A shortleaf pine rises beside a roadway at the edge of UNCG’s Peabody Park.
“That’s the Champion Tree,” Keith Watkins ’15 says.
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 says. “But look how high up the lowest limbs are.”
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 says. “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 a master’s student in geography, continuing his work.
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 says as he gestures 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 says 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, built in 1959. It turned out they were from 1879 and 1881.
Knapp notes that one nearest Weil-Winfield shows clearly when the building was erected. For a decade, its rings are tighter, showing stress due to less moisture and perhaps stress on its roots.
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 says. “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.
Story by Mike Harris, University Communications
Photography and videography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications