Texas Tech Tulips: Tradition Lives On

By Suzanne Labry, Contributing Writer

When I was growing up on the South Plains near Lubbock, I used to stare out at the flatness and pretend that clouds on the horizon were mountains and that bar-ditch careless weeds were trees.

Row crops — cotton, maize, alfalfa, sorghum, and the like — made up the true landscape of my youth, but my imagination filled in the rows with blooming flowers and old-growth forest.

There was one place, however, where reality eliminated my need for fabrication: Texas Tech University (or Texas Technological College, as it was known until 1969 when the state legislature approved a name change). This was especially true during the fall of the year, when the Tech campus was ablaze with blooming chrysanthemums.

Mum's the word

At that time, Lubbock was known as the “Chrysanthemum Capital of the World,” a designation trademarked in 1968 by the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce.

Come autumn, the Texas Tech groundskeepers and citizens of Lubbock would plant thousands of mums to celebrate the annual Lubbock Chrysanthemum Colorama festival. A drive through the Tech campus (with its lovely Spanish Renaissance architecture) to see the abundance of brightly colored blossoms was always a highlight of my ordinarily sandy-hued childhood.

Elo Urbanovsky (1907–1988), the storied Tech professor and landscape architect who was on good enough terms with Lady Bird Johnson to call her “Bird” (and who now has a campus park named in his honor), had a lot to do with the chrysanthemum craze in Lubbock.

He was a mum enthusiast, and he and other horticulturists at Tech were instrumental in developing new varieties of the flower. He recognized that the South Plains soil and climate are particularly suited for growing mums, and for at least a couple of decades, the Tech campus came alive with the blossoms of my daydreams.

But the dream was relatively short-lived; high levels of saline in the water conspired to doom the perennial mums and by 1974, the massive displays of fall chrysanthemums were no more. (Note to mums fans: chrysanthemums are still planted in several beds on campus for Homecoming Weekend.)

Time for change

Beginning in 1975, a new floral tradition began to take root on campus and by the mid-1980s was firmly entrenched.

Tulips replaced mums as the star bedding plant at the school and the primary season of massive bloom changed from fall to spring. Tech’s school colors are scarlet and black, which account for the profusion of red tulips with black centers that delight Panhandle-Plains senses more accustomed to the natural spring color palette of tawny and brown.

These days, well over 100,000 ‘Red Apledoorn’ and ‘Golden Apledoorn’ tulip bulbs are planted annually.

A blooming good idea

Sometime around late March or early April, the bulbs start blooming and the campus again is awash in color. The 14 to 18-inch tall tulips with large blossoms and sturdy stems have proven to be surprisingly hardy — strong enough to withstand the harsh winds, sand storms and even the occasional heat wave or spring snow that are traits of the region’s notoriously persnickety weather.

Although my personal relationship with the beauty of the Texas Tech landscape extends only as far back as the glory days of mums, in fact the commitment to a beautiful campus began early in the school’s history.

Tech was established in 1923 and was still in its infancy when the Great Depression hit, followed shortly thereafter by the Dust Bowl, the ravages of which left the campus pretty much without any vegetation at all. In 1938, O.B. Powell, a horticulture professor at the school, decided to do something about it, and gained the backing of Tech officials to inaugurate a campus beautification program he called Arbor Day.

That year on March 2, faculty, staff and more than 1,000 members of student organizations planted 5,000 shrubs and 50 varieties of trees that had been grown in the college’s nursery.

The Arbor Day tradition gained traction for 10 years, but it gradually fell out of favor and eventually stopped. The program lay dormant for 50 years until 1999, when Debbie Montford, the wife of then-Chancellor John Montford, revived it.

Since that time, the tradition has once again become an annual campus-wide event, with faculty, staff and students planting as many as 25,000 plants every spring.

In keeping with the Red Raider color scheme, red blossoms and foliage figure prominently among the bedding plants, with red geraniums, ‘Dallas Red’ lantana, and ‘Louisiana Red’ acalypha being popular choices.

As is the case with the Tech tulips, yellow is often the other main color chosen to brighten the beds, with ‘New Gold’ lantana being a favored companion plant. Red Knock Out roses add even more school color.

Texas Tech trees

Trees are also a major contributor to the overall beauty of the Tech campus.

In a part of the state not exactly noted for its leafy canopy, Texas Tech offers a veritable urban forest, with more than 8,000 trees on its 1,839 acres. Surprisingly, the campus even has the honor of being home to one of the largest trees in the state. A honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos) growing near the administration building has a circumference of 115 inches (9.5 feet), a height of 56 feet and a crown spread of 77 feet. Tech’s honey locust was added to the Texas A&M Forest Service’s Texas Big Tree Registry in 2015.

More trees are being planted on campus every year. In 2014, an anonymous donor gave the university a $5 million donation to beautify the landscape around several iconic spaces on campus. Irrigation, lighting, seating and walkways have been installed or upgraded at those locations, and hundreds of new trees have been planted.

Varieties were selected with the South Plains climate in mind, including oaks (bur, live, shumard, chinquapin and Monterey), elms (cedar, lacebark and Siberian), pines (Mexican piñon and Afghan), mesquite, Chinese pistache, golden raintree, bald cypress, chaste tree, ‘Hetzii’ juniper, ‘Canaertii’ red cedar, ‘Aristocrat’ flowering pear, Bradford pear, desert willow and Crapemyrtle.

The campus not only offers a shady respite to faculty and students, but also serves as a demonstration garden for area residents on the types of trees that will thrive in the region.

In the late 1990s, more native and adapted plants were introduced into the Tech landscape. Texas sage, yaupon holly, agaves and yuccas are complemented by a variety of grasses, including various grasses: maiden, mulhly, Mexican feather, Pampas and ‘Blonde Ambition’ blue grama. A number of different salvias are also used, with ‘May Night’ being a favorite.

It isn’t just the locals who appreciate Tech’s beauty. Author James A. Michener said that the Texas Tech campus is “the most beautiful west of the Mississippi until you get to Stanford.” MSNBC has named Tech one of the “Top Five Prettiest Campuses in the United States.” The Professional Grounds Management Society, which calls the campus landscape “a work of art in itself,” has honored Tech with so many awards through the years, including the Grand Award for Excellence in Grounds-Keeping, that it is hard to keep track of them all. The Texas Nursery and Landscape Association, the Texas A&M Forest Service and the Texas Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture have also honored the Tech landscape numerous times.

South Plains oasis

It certainly is not unusual for students, faculty, staff and alumni of a university to be proud of their school, but it is perhaps less common for those same students, faculty, staff and alumni to single out their university’s landscape as one of the reasons for their pride.

That’s how it is at Texas Tech, though. It is not at all odd to hear Tech students talking about how beautiful the flowers are or how much they like the trees on campus. They are invested in the landscape in a way that students at other universities are not, perhaps because they contribute to it through the Arbor Day tradition.

And perhaps, too, they — like me, who attended Tech for a couple of summer school sessions — are so appreciative of its beauty because the Texas Tech landscape truly is an oasis on the South Plains.


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