As Gregory palm trees wither, expenses grow

Anthony Green

The palm trees surrounding the Gregory Gym aquatic complex, included as decoration, have cost RecSports more than $40,000 in the past eight years to maintain and replace. 

The palm trees were planned as one of the biggest features at the aquatic complex through a student and faculty initiative. In the past eight years, though, RecSports has had to replace four of the 12 total palm trees at the aquatic complex all because of the weather.

“Students really voiced their desire at that point to create an environment that was like no other on campus,” Jennifer Speer, associate communications director for RecSports said. “They wanted it to be, they used the term, ‘an oasis in the middle of an urban campus.’” 

Although palm trees are not native to Central Texas, Maggie Ambrosino, arborist and owner of Austin-based Brown and Green Tree Care & Consulting Co., said they survive fairly well because of their minimal watering needs and low up-keep, but drastic changes in weather affect palm trees more so than other campus trees. 

“We’ve lost one to lightning, and three we lost to a very bad freeze we had about three years ago,” Speer said. “We had a major ice storm, and the trees hadn’t fully rooted at that point and so we did lose those three.”

Ambrosino said the vascular system and center frond, or “heart,” of palm trees — which carry all the water and nutrients — are vital to the plant’s survival in instances of overwatering or freezing temperatures.

“If a tree gets a wound, it has the ability to compartmentalize that wound and produce wound tissue, and once again, you will be able to have movement through that vascular system,” Ambrosino said. “So for palm trees … what’s important to them is the interior. Once you lost that to heart rot, which is what you see most palms dying from, their lifeline really is on the interior of the plant and not the exterior like it is in a tree. And so once you lost that center frond, it rots, the whole thing is done.”

Replacement trees generally cost RecSports roughly $10,000 each. RecSports also rents a crane for the seven- to eight-hour installation process at $400 an hour, according to Speer.  

RecSports operates under an annual budget of $8.8 million, with $2.2 million in salaries for the 1,000 students employed each year. 

Speer said the crane is necessary for installing new trees within the complex, which is surrounded by Waller Creek and other campus buildings. 

“When we’ve had to replace trees, we’ve had to rent a crane to lift the trees up and over buildings,” Speer said. “We’ve learned through a lot of cost analysis that this is the most efficient way to do it, which means it’s also the least expensive because it cuts down the labor costs.”

Speer said for the last century, RecSports has partnered with students on everything, including a committee involving both students and faculty that planned the aesthetic features of the space.

“We had looked at putting metal light poles out there as an alternative, and when we did that cost analysis, it was determined that to install the light poles was very similar to what it would cost to install a tree and the light poles would have same issues in terms of annual maintenance,” Speer said. 

The continued maintenance of the complex’s landscape comes from a partnership with RecSports and landscaping contractor Valley Crest, which began in 2006. 

“We have a contract that we generally service the property once or twice a week … doing any maintenance that needs to be done as far as details of the property and landscape, pruning and general cleanup,” said Eric Light, manager of the Austin branch of ValleyCrest. “Basically, what we do is cut back any dead fronds at the base and also remove any fruit from them as well.”