The trees, whose branches almost literally tickle the windows of University Hall’s six floors, seem to have been in place forever, given their height. In truth, their origins are mysterious: What species are they? Why were they chosen? And by whom?
Walt Lange, a professor emeritus and a superannuate faculty member in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics — and a certified tree farmer — set out to uproot the mystery of the trees, which he’d long admired as healthy specimens.First, their identity. Lange, well known as a regional conservationist, had to give the trees a close examination before he had a definite answer.
“Initially I thought the trees were bald cypress, but I have since determined that they are Metasequoia glyptostroboides, which has the common name of dawn redwood,” he said.
“Metasequoia isn’t to be confused with the giant California sequoias,” he added. “That’s a different species. In fact, the Metasequoia may be even more interesting.”
Until recently, dawn redwoods were considered fossil trees, extinct for millions of years. It was in 1947 that a forestry expedition uncovered a number of the trees alive in a remote area of southwest China. To preserve the species from logging, the trees were propagated among arboreta around the globe. Metasequoia proved easy to grow in temperate regions, where it’s now widely planted as an ornamental tree.
Lange now had the species and a date: Given the 1931 completion of University Hall, the dawn redwoods must have been planted later. An archival photograph Lange found in the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections showed flowers growing in the spaces that would someday house the trees.
But who replaced lilies with Metasequoias? “I had heard several years ago that they were planted by [the late] Professor Robert Jackson, who was in the Mathematics Department from 1963 until he retired in 1974,” Lange said. “My search in the Canaday Center did not substantiate that. However, Dr. Ivie Stein, who joined the Math Department in 1971, recalls having had a conversation with Bob Jackson in which Bob indicated that he had planted the trees.”
Lange is still hoping that other members of the UT community will be able to corroborate Stein’s memory and give a specific year for the trees’ planting.
“Given that the trees have become such an integral part of University Hall, I’d like to place a small plaque in one of the courtyards to honor the person who did the plantings,” Lange said.
Anyone with information on the trees’ origins can contact Lange at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, UT’s redwoods should continue to provide shade, shelter and beauty. As Lange noted, “Given their location, there may be nothing to limit just how much more they can grow.”