Tree and Forest Team

As we walk around grounds, our focus is usually centered on getting from one place to the next. However, as the landscape changes with every season, we often admire the beauty of nature by spending more time outside. There are over a thousand trees at U.Va. and although we appreciate the aesthetic value of these trees, the average student probably has little knowledge of the history, let alone can name or identify the various tree species that exist on grounds. In our first blog post, the Tree and Forest team will provide historical facts so the reader has some general information that he or she can use for future reference. 

In a 2008 article entitled “Deep Rooted” (U.Va. Magazine), Mary Hughes (University landscape architect) identifies a few key facts about trees at U.Va. For example, the first trees were black locust trees but none of these original trees still exist on grounds. The oldest trees are the sycamores on the north side of the Rotunda, which were planted before the Civil War. Around this same time, the University planted the Pratt Gingko on the west side of the Rotunda. The Gingko was planted in honor of William Pratt and is considered the first official memorial tree.

The picturesque Pratt Gingko. Photo by Robert Llewellyn for “Deep Rooted” article in U.Va. Magazine.

Since 1970, U.Va. has made it a tradition to plant a tree to honor an individual who has made a lasting impact on the University. This annual ceremony, which is presided over by the University President, occurs on Founder’s Day and is organized by the Arboretum and Landscape Committee. In addition to this official tradition, U.Va.’s memorial and commemorative tree program allows private individuals the opportunity to fund the planting of a tree in honor of an individual connected to the University. Overall, these trees are intended to serve as “living memorials” to significant members of the U.Va. community.

The most recent “officially designated” tree honors John Casteen, the President of U.Va. from 1990-2010. The American Linden is located in the Arts Quadrangle between the Drama building and Ruffin Hall. Photo from

Officially designated trees and the private commemorative trees are planted in various locations around central grounds. However, only a handful of trees on the upper and lower lawn are commemorative. Regardless, every tree on the lawn, whether commemorative or non-commemorative, belongs to either the ash or maple tree family (around 80 percent are ash). After the black locust trees died off, they were replaced with hardwoods that were taller, long lasting, and could provide more shade. While sugar maple, green ash, purple ash, rosehill ash, and pumpkin ash populate the upper lawn, the lower lawn largely consists of sugar maple and white ash trees.

In light of the renovations around grounds, many people have raised concerns about how to incorporate trees into the changing landscape. Trees are often viewed as barriers to new construction and, unfortunately, one way to deal with the barrier is to remove it. Recently, the magnolia trees surrounding the Rotunda were removed despite fervent pleas to save them. However, the magnolias were damaging the underground sewer lines and proposed a risk to the building itself. On the other hand, the South Lawn project (completed in 2010) provided a blank canvas for landscaping. The proposed height of the buildings meant that larger trees were needed in order to ensure that the complex wouldn’t appear too overwhelming to pedestrians. In addition to the popular ash or maple, some of the intended tree species to be planted included the willow oak and European beech. Large trees were strategically planted to maximize building shade in the summer and capitalize on sunlight in the winter. By emphasizing the importance of tree preservation and growth, the landscape design plan for the South Lawn increased the overall energy efficiency of the buildings.

Overall, the value of trees extends beyond their beauty; trees add character to the University. Although this post only focuses on the history of trees on grounds, we intend to provide more detailed findings as the semester progresses.

Post by Lisa Zimmerman, Fourth-Year, American Government