UNCG Magazine

Bough wow! The longest-standing trees at UNCG

UNCG was the first in the UNC System to be named a “Tree Campus USA.” Our trees are magnificent, aren’t they?

The notification from the Arbor Day Foundation came in February 2010, as UNCG was honored for the year 2009. Campus Weekly proudly published a report, with praise for the Grounds staff. And the campus has been a Tree Campus USA honoree every year since.

Just how old are some of these majestic trees Spartans enjoy? The current GIS/EAM administrator for the City of Greensboro can tell you – as part of his student research, he made it his mission to find out. 

That’s Keith Watkins ’15, 17 MA. His legacy as a student are the small signs on the campus’ oldest trees. UNCG Grounds, in a program spearheaded by Hal Shelton and Kevin Siler, placed a small placard on each of the old trees Watkins tested, with the age and genus of the tree.

Where is the oldest tree, you wonder? It’s a tall, rather thin pine, near Moore/Strong and beside a sidewalk of Gray Drive. That’s it, in the photo above. 

The pine has graced this land since 1837, the year a young Victoria became queen of England and a time when no one needed to say “Remember the Alamo” – the clash had recently happened.

Keith Watkins ’15, 17 MA, photo taken for a 2016 UNCG Magazine feature.

Keith Watkins started his work in 2014. He received a UNCG Undergraduate Research and Creativity Award grant to find out their ages. “I was able to do real research on it. It wasn’t the money so much; it gave me the initiative,” he said for a UNCG Magazine feature in 2016.

His results won a top award at the 2015 Carolyn and Norwood Thomas Undergraduate Research & Creativity Expo. He continued his work throughout his time as a master’s student in geography.

When Watkins started, he and Dr. Paul Knapp, founder and director of UNCG’s Carolina Tree-Ring Science Laboratory, had suspected that the pines south of Shaw Residence Hall were the oldest trees on campus. “This lean is pretty pronounced,” Watkins told us for our magazine article, gesturing to the top of the tree nearest Shaw. “You get a twist, a bend. It looks gnarly. And notice the flat top. It can’t pull up the water any higher. It’s all about hydraulic conductance. That one’s 1854.”

Using core samples (very thin, about the size of a straw), he determined that another in front of Shaw is about 1860. Two trees in front of Weil-Winfield Residence Hall turned out to have germinated around 1879 and 1881. Some near the Fountain are quite old as well. (See his full campus map.)

Keith Watkins, 2016 video for UNCG Magazine

The Carolina Tree-Ring Science Laboratory does outstanding work, and its student researchers further our knowledge. 

Knapp notes, “Tyler Mitchell, a PhD candidate, has done some great research on how the types of rainfall events (i.e., intensity and duration) are more important to radial growth than absolute precipitation amounts. His novel work was done in the Uwharrie Mountains.”

Hunter Lewis, a master’s student, is researching how radial growth patterns of shortleaf pine from the Uwharrie Mountains are responding to warming temperatures based on slope aspect – in other words, trees growing on north- vs. south-facing slopes.

Avery Catherwood, another doctoral student, recently published an article showing how resin-duct frequency in the earlywood portion of tree rings can be used to show the frequency of cool-season storm events at Nags Head, Knapp says. “Avery presented this work from her thesis in the Honors Competition at the 2021 Southeastern Division of the American Association of Geographers Conference in November and received the Best Master’s Paper Award, which is quite an honor as she competed against numerous students from major university programs.”

Watkins in the laboratory, 2016.

Knapp notes that Mitchell received this award in 2018, Watkins in 2016 (for his UNCG campus trees project), and Tommy Patterson in 2013. Considering there is only one recipient of this award each year, that’s a remarkable record.  

Meanwhile, UNCG’s foliage-rich spaces, including Peabody Park, make for a remarkably beautiful campus. Watkins’ work showed there are many grand old trees.

But none has proven to be older than “The Champion Tree,” from 1837.

By Mike Harris, UNCG Magazine editor
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications

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