Stopping to Smell the Rhododendron

by Jessica Phippard

Stop to admire the azaleas, but don’t take a bite! (Photograph by the author)

A sense of calm overcomes me as I enter campus each morning, the street sounds fading out as the stresses of the morning commute melt away. It is the landscaping on campus that does this to me. Despite any anxieties about what the day may bring, the flowers and trees in sharp contrast to the urban environment put my mind at ease. This concept of plant life improving mood is a popular study in the field of psychology, and I believe this is true regardless of whether or not we actively revere our surroundings. Whether this is a learned association or something more deeply rooted in our evolution, it matters not; my workday is more enjoyable due to the vibrant surroundings.

Winter or summer, it is the tall centenarian London Plane trees lining the main path up from 66th Street that best stand out to me. In the warm months it is their shade which I most readily embrace, but in the cooler months when their branches are bare, I simply admire their striking grace amidst the city backdrop. While they enrich our air with fresh oxygen and provide a home for birds and small animals, tall trees to me represent a bookmark in history. It is a humbling experience to walk among these London Planes, which have no doubt inspired innumerable great minds over the last century. A hybrid of the American Sycamore and the Oriental Plane tree, the London Plane is a hearty tree ideal for city life; in fact, its leaf is the symbol for the New York City Parks Department. With its far reaching limbs and high leaf to branch ratio, the London Plane tree is the most effective tree in the city at carbon sequestration; as the home of over seventy of these beauties, The Rockefeller University is doing its part to green New York.

While the London Plane represents the largest group of the more than 360 trees on campus, it is just one of forty-five species of trees which make up our robust landscape. In the spring, the blooming varieties of flowering trees lining the gates along York Avenue welcome those of us entering campus, as well as passersby, and wildlife. The magnolias and dogwoods are popular favorites. Often seen as a symbol of the American South, magnolias are most commonly found in Asia. Dating back 100 million years, these stunning flowers are related to some of the oldest flowering plants; having evolved without bees they produce no nectar and instead create protein-rich pollen which is attractive to beetles. Complementary to the magnolia is the white and pink dogwood flower. Dogwoods are common landscaping trees and some of the first flowers to declare the onset of spring. Named for the Celtic word “dag,” meaning “wooden tool,” the dogwoods were so-named for their hard wood. Dogwood flowers, having four petals, are often seen as a Christian symbol, appearing to represent a cross. According to the bible, wood from a dogwood tree was used to crucify Jesus.

Probably the showiest plants on campus are the azaleas and rhododendron: the flowery shrubs abundant in red, white, purple, and various shades of pink. Related to one another, azaleas and rhododendron have a similar flower but the leaves and size of the plant are distinctive. Azaleas and some other species of rhododendron are known to be toxic; for this reason, the rhododendron is a symbol of caution. To receive a bouquet of azaleas and rhododendron in a black vase is a bad omen, signifying a death threat.

Hydrangeas are another mildly toxic, yet beautiful flower found on campus. This plant produces a large pompom of white or blue flowers, with the coloring dependent on the acidity of the soil. The boastful bloom is often seen as a symbol of abundance, devotion, and enlightenment. I especially enjoy spotting hydrangea because they were a favorite element in my great grandmother’s garden. Whenever I see one, I am transported back to the time I spent with her. In light of my feelings towards the hydrangea, I realize that some of my fondness for plants is due to a learned experience within my lifetime; however, I do not doubt the deeper evolutionary response. But why are we aesthetically attracted to a toxic flower? Because it is pretty and we know better than to eat it. We know it is important to stop and smell the lilacs, or whatever flower we may be passing, to slow down from our hectic lives and enjoy the simple wonder of our complicated world.

June 2013