New Trees Spell 'Re-Leaf' on U.Va.'s Grounds

December 13, 2010

December 13, 2010 — The University of Virginia has thousands of trees on its Grounds, but hundreds have been lost in the past few years – damaged by storms, felled by old age or removed because of construction. Now, a $50,000 effort is under way to restore some of this lost foliage.

"We are going to put in about 200 trees by early spring," said Todd Romanac, landscapes projects supervisor for Facilities Management. "About eight years ago, they put in around 50 trees, so this is huge."

The trees, selected from nurseries across the state, represent more than 50 different species. Most are deciduous, with some shrubs for hedgerows and decorative plantings. Some are new, such as a heptecodium, a fast-growing tree that blossoms in later summer, which will be planted at Carr's Hill. Some are once-endangered trees, such as the strains of disease-resistant elm and chestnut trees, which are being reintroduced to Grounds.

The trees are being replaced during their winter dormancy.

"This is the perfect time," Richard Hopkins, landscape superintendent, said. "The trees can get in and get settled and, as the ground warms, the trees are ready to grow roots."

In many cases, the new trees will not be the same variety as those they are replacing.

"Lots of times trees are not in the right place to begin with," Romanac said. "We have been working with the University Architect's office on deciding better spots. We are replacing some with like trees, but we are also switching out varieties, selecting disease-resistant ones and changing species."

For instance, the Bradford pear trees that had been planted at the Judge Advocate General facility on North Grounds proved to split rather easily. They will be replaced with Zelkova trees, which are hardier, grow to about 50 feet and are longer lasting, Romanac said.

Landscape architect Mary Hughes said many factors are considered in how to replace downed trees, such as the current relationship with other trees, future building projects and current environmental conditions.

For example, a storm claimed two large red oaks on the grounds of Monroe Hill House, leaving only a beech tree. "We had three huge trees in an area not big enough for three huge trees," she said. "We will replace one big one and then plant a smaller tree in the remaining spot."

There is also a question of which trees are susceptible to disease. Hopkins said about 50 percent of the trees on Grounds are ash, which are currently threatened by the emerald ash borer, a beetle native to Asia. The adults chew the foliage, and the larvae feed on the inner bark, disrupting the tree's ability to transport water and nutrients.

"We have infestations of the borer within 50 miles of here," Romanac said.

About 80 percent of the trees on the Lawn are ash, and they have been treated for the borer. None of the new trees is an ash.

"We don't want to plant a species that is about to come under attack," Hughes said.

The appropriateness of the planting is also considered, such as two large magnolias that had stood outside Garrett Hall. They were removed at the start of the current renovations at the building, the future home of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.
The magnolias were not part of the design of the original building, Joseph D. Lahendro, historic preservation architect with Facilities Management, said at the time of their removal. "They have severely damaged the sewer lines coming from the building, they are too big for the small space they are in, They shade out the front of the building and keep moisture near it, which is starting to damage the wood and the bricks," he said.

Garrett Hall was built in 1909 and the trees were added in the 1930s – a time, Lahendro said, when many magnolias were added to Grounds.

"They were the wrong trees to be planted there," Hughes said. "They want to be magnificent specimens in an open area, with their branches all the way to the ground and here they are next to a building in a small planter."

Hughes said the trees will be replaced with more appropriate crape myrtles. 

She also noted that trees will not be replaced if they were in a planned construction zone.

The new trees are about three inches in diameter, about 10 feet tall and with a root ball of about 42 inches across. Some are hybrids, such as disease-resistant elms. They are being spread around Grounds, though a small concentration will be planted at the Judge Advocate General school.

One traditional tree that is being continued is the catalpa, examples of which run alongside Newcomb Drive. Hughes said the trees are distinctive with their large leaves and long seed pods.

"They are tough trees, and they remain standing even when they are hollow," she said. "We are planting a new row of them next to the sidewalk along Cabell Drive and Emmet Street."

The original trees on the Lawn were black locust, which Hughes said were fashionable in the early 19th century, when the University was founded. But they also provided a practical side. Black locusts are nitrogen-fixing, Hughes said, and they added that essential element to soil that had suffered from years of farming.

No original trees remain on Grounds. A few black locusts in the West Range Gardens recall the trees that originally graced the Lawn.

"After the Civil War, the locust trees were dying out and they were replaced by hardwoods such as ash and maple," Hughes said. "They grow tall, provide more shade and live longer."

-- by Matt Kelly


Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications