Aug. 15, 2013 – Downton Abbey is not the only icon still standing. Thanks to the efforts of two forestry professors, Virginia Tech’s beloved sycamore tree will once again grace Henderson Lawn, this time by way of its progeny with the same DNA.
On April 22, Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger presided over a town-gown tree planting celebration with Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam on Henderson Lawn near where the original sycamore once stood. The 10-foot tree planted was rooted from a cutting taken shortly before the decaying historic tree had to be cut down for safety reasons in the summer of 2010.
“The cloning and replanting of the sycamore is a historic milestone in so many ways,” said Rordam. “The strong roots of this tree are a symbol for the strength and perseverance of our community and a true demonstration of how the town and the university can grow together. For years to come, our citizens will be able to create their own memories underneath this great connection to the past.”
The stately old sycamore, which dated to around 1870, was a source of personal connection for many. It served as a site to meet, to sit and relax, and, on a number of occasions, even to propose marriage. Generations of alumni and residents have countless memories of the legacy tree that stood so prominently for well over a hundred years.
The sycamore clone is one of only two that miraculously survived from 300 small cuttings taken from the mother tree. “Unfortunately, we just were not very good at getting the cuttings to root,” explained Professor John Seiler. “It was likely the wrong time of year, but we had to try since the tree’s removal was imminent. The only other cutting that survived was planted outside Cheatham Hall in May 2011 in the tradition of planting a tree honoring each graduating class.”
In a casual conversation with fellow members of the university’s Arboretum Committee in 2010, Seiler lamented the fact that the historic sycamore had to be laid to rest. The idea occurred to them that perhaps they could try cloning the tree. And so they did.
Seiler grew the tree in a campus greenhouse, and then Associate Professor Eric Wiseman took over and planted it at the campus Urban Horticulture Center. “Over time this identical twin will look just like its mother tree, which succumbed to what became a poor growing environment, root damage from underground utility work in the 1980s, fungal disease, and old age,” Wiseman explained.
“It isn’t often as researchers at Virginia Tech that we get a chance to do something that will make such a profound impact on so many local citizens and our university community,” Seiler added.
Because Earth Day, sustainability, and planting trees are inter-related, town-gown officials thought that planting the sycamore clone was an ideal way to recognize the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day on April 22. “Virginia Tech was awarded Tree Campus USA status by the National Arbor Day Foundation in 2008, the inaugural year of the program, and we have received annual re-certification ever since,” said Denny Cochrane, Virginia Tech’s sustainability program manager. “Tree planting directly supports the goals of our sustainability program, adds to the beautification of our campus landscape, and is a major component of our student-led Earth Week program each year.”
“A world without trees would be a vastly different place,” added Dean Paul Winistorfer. “Trees hold enormous emotional attachments for people of all ages. They are not just valued for their utility.”
“Here in the Appalachian Mountains, we enjoy an incredible diversity of 850 species,” Winistorfer continued, “so this event marks a significant occasion to perpetuate the memory of a tree that was very special to many people over the ages.”