by Meredith Burke

Summer 2016 intern Meredith Burke is creating Matthaei-Nichols’ programming for the upcoming University of Michigan Bicentennial celebration (January – December 2017). In this post, Meredith gives a preview of some of her work on the bicentennial project and what she’s learned about trees.

Prior to this internship, you could say that my knowledge of trees was at a sprouting level. I could name a few trees, yes, but I really didn’t know what I was talking about. The only trees I could name and identify confidently were some maples and a couple of different kinds of pines (thanks to Canada and annual family trips to tree farms).

Towering eastern white pines in
the Arb. The esatern white pine
is one of the Grandmother Trees
(Photo: Meredith Burke).

Now, about two months into my summer experience at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum (MBGNA), I can happily identify twelve trees, tell you about their quirks and facts, and explain how they are rooted in U-M’s 200-year history.
As an intern, I am working with the communications and marketing team on MBGNA’s contribution to U-M’s bicentennial celebration. The project features twelve “Grandmother Trees” in the Arboretum and highlights events happening on campus around the time the respective trees were planted.

A sample of a sign to accompany the sassafras, one of the Grandmother Trees in the Matthaei-Nichols bicentennial project.
Each tree will be paired with an informational sign. The outdoor “Grandmother Tree” exhibit will be in Arb from April-December 2017.
The three distinct shapes of the sassafras leaf. (Photo courtesy
One of my personal favorites of the “Grandmother Trees” is sassafras. I love its name, and the three distinct shapes of its leaves just fascinate me! As a Michigan native, I particularly enjoy the mitten-shaped sassafras leaf. Through research, I learned that the oil of sassafras has been used to flavor candy, medicine, tobacco, and most notably, root beer! Unfortunately but fortunately, in 1960 the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) banned sassafras oil as a food and flavoring additive because it was found to be a carcinogen and also contained safrole, which can damage the liver.
I also learned that the year the featured “Grandmother” sassafras tree was planted (1872) was the same year a U-M alum founded “Arbor Day,” which has now become a global annual observance. This U-M alum, Julius Sterling Morton, went on to serve as President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of Agriculture (1893-97).  

The Grandmother tulip tree in Nichols Arboretum
(Liriodendron tulipifera). This tree started life around 1850,
making it an estimated 167 years old. (Photo: Meredith Burke.)
I have thoroughly enjoyed deepening my appreciation for trees, learning about interesting events in the University’s history, and venturing through the Arb this summer. I hope you will be able to do the same with the “Grandmother Trees” next year!

Meredith Burke, from Dexter, Michigan, is a recent graduate in environmental studies at

Meredith Burke poses with a
mitten-shaped sassafras leaf.

the University of Michigan. In August, Meredith will head to Baltimore for a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Some of her interests include adventures, homegrown strawberries, and puns.