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Two trees with a purple hammock between them. Help protect MSU trees. MSU's campus is an arboretum of rare trees. Please hammock off-campus to preserve the trees and research.

Hammocking, other activities present challenges to Campus Arboretum

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September 1, 2016

What’s an arboretum? Wikipedia defines it as a botanical garden containing living collections of woody plants intended at least partly for scientific study. According to Dr. Frank W. Telewski, curator of the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum at Michigan State University (MSU), the entire MSU campus is an arboretum. That arboretum status goes a long way towards explaining why Telewski’s official statement about plant protection at MSU says that “nothing is to be attached or affixed to any tree on campus for any reason, other than to serve an officially approved academic function associated with research and/or teaching.”

That includes hammocks. Hammocking on campus is increasingly popular, despite the threat of a fine for violating MSU Ordinance 24.01: “No person shall break or cut branches or flowers or fruit, or otherwise damage or mutilate any tree, shrub, herbaceous plant, or flower upon property governed by the Board of Trustees, or remove from the same any identification tag or sign.” The list of activities covered by the ordinance includes locking bikes to a tree; tying tents or tarps to trees; affixing signs by any means (tape, string, staples, nails, etc.); tree climbing; and affixing slacklines, hammocks, swings or bird feeders.

People who enjoy hammocking (including members of the MSU Hammocking Club) are often outdoor enthusiasts who wouldn’t harm a living tree on purpose. Education about the campus arboretum, the research being done in the arboretum, tree physiology and the visible and hidden damage hammocking could inflict on trees might be enough to convince some of these hammockers that campus isn’t the place for their favorite hobby.

Posts have been installed in the Brody Square courtyard for an alternative way to hang up hammocks. The posts allow hammockers to enjoy the activity while keeping the trees safe from unnecessary damage.

Close up of a hammocking post in Brody neighborhood.
Hammocking posts at Brody Neighborhood.

Hammocking post with green sign that reads Designated hammock area. Attach only to post provided

8 hammocking posts in the grassy courtyard

The campus trees are part of a living laboratory. Some of MSU’s trees are quite rare, many are involved in current research and some are historic, having been planted by Dr. Beal himself. All of them have their own unique identifier number, are recorded in a database and are inspected regularly for signs of damage or disease. J. Paul Swartz, MSU campus arborist, notes that tree damage may not be obvious from the outside.

“The straps which are used to attach a hammock to a tree could cause damage to the living tissue beneath the bark (the cambium layer), which is only two cells thick,” Swartz explained. “Multiple attachments to the same area [of the tree] will cause wearing off of the protective bark layer, damaging the cambium and may eventually cause mortality of a branch [or the tree].”
Even if hammocking could be made safe for the trees, what will make it safe for the hammockers? Most hammocks are attached just a few feet off the ground, but Swartz has witnessed people on campus in hammocks as high as 20-30 feet off the ground. Tree branches are weaker at that height and more likely to break, sending the startled hammocker for a bumpy ride down—and maybe a ride to the hospital.

People tailgating on campus during football season have probably seen the “No parking please—save our trees” signs scattered around tailgating sites.

“People think it’s not a problem to park under the shade of a tree, on tree roots, not understanding that constant and repeated parking can damage a tree’s root system,” said Telewski. People in likely hammocking areas might see similar signs saying, “No hammocking please—save our trees.”

The signs also include the full text of the Official Statement Regarding Plant Protection on the MSU Campus from the Office of the Curator, W.J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum.

“The MSU staff who care for the campus trees are not targeting any one specific activity, but are enforcing a policy that has been implemented for decades to protect the campus trees,” said Telewski. “It is one of the many reasons we are known and treasured for our beautiful, verdant campus of healthy trees.”

Help preserve MSU trees. Did you know? MSU campis is an arboretum. What does that mean? The campus is a botanical garden. Some of these trees are very rare. Every tree on MSU's campus has a unique identifer that is logged in a database. Trees are a living laboratory involved in current research. What's the problem? Hammock straps may cause damage to the living tissue beneath teh bark. this cambial layer may only be a few cells thick. Damage to this tissue could result in the decline or ultimate death of the tree. What can you do? Enjoy hammocking off campus to preserve the trees and their research.