UNCG Campus Weekly

Campus Weekly is published each Wednesday when classes are in session. In the summer, it is published biweekly.

The search for UNCG’s oldest trees

UNCG has again been named a Tree Campus USA university by the Arbor Day Foundation, which honors universities promoting healthy trees and engaging students and staff in the spirit of conservation.

UNCG initially received this designation in 2009. It was a first for any UNC system university.

One student researcher, Keith Watkins ’15, has been on a search for UNCG’s oldest trees.

As he toured campus with this writer, he pointed to a shortleaf pine beside a roadway at the edge of UNCG’s Peabody Park.

“That’s the Champion Tree,” he said.

It’s the oldest tree on campus.

It’s graced the campus since 1837, the year Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson as president. The nation gained a 26th state. A young Victoria became queen of England. News of a clash at the Alamo was still fresh.

“It looks like a normal tree,” he said. “But look how high up the lowest limbs are.”

UNCG Grounds, in a program spearheaded by Hal Shelton and Kevin Siler, has placed a small placard on each of the old trees Watkins has tested, with the age and genus of the tree.

Watkins has doggedly and methodically determined the age of UNCG’s oldest trees since 2014. He won a UNCG Undergraduate Research and Creativity Award grant to find out just how old they are.

He marvels at what that one, small grant did for him.

“I was able to do real research on it. It wasn’t the money so much; it gave me the initiative,” he said. “To find one more than 175 years old, it made it all worthwhile.”

He presented the eye-opening results at the 2015 Carolyn and Norwood Thomas Undergraduate Research & Creativity Expo on campus. He won the top award for biology-related projects, inspiring him to continue the research. Now, he’s completing his master’s degree in geography, graduating in May.

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 – enjoyed by everyone passing on Walker Avenue – were the oldest trees on campus.

“This lean is pretty pronounced,” Watkins said as he gestured 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.”

Another in front of Shaw, near Walker Avenue, is about 1860.

Knapp said old pictures show there were once 15-20 pine trees in the area around Shaw. Several between the Quad and The Fountain are quite old.

Not wanting to start with ones thought to be the oldest – they’d save the best for last – Watkins tested two in the Quad in front of Weil-Winfield Residence Hall. It turned out they were from 1879 and 1881.

Watkins has not finished yet. He has not only documented history. He has made history, with the first age analysis of the trees of UNCG. He’s peering back in time, just as every student in Knapp’s lab has.

“People had no idea these trees were that old,” Watkins said. “I had no idea.”

He’s seeing the campus’s history – one tree ring at a time.

A version of this story first appeared in UNCG Magazine. To read the full story and more, click here.

By Mike Harris
Photography of Keith Watkins by Martin W. Kane