Kent Theiling

Biodiversity Legacy

Kent is the lorax of WashU, the keeper of trees. When you talk to him about WashU’s trees, it’s easy to hear the passion in voice. He has been responsible for selecting, siting and planting hundreds of trees across the Danforth campus.

As the Grounds and Landscape Design Manager, Kent has worked with consultants to calculate the current tree canopy, set goals for future canopy cover, and develop a plan to get there. More than just planting trees, Kent brings a level of intentionality and purpose to his work. If planned construction threatens to impact campus trees, he will work with construction teams to minimize disruption or, if needed, transplant trees. For example, in preparation of the East End construction project, 55 trees were carefully selected for transplanting. With a high success rate, most of them are adapting to their new location two years later.

The East End development posed both challenges and opportunities for East End trees. In addition to transplanting trees where possible, Kent worked with a team to assess the iconic pin oaks east of Brookings and harvest their wood for future uses that will honor their lives at WashU. One application will be artesian furniture within the Schnuck Pavilion, the future home of the Office of Sustainability.

To prepare for the next generation of east end trees, Kent worked with a local nursery, years in advance of the project ground breaking, to select resilient, adaptive and native trees and plant them with care, so they will be more mature and ready for their new home. The trees are marked and oriented so they will face the same direction to the sun after transplanting. By the time the east end construction wraps up, 300 trees of various maturities and a wide variety of species will be planted, resulting in significantly more biodiversity and resilience in the face of climate change.

Beyond planning and planting trees, Kent works diligently to spread knowledge and appreciation of campus trees to the community. He hosts an annual tree walk that is attended by 30-40 people, an Arbor Day tree planting, and convenes a Tree Advisory Committee. In addition, this spring WashU launched, a website that features 26 choice specimen trees from across the university that can be explored through a virtual or in person tour. Each tree has a tag with species information and a QR code to a wide range of tree-specific information. The tour is available for the general public, but can also be incorporated into activities for younger children, campus guests, or curriculum for current students. This project was Kent’s vision and he coached two teams of students at STS and the Sustainability Exchange over multiple semesters to prepare it for launch.

While the campus has been recognized as a Tree Campus USA for many years, it recently achieved Level 1 Arboretum status through Arbnet, a prestigious recognition from an international arboretum accreditation program. Kent has overseen these efforts.

Trees are legacy plants. You plant them today so that several generations after you will benefit from the services and beauty they provide. As Kent’s retirement is eminent, he leaves a legacy that will benefit the WashU community for another century!