Twenty years ago, Jack Davis started teaching environmental history at the University of Florida. On most work days outside his classroom, he would greet one of the university’s oldest residents: the tall, longleaf pine tree nicknamed the Bicentennial Tree.
Davis became aware of the tree’s presence near Keene-Flint Hall toward the northern edge of campus after he arrived at UF; a staff member quickly pointed it out to him. A concrete plaque sits at the tree’s base with its name and age, but time and the Florida elements have eroded it to the point it’s difficult to read.
Earlier this year, UF English professor Terry Harpold told Davis the tree had died and would have to be cut down. Davis noticed the tree’s slow decay last fall when it looked “anemic and had no needle growth.”
This week, an arborist safely removed the tree, and now Davis and others are sad knowing the tree no longer stands.
“I like to share this with my students about what this tree’s history may have witnessed,” Davis said. “Like the presence of indigenous people, the Spanish, the British, early settlers, the construction of the university, the many demonstrations of the 1960s on the university and the first Earth Day in 1970.”
Davis said the tree was easily recognizable, as it had a lightning cable running down its trunk and possessed an elder look.
“I live a block or two from Tom Petty Park, and there are many longleaf pines, but not nearly as old as this,” Davis said. “There probably isn’t one that’s a hundred years old in there, but I’ve seen so many of them die over the years once they get stressed.”
Davis said the tree has been a witness not just to human history but ecological history in the area. He wants to remind people that trees have their own life apart from humanity.
The tree dodged being cut down when the university was built a century ago, and Davis was reminded that no matter how old the tree is or how healthy it might be, it’s always at risk.
There’s no evidence indicating the Bicentennial tree was the oldest tree standing in UF. Still, the curiosity to discover UF’s oldest tree started with Harpold’s literature on sustainability class.
Harpold led a memorial service in front of students, faculty and staff. He helped oversee the beginning of the end for the pine with a 10-minute speech. Harpold has led the effort to preserve the tree’s memory and saw it as a living archive of a planet in distress.
“It is my understanding from working with the wonderful people here in groundskeeping that no one has ever done this before,” Harpold said. “No one’s ever taken down an old tree on campus like this and determined to preserve it.”
Harpold ended the service by reading Maya Angelou’s “When Great Trees Fall.”
As the trees were being cut down, sawdust started to sprinkle.
“It smells like Christmas,” said Florence Turcotte, a literary manuscripts archivist at the Smathers Library on campus.
Harpold said it wasn’t easy to distinguish what the oldest living tree on campus was as there’s no hard evidence. After making a few phone calls and emails to try to find the answer, he heard from Dr. Michael Andreu, associate professor in the School of Forest Fisheries and Geomatic Sciences.
Andreu pointed to the “very old tree” by Keene-Flint Hall.
One of Harpold’s students, Brooke Whittaker, a second-year English graduate student, proposed to complete an honors thesis on the tree’s lengthy life.
Whittaker said she came across an Alligator article from Jan. 16, 1976, in which Noel Lake, the UF landscape superintendent, and other forestry faculty members designated it as the “Bicentennial Tree.”
“I believe they found it by finding nearby, cut-down trees based on that age range, they were able to ascertain this was as old as 1776 essentially,” Whittaker said.
Andreu has taught tree and plant courses for 13 years. He said one of his recent classes focused on urban trees and would always ensure his students would pass by the tree. He didn’t hear about the tree’s age until Whittaker’s honors thesis.
“Some of the research that Brooke has done, correlating the rise in global averages of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and methane and other greenhouse gases mapped the tree’s age to an accelerating graph of that is very powerful information,” Andreu said.
He said longleaf pine trees like this one can live up to 300 years and even up to 500 years and face a lot of different stressors. Andreu added the tree is around 275 years old and found no indication a lightning strike killed the tree or any kind of insect outbreak.
“It could just succumb to a whole series of stressors that ultimately brought it down,” Andreu said. “It doesn’t appear there was any one thing that killed the tree.”
Once Harpold broke the news to Thomas Schlick, the assistant director of Facility Services, Grounds and Natural Resources, he immediately wanted to find a way to preserve the tree.
In addition, they hope to identify the precise age of the tree by taking out some of the cores while curing out cross sections from the tree to incorporate in a future exhibit of some kind.
Davis spends his free time woodworking and said he’d love to create a small bench or drawer from its wood.
“I’m hopeful that this will start to plant a seed at the university and will start to garner attention to preserving more of its residents,” Harpold said.