Spotlight: Campus Trees
Trees offer connection to the past, biological world
For decades, the best-known tree at UW–Madison was a towering black locust tree beside North Hall. It was beneath this tree, on a June day during the Civil War, that a young John Muir received his first botany lesson. A fellow student plucked a flower from the tree and used it to explain how the grand locust is a member of the pea family, related to the straggling pea plant.
The Red Gym is visible through the trees on Library Mall from fall through summer. The crabapples (and other trees) were planted on Library Mall in 1958, following a site plan designed by professor of horticulture G. William Longenecker when seven temporary classroom Quonset huts were removed and the Hagenah fountain was installed. Longenecker was the first to advocate for an open space stretching from University Avenue to Lake Mendota.
Fifty years later, the naturalist Muir described the day in his autobiography. “This fine lesson charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm,” Muir wrote. A new understanding of taxonomy opened his eyes to the interconnectedness and “inner beauty” of the plant world, and he began to make “long excursions round the lakes, gathering specimens.”
The President’s Oak, a 300-year-old bur oak standing at the top of Observatory Hill near the LaFollette Institute, is the oldest tree on campus, and the trunk shows wounds allegedly dating from when Civil War soldiers used the tree for target practice.
Another four decades passed, and the prairies and oak savannahs where Muir once roamed gradually became part of the university campus. In 1953, amid considerable controversy, the Muir locust was chopped down both because of tree decay and to make room for a realignment of Observatory Drive. Today, a younger black locust, possibly an offspring of the original, grows next to a red granite boulder dedicating the hilltop to Muir’s memory.
Students study beneath a sesquicentennial American elm tree in front of Birge Hall. In 1851, two years after the opening of the University of Wisconsin, more than 700 elm trees were planted on the new campus, including two rows along the Bascom Hill walkways.
The Muir locust was one of many historic trees that once grew on university lands. Some of the surviving trees, shown on this page, are notable for their longevity. The oldest tree on campus, a gnarled bur oak atop Observatory Hill, is twice as old as the university itself. The histories of these trees are entwined with the history of the Wisconsin; the rows of elms were planted on Bascom Hill in 1851 to decorate the new campus. A row of the three largest known pin oaks in the state stand near the McClain Athletic Facility, where more than 70,000 soldiers trained at the original Camp Randall. Other historic trees are notable as biological specimens, such as the unique Goff larch and the autumn purple white ash.
The Goff larch grows in the Allen Centennial Garden. This uniquely geotropic European larch has contorted branches that point down instead of up. It was transplanted here from Door County in 1899 by the university’s first professor of horticulture, Emmett S. Goff.
In 1996, a campus tree survey identified about 7,000 open landscape trees, (not counting those in wooded areas). Since then, campus construction projects have resulted in the net loss of approximately 100 trees per year. Additional older trees fall or are removed every year due to disease or because they are deemed hazardous. Many of these largest trees are susceptible to new tree diseases or insect damage.
Don Waller, professor of botany, is one of a group of university employees concerned with the loss of older trees. “We tend not to notice day by day, but after 10 to 15 years, we may find that we no longer have the beauty and grace that defines our campus now,” he says. “These trees are our connection to the founding of the university, a connection to the past natural landscape from before the university, and a connection to the biological world, a reminder of the natural world and plant life that we depend on.”
Muir, standing beneath a locust tree nearly 150 years ago, would surely agree.
An autumn purple white ash grows in front of the School of Human Ecology. This tree is a clone of the original autumn purple cultivar, which was discovered on this site by professor of horticulture G. William Longenecker in the 1950s. Longenecker worked to propagate and distribute the cultivar across the country.