It once seemed replacing the historic Toomer’s Corner oak trees Auburn University students roll with toilet paper after football victories would be a once-in-a-lifetime event.
That was the first time they were replaced, after Alabama fan Harvey Updyke poisoned the originals in 2010.
Updyke called a sports radio show on Jan. 27, 2011, and said he poisoned the trees with the herbicide Spike 80DF after Auburn came from behind to beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Nov. 27, 2010.
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A subsequent investigation confirmed the 130-year-old trees were dying. In February 2011, Updyke was arrested. He subsequently was prosecuted and ordered to pay restitution.
After efforts to save the trees showed little promise, Auburn decided they were doomed.
A crowd gathered at Toomer’s Corner on Feb. 14, 2015, to watch the iconic oaks replaced with new ones — a once-in-a-lifetime event, folks thought. And why not? The first ones lived more than a century.
It turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime event only until the following July, when one of the replacement trees was replaced, having failed adequately to take root.
Fans were asked not to roll the trees again until the 2016 football season, when the custom resumed. Then the old tradition was back on track – until Sept. 24, when Jochen Wiest set fire to the toilet paper draped on one of the new oaks after Auburn beat LSU 18-13.
The tree suffered extensive damage, and horticulturalists were left wondering whether the canopy would leaf out again. They finally decided the tree was not going to recover this spring, so it had to be replaced. Again.
Toomer’s Corner is the intersection of Magnolia Avenue and College Street in downtown Auburn, where Sheldon Toomer opened Toomer’s Drugs in 1896. One oak tree is just off the avenue, the other off College Street. The tree West burned is the Magnolia Avenue one.
But the other one wasn’t looking too good, either. Dead branches showed the tree was not well established, said Auburn University horticulture professor Gary Keever. One reason the tree didn’t root well likely was its size: The first replacements had trunks around 14 inches in diameter. Big trees don’t take well to transplanting.
The replacement trees that will replace the replacement trees are smaller live oaks from Florida, with trunks 11 to 12 inches in diameter and canopies 30 to 35 feet tall.
Those still are big trees, though, and they’ll require a lot of care and maintenance to thrive.
That’s because of what’s called “transplant shock,” which smaller, younger trees tolerate better than mature ones, said Dorothy McDaniel, executive director of the nonprofit Trees Columbus.
For Arbor Day this Friday, Trees Columbus will plant about a dozen willow oaks on First Avenue by Downtown Elementary. Each will have a trunk about 2 inches in diameter and come with its root ball in a 30-gallon container, McDaniel said.
That’s what Trees Columbus usually plants, she said, because larger trees not only are more expensive to handle, but more at risk of failing to root.
After Columbus lost large hardwoods along Veterans Parkway during streetscapes work, Trees Columbus planted 100 trees with trunks around 6 inches in diameter, McDaniel said. What immediately followed was a brutally hot summer and a drought that killed 30 of those, which had to be replaced, she said.
It illustrates why we so often recite quotes about planting trees not for ourselves but for future generations: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now,” for example. Moving mature trees is way more of a gamble, and an expense, than planting a sapling and waiting for it to grow.
It’s preferable to survey a grove or forest to determine which trees are in decline, and plant nearby saplings that will mature as the older trees die, McDaniel said.
But at Toomer’s Corner in Auburn, no one wants to wait 100 years to roll the oaks again – though fans at least will have to forego the custom for another football season.
So, come 6 a.m. CST Saturday, work crews once more will replace the iconic Toomer’s oaks. The work is expected to take six hours.
It drew a crowd the first time, in 2015, but a university spokesman doubts it will now. Maybe fans are getting used to it.
Spectators are welcome as long as they don’t cross the barricades bordering the work zone. But they don’t have to be there to watch. Auburn has two cameras offering online live video feeds of Toomer’s Corner at www.auburn.edu/webcams.