donor.

"He was setting up an arboretum for the Humane Society, and he mentioned in passing that we had a lot of different trees at St. Jude. He suggested that we think about an arboretum, so I submitted the topic to Town Hall," Adderson said.

Meanwhile, the Design and Construction team was looking into the possibility of an arboretum after learning that nearby Rhodes College had an arboretum certification from the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council. Design and Construction worked with local landscape architects and arborists to count the trees on campus. They identified more than 1,100 trees and 55 different species.

Tennessee has four levels of arboretum certification that rise in groups of 30. Level 1 begins at 30 trees, followed by levels 2 (60), 3 (90) and 4 (120 or more). Shelby County has 13 arboreta. Only five are Level 2 or higher—Rhodes College, Lichterman Nature Center, Central Gardens Historic District, Memphis Botanic Garden and the Cooper-Young Historic District.

Some of the more common trees on campus include the crepe myrtle, loblolly pine, red maple and the Japanese zelkova, but Naidu's favorite tree on campus is an oddity in this part of the country—a southern live oak. Southern live oaks are native to the Gulf Coast and deep South. This evergreen tree is easily recognizable by its large, drooping branches that nearly touch the ground before curving upward again.

Naidu has a grand view of the tree from her second-floor office. It has been a steadying presence throughout her time at St. Jude that reminds her of the live oaks in her hometown of Slocomb, Alabama. The reminder also grounds Naidu with the knowledge that she's in the right place. When she joined St. Jude in 2000 in Hematology, her sixth-floor office window faced east and provided a similar view of the tree.

"I've always been able to see this tree since I've been here," Naidu said. "It's sort of symbolic because it's not a native tree to Tennessee, but it is native to where I grew up. I'm often going around campus, but I can come in to my office, just stand for a minute and have a mindful moment. The beautiful outdoors is right there.”

Because St. Jude was five trees from Level 2 status, Curran and the institution decided to pursue certification in late 2018 and worked with an engineering and design firm on the application. Arboreta must include a walking tour and signage that identifies each tree species. Signs were installed late 2019. In March 2021, the St. Jude campus was certified as a Level 2 arboretum by the Tennessee Urban Forestry council. There are now 87 different tree species on the St. Jude campus.

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