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       Brief History of UNC Trees  

Kristin Collis

           Moving into Carmichael dorm in August 2010 was the first day of my college experience, and unlike many of the current students, it was my first time on the University of North Carolina’s campus. On my drive into campus, I realized there was no other campus that could compete with this one, all due to its landscape- mainly the amount of vegetation, especially the trees scattered throughout its immensity. Since growing up in a rather rural town in North Carolina called King, and after miles and miles of city highway, this campus was a welcome breath of fresh air. Thanks to few plant biology courses and this course, I have learned more about the magic of UNC’s campus. Not only has there been a major attempt at preservation, but also the maintenance of its natural and historic use like the chestnut and persimmon trees for student use. Many trees across campus has been either protected from construction or tactfully replaced by the same species or another native species. North Carolina has such a beautiful variety of native tree species and UNC’s campus is a prime representation of such flora.

           Prior to my sophomore year, I had minimal knowledge of Battle Park’s existence, but after my discovery, it was my forever go-to place for doing homework, casual runs, or just clearing my head of everyday or overwhelming worries. After learning a little more about its history, I realized that this forest is a haven to many students, faculty, and visitors, along with the regulars; squirrels, birds, foxes, deer, etc.. Battle Park was named after Kemp Plummer Battle, who was the president of UNC in the late eighties, and was the one who mapped out the intricate trail system and was one of the first to go on contemplative walks through these woods. It wasn’t until our class was led on a tour of McCorkle Place, the most historic part of campus, that I realized how hard the architects and botanists were trying to preserve the natural landscape of UNC agreed.

           Even after two centuries this campus still has forested areas that were here from the start with the same soil composition and natural flow to the land. Somehow or another these trees and forests have made it through a few major reconstructions of the campus, so obviously they have earned their place on UNC’s campus. As of February 2005 there were still “significant pockets [of original forests] here and there on campus… around Kenan Stadium, at the campus entrance on South Road, in Coker Woods also on South Road, and on Manning Drive around the water tower and at the southeast corner of the hospital” (“Task Force”). As the same article continues on, they also make the sad point of how many of these “heritage trees”, which are the trees deemed historically important to the campus, are never noticed, and in general are severely underappreciated by much of the academic and public community.

            McCorkle alone has potentially 35 of these “heritage trees” in its area, many being White Oaks. This area of campus is the oldest and original campus. Thomas Wolfe, the author of Look Homeward, Angel, painted an awesome image of the historic campus, reading “The central campus sloped back and up over a broad area of rich turf, groved with magnificent ancient trees…There was still a good flavor of the wilderness about the place – one felt its remoteness, its isolated charm”. This is describing the landscape of McCorkle and possibly Polk Place, the first two quads that are encountered when entering the campus from Franklin Street. Wolfe was an undergrad during the early 1900s, so when reading “magnificent ancient trees” I can only imagine how old those trees described really are if 100 years ago Wolfe illustrated them as ancient.

            As I walk around campus, it is now incredibly hard for me to look at these trees and not recognize their historical value. They are not only the canopies providing shade during studying on a sunny day. These heritage trees have seen every student on this campus. A prime example of such a tree is the Davie Poplar, which stands rather lopsided in the middle of McCorkle Place. The legends surrounding this tree is rather vague and misconstrued, but the point is Davie Poplar was named after the founder of UNC, William Davie, so this tree was definitely here before any of the founders were, making it over 200 years old! Not only has this tree withstood many storms and hurricanes, but has also lent its genes to its surrounding landscape. In order to save Davie’s genetic line, botanists from UNC have taken the seed from the original Davie and basically created a clone! There are now at least three decedents of Davie planted next to the original in McCorkle place. As one writer notes, “The UNC class of 1918, fearing the demise of the tree, planted a grafted cutting of the Davie Poplar that soon became known as the Davie Poplar Jr”, and this is not the only progeny of Davie (“Davie Poplar.”). When severe damage was incurred by Davie after being struck by lightning, the tree was secured to nearby trees with steel bands and (supposedly) filled with concrete to stabilize the treasured tree.

            Not all trees are as lucky as Davie Poplar. As Tom Bythell, the UNC Forest Manager, told us on our tour of McCorkle Place, many of the trees in Polk Place had died for various reasons, from construction to weather related causes. One of the main purposes of the conservation programs is to maintain the natural landscape, or at least native makeup, of the trees on UNC’s campus. An example we were told about was a Persimmon tree in Polk Place. In Polk Place, trees were planted in rows, yet one was planted slightly out of line, the Persimmon. As this tree, and many others, have died, Tom and his staff have attempted to replace them with the same species, in the same place, so when this slightly out-of-line tree was replaced, the successor was also planted slightly out of line. One of the other glorious aspects of this tactful replacement is how the tree staff considers the utility of the trees and their utility in the past. The Persimmon tree was thought to be a main source of food for some of the first students, so when a tree dies or is fallen in McCorkle or Polk Place, the planners sometimes consider replacing these trees- oaks, maples, etc., with this fruit bearing species in order to bring some of the historic novelty back to the current campus life.

            This campus is filled with so many old faces, and not necessarily human faces. Each tree has contributed to the tight network of students and wildlife on this glorious campus, and has in general made it that much more inviting to newcomers and residents. It is not hard to walk through Battle Park or the quads and recognize the beauty of the rolling land and the towering trees, but after doing a little research, I believe one could come to be in complete awe of how these trees have survived and thrived on this campus.


Class of 2014


Hometown: King, NC


Works referenced:

"Battle Park." North Carolina Botanical Garden / Gardens And Natural Areas /. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.             <http://ncbg.unc.edu/battle-park/>.


Dirr, Michael, Margie Bocciere, and Jennifer Wagner. "TREE AND FOUNDATION PLANT EVALUATION POLK PLACE ." Facilities.unc.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2013. <http://www.facilities.unc.edu/Portals/FacOps/Documents/HistLscapeMasterPlan/UNC%20Polk%20Place%20Report%20-%20MA%20Dirr.pdf>.


"File:Davie Poplar.jpg." Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Davie_Poplar.jpg>.


Kendrick, Kyle. "Davie Poplar." NCPEDIA. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2013. <http://ncpedia.org/davie-poplar>.


"McCorkle Place V." Chapel Hill Recorder. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2013. < http://www.chapelhillrecorder.com/photos/unc/mccorkleplacev/>.


"TASK FORCE ON LANDSCAPE HERITAGE & PLANT DIVERSITY." maps.unc.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2013. < http://maps.unc.edu/guidelinespdf/HeritageLandscape.pdf>.


"The Dignity of Restraint."Facilities.unc.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2013. <http://www.facilities.unc.edu/Portals/FacOps/Documents/HistLscapeMasterPlan/2008-12-18%20UNC%20Landscape%20Framework%20Plan%20Final%20Draft.pdf>.