Between academic achievement and its place in American history, the College of William and Mary is an institution in more ways than one. One more feather in the university’s cap is its status as an arboreal landmark, boasting noteworthy tree specimens from across the world.
Over the years, William and Mary has planted hundreds of varieties and species of woody plants — a catch-all term for plants that have wood as their structural tissue, such as trees and shrubs. Among those trees are clones of the tree that inspired Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, as well as ancient tree species.
The trees’ caretaker is university arborist Matthew Trowbridge. He’s worked at the school for 30 years and is supported by two assistants.
Walking through campus on a sunny April morning, Trowbridge is by turns philosophical and practical about the trees looming above, shading students as they walk to class. His musings on the trees’ value in people’s lives is interspersed with verbal notes-to-self about the need to trim the branch of one tree or another.
“Ever since I was a kid I was climbing trees,” he said. “I love doing it. Every day is different. Every tree is different.”
Consider tree roots. Tree roots, in effect, link the campus grounds together as they range far from trunks and intermingle, Trowbridge noted. Standing on a sidewalk near the sunken garden, the roots of the several nearby trees no doubt creating a lattice beneath his feet.
Compelling as that is, Trowbridge has more pressing matters to consider as well.
His team monitors trees’ effect on campus safety. Branches that overhang walkways need to be pruned to avoid the chance of an aerial assault on a student as he or she hurries to history class. Likewise, above-ground roots can pose a tripping hazard and need to be dealt with.
Trowbridge prefers a natural look rather than a manicured one for the trees, so it becomes a delicate balance between the need to keep people on campus safe and maintain the health of the trees, with an eye toward maintenance of a natural look.
If you ask Trowbridge which is his favorite tree, he demurs.
You get the sense you just asked him to name his favorite child when he replies that all the trees are his favorite. He can tell you about the massive tree that was about knee-high to him when he first got started at William and Mary. He can recall how the ice storm of 1998 damaged that tree and how Hurricane Isabel wounded another in 2003.
“Every tree has a history,” he said.
But he’s particularly fond of a specific spot on campus near James Blair Hall. The area illustrates the distinct value trees bring to campus.
From a vantage point on a slight hill where several brick walkways converge, there’s plenty to see.
Across the way are two dawn redwoods that tower over Crim Dell Meadow. The species was thought to be extinct for 13 million years until the 1940s, when living examples of the tree were found in Szechuan, China. William and Mary professor John T. Baldwin Jr. obtained the seeds during a 1948 trip to the national botanical garden of Belgium, according to William and Mary’s website.
There’s also a Japanese threadleaf maple tree, a refugee from a Swem Library expansion. The tree was moved to save it from destruction. As campus buildings are expanded, Trowbridge tries to save trees and move them elsewhere on campus. Doing so keeps the trees part of the campus landscape, and a beautiful landscape is key to winning over prospective students.
“Their initial impression is how this historic campus appears,” he said.
A willow is next to the cherry. About four or five years ago, there was another willow at the same spot, but it fell down. Passing students were upset to see the beloved tree struck down in a storm.
“We were cutting it up, chipping it up, and so forth and I would say every other group of students walking by here said ‘What happened to my favorite tree? What happened to the willow?’ ” he said.
It turned out that there was a cutting from that tree available and Trowbridge’s team was able to plant it and grow a new willow on the exact spot.
Trowbridge shared the anecdote to illustrate a point: The trees aren’t just background decoration, they’re a part of students’ lives.
A visitor doesn’t have to spend much time on campus before noticing a student reading at a favored spot under a tree, or the initials carved into campus trees that mark years of students’ romantic relationships.
Another example is the tunnel linden, as Trowbridge likes to call it. A few lindens shade a brick walkway from the main part of campus to sorority row on Richmond Road. Trowbridge said he particularly enjoys watching people take advantage of the natural framing of the trees to make memories through photographs.
An outdoor classroom
William and Mary’s trees are also important to its academic courses.
“We use the trees as part of our mission to teach about nature,” said Martha Case, a biology professor.
The 400 woody plant species on campus and the university’s 600-acre College Woods find use across multiple courses, from introductory classes to graduate studies. They provide an up-close look at how ecosystems function, how to identify trees and other topics, she said.
Located around Lake Matoaka, the College Woods is the largest still-standing contiguous area of second-growth forest in Williamsburg. Here, students and scientists can study a variety of environments such as tidal wetlands, forests and freshwater lakes, according to William and Mary’s website.
Some research projects have lasted decades, passing from one professor to another as the previous overseer retires. The forest provides an invaluable resource to study not only trees, but other plants and wildlife as well, Martha said.
William and Mary has Baldwin to thank for many of its campus trees.
The professor, who taught in the biology department from 1946 to 1974, planted many of the campus’ woody plants. So many in fact, that the Board of Visitors decided to call the collection “The Baldwin Memorial Collection of Woody Species.” Baldwin traveled widely, visiting four continents, and often returned to campus with seeds and plants. His efforts, with the help of professor Bernice Speese, turned the campus into a laboratory of exotic trees, according to the school’s website.
Outside Small Hall are two clones of the Flower of Kent tree that inspired Newton’s theory of gravity with its falling apples.
A small enclave of tropical trees exist near Ewell Hall, warmed by underground steam tunnels. Two windmill palms, which typically don’t grow farther north than South Carolina, are there.
Peppered throughout campus are ginkgo trees, the only tree with a fan-shaped leaf. The fossil record shows the ginkgo tree family dates back 270 million years and are believed to be in existence only as cultivated trees.
The live oak is also present in a few different places on campus. The evergreen is native to the southeastern United States, and the species was among the first to be cultivated on campus.
“The trees on our campus are an integral part of its beauty, a living connection to its past and a powerful reminder of the natural world in which we strive to live sustainably,” said Henry Broaddus, who as vice president for strategic initiatives and public affairs oversees sustainability on campus.
“They also provide shade, serve as backrests and support hammocks, all of which are appreciated by college students,” he said.
See for yourself
To take a self-guided tour of notable trees on campus, visit wm.edu/as/biology/planttour/index.php.
Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, email@example.com, @jajacobs_