A year later, Toomer's new oaks signal rebirth at Auburn

A year after being planted, the new trees in Toomer's Corner bring a sign of hope to Auburn students. Edward Aschoff / ESPN.com

AUBURN, Ala. -- A cool breeze whips through the intersection of College Street and Magnolia Avenue at the edge of Auburn's campus. Temperatures slowly climb through the 60s as the sun gently creeps out of a partly cloudy sky directly over two scrawny oak trees and their nearly naked branches.

They’re almost invisible to students inattentively passing between them, and if not for the black straps attached to the center of the 30-plus-foot trees and the small, black fences guarding them, their significance would be missing.

But these adolescent oaks represent a special symbol to most of the Auburn family. A year ago, the two plots in which Auburn’s iconic, 80-year-old oak trees -- known for their towering presence and ability to hold pounds of streaming toilet paper rolls after Auburn wins -- once occupied were replaced by younger oaks on a frigid Valentine’s Day morning.

Today, one tree is looking to start a nice growth spurt this spring, while the other had to be replaced last July. The fanfare for the replacements has died down, but their appearance on campus serves as a rebirth.

“It’s like restored hope that there will be a tradition again to roll them,” Auburn senior Chris Zeanah said. “It’s sad to see that tradition go, but it’s coming back soon.”

That tradition will return during Auburn's 2016 football season, but neighboring trees and specially built wires surrounding Toomer’s Corner were rolled in 2015. Patches of toilet paper can be seen scattered below those trees, while some tattered strands remain in their branches. A couple of threads have even made their way to the new trees for a perfect foreshadowing.

“You hear everything about the Toomer’s Corner rolling, and not being able to do it right away is something [sad], for sure,” sophomore track and field athlete Wes Pectol said. “Although it does put an emphasis on it when you get to do it, which will be nice. It’ll be pretty monumental.”

The poisoning of the original oaks by Alabama fan Harvey Updyke after Auburn’s 2010 Iron Bowl victory has left the edge of campus and Samford Park somewhat empty for the Auburn community.

For Auburn freshman Chloe Saunders, it was bittersweet seeing the new oaks during her first semester. The Gadsden, Alabama, native grew up rolling Toomer’s Corner with her entire family. Rolling other trees and wires last fall “didn’t feel right,” Saunders lamented.

“It was kind of a disappointment in a way because, yeah, we did get new ones, but it’s not the same,” Saunders said.

Auburn professor of horticulture Gary Keever hopes these new trees will help return most of the same joy the original oaks created. They are still fragile for a few more months, and it’s been quite the process for them.

The tainted soil from the previous trees was replaced with a sand-based soil similar to the live oaks’ natural coastal plains habitat. The new trees were provided a larger root-growing area than the previous oaks.

The Magnolia Avenue tree didn’t leaf out last spring, so it was replaced by a tree from a Florida nursery, which had been dug 16 to 18 months before it was planted and was well on its way to establishing and recovering from the transplant shock.

It had already gone through a flush of growth that had matured. It saw little growth after it was planted but held on to its pre-existing leaves.

While neither tree is covered in foliage, Keever said that there’s “there’s nothing to indicate that there’s anything wrong with either tree at this point” and that both are forming new roots.

Keever said the trees' progress will be determined by their shoot growth during the spring and summer, as they respond to longer days and warmer temperatures. Both should leaf out once the temperatures warm up, and Keever expects 6 to 8 inches of extension for many of the shoots.

“That’ll be a good sign that both of the trees are well on their way to being established,” Keever said.

Healthy trees means more rolling and a sense of normalcy for Auburn fans.

“It’s gonna be like Auburn didn’t miss a beat,” Keever said. “Fans are going to relish the opportunity to get back out on that corner and enjoy the larger plaza. The temporary rolling of the cables across the intersection, that was fine for a short period, but the fans are really going to embrace the new trees.

“It’s not gonna be long before the majority of people don’t even recall what was there before.”

Saunders said she’s sad she won't be able to enjoy during her college career the trees that created sacred ground for Tigers fans, but she's excited about the growth of the new trees and believes that even in their infancy they've become a symbol to bring Auburn’s community closer.

“It’s all about how the Auburn family tradition doesn’t die,” she said. “It’s saying that you can’t stop us. ... It shows that we can bounce back.”