In 2022, Calvin University’s campus was designated as an arboretum. While having an arboretum on a college campus isn’t necessarily uncommon, having an entire campus designated that way is rare. So too is the care Calvin’s campus has received over the past several decades from certified arborist Bob Speelman. During his 34 years at Calvin, he’s planted more than 300 trees on a campus full of thousands of them.
On a recent walk around campus, Speelman, who the arboretum is now fittingly named after, talked trees. He shares how the most common tree found on the 400-acre campus is probably the red maple, while the red oaks tend to be one of the trees that thrive most in this environment. He shares memories of trees planted and ones that fell and of the intentionality behind where and why each tree found a home on campus.
He picked out 12 of his favorite trees—each making his list for its own reason: architectural beauty, rarity, even sentimentality. All have memories attached to them, and each was planted or cultivated by Speelman over the years.
1. Red Oak
Location: Near chapel plaza outside Hiemenga Hall
This is a tree planted in 2021 for Provost Cheryl Brandsen (who served as provost from 2014-2021). It's one of only two that remain as a progeny from likely the oldest tree on campus, largest in diameter, the signature red oak that fell outside Spoelhof University Center in 2019. It grew from an acorn from that Spoelhof Oak that was 149 years old that was planted on Charlie Huizenga’s property up in Pentwater, Michigan. He grew it and transplanted it here. It’s about 10-15 years old now.
2. White Fir
Location: East side of the Chapel
It’s a substitute for the Colorado Blue Spruce as those are disease magnets. This tree has a wonderful blue color, needles are upright, so I just love these trees, they do really well. I just love this one because it’s a nice blue evergreen. It sure does look like a really nice Christmas tree. The only blue one here, so kind of a focal point. It’ll just grow bigger and bigger. I think that was a nursery tree, got to be pushing 25 years old.
3. Cedar of Lebanon
Location: Near Chapel steps
I actually bought this tree through a mail order. A mail order tree, that’s right. It was a little odd, only a two-footer, came in a box. This seed first was from the mountains of Turkey, so it could take cold air, cold weather more than the low land cedar of Lebanons. It’s a little gawky, but I tell people think of Solomon who built this temple with big cedar planks, big cedar beams. So that’s what I always think of when I think of this tree, which will be way beyond us if it ever gets that big. Has significance in that sense. Probably about 12 years old.
4. Seven Son flower
Location: Road – just south of Calvin Crossing
It’s like a large shrub or a small tree. Doesn’t look like it now, but it has great white flowers and then the flowers fall off and then the remaining flower stock turns bright red, sometimes even purplish. So, it really is a wonderfully flowering tree. And boy in the fall the flower stocks that remain after the first falloff are striking. That’s why we put this along the road here, it’s a transplant from where the School of Business is now, it was over where the front entrance is now. It’s not real common.
5. Giant Sequoia
Location: Just south of Calvin Crossing, visible from East Beltline
This tree was given to me by Geert Heetebrij in the communication department. I don’t know if he used to teach in California (where these trees are typically found), but he gave it to us in a little pot, probably 18 inches tall at the time, it’s probably maybe six feet tall now. It’s maybe six years old. We put it here because it needs well-drained soil because these trees are found in deep forest soils. Here, there’s a lot of heavy clay, so it doesn’t sit in the water, so yeah, it’s got a good chance to keep on getting massive. So, it’s going well.
6. Douglas Firs (three of them)
Location: South side of CFAC
Henry Kingma and I planted these on September 11, 2001. So, I’ll never forget that. We had the truck backed in nearby with the radio blaring hearing the radio reports. I remember seeing massive 747s approaching Gerald R. Ford International Airport. I think one was an Air China flight that we saw landing when there was a full air stop. So that just reminds me that we just stopped what we were doing to listen to what was happening. We were trying to get these trees dug and the holes straight. They were maybe six or seven feet when they were planted, now they've probably tripled in height for sure. They like it here. They get full sun. Nothing special about these, but they're special because we were planting them when we were shocked (by the events of 9/11).
7. Paw Paw tree
Location: West side of North Hall
This tree actually develops little fruit that look like mini bananas and it is in a family of trees that are almost all tropical except this one outlier that is native to southern Michigan. The Paw Paw tree is named after Paw Paw, Michigan. This one’s probably pushing 15 years old.
8. Persian Perrotia
Location: Just south of Venema Aquatic Center
These have beautiful fall color. They are a bit unusual, certainly not native to Michigan. Nice tree. Well planted. Multi-stemmed. There's so much fall color going on, this really stands out. Modeled reds and yellows, bright and unique. Most people would have to use an app to find this tree because it’s really not that common.
9. Kwanzan Cherry
Location: Outside residence halls
These are three little Japanese cherry trees. Their flowers look like little pink carnations and they're sterile, so there’s never any fruit mess. When we redesigned and landscaped the dorms about 15 years ago, we used these trees. They were transplanted here, and we planted them in threes. We always try to plant in threes or fives. Sevens are great too.
10. Tupelo, or Sour Gum known by genus name Nyssa
Location: Outside back door of Beets Hall
This tree was planted for a student who passed away in 2002. We planted nine of these types of trees on the eastern most grassy area at Prince Conference Center, so along the road there. Tupelo trees are really unique because they almost always have pure red, they don’t have any other shades, always pure red, and the leaves are smooth. I think of the future to be just a brilliant red as people drive by that road.
11. Sugar maple (red)
Location: Just north of Schultze dorm
This one has sentimental value. My dorm room as a sophomore was right there (pointing up at a window). I just remember seeing that tree when I was coming back from class. That tree lit my whole room and my suitemates' room up with red. The sugar maple certainly is a key tree with fall color, and they do well here too.
12. Big Ginko
Location: Near Beets Veenstra
This is one of my favorite trees too. It has wonderful branch architecture. It's probably been here since the 1960s or 1970, so been around a while. This is a big Ginko. You can see the fan-shaped leaves. They all drop at the same time. Really gold, pure gold color. Been zero work, great branches, nice and open, nice angles, a textbook white oak, and you can see the oak bark [white] compared to the red oak.