UWP home to one of state's oldest, largest trees

February 24, 2003

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PLATTEVILLE - Creamy blooms will unfold in mid-May on one of the state's oldest and biggest trees, located on the University of Wisconsin-Platteville campus.

The tree - a northern catalpa - has been designated a champion by the Forestry Division of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. A lofty 66 feet high with branches spreading to 70 feet, the tree holds the state record for measurement.

It may also be the granddaddy as well. According to DNR Urban Forestry official Felipe Avila, the tree could be about 260 years old.

It's a rough estimate, said Avila.

"The only way to figure out the exact age of the tree is to take a boring of it," said Avila. "This is not usually good for the tree."

But it's a good guess. Based on a formula for the International Society of Arboculture, the tree's diameter is multiplied by a growth factor of a species that grows at the same rate.

"Champion trees are scored," said Avila, "kind of like how you score the rack on a deer. This tree scored 320.5 points, outscoring the second largest tree located in Walworth County, at 280 points." It will soon be listed in the Wisconsin's Champion Trees handbook.

Southern Wisconsin is where northern catalpas grow the biggest, said Avila.

In 1973, the tree was 60 feet high and was nominated for champion status. "Most champion trees of this species are located in the southern part of the state," he said.

Growing near the south side of the Elton S. Karrmann Library, the tree has graced the area with beauty and shade for more than two and a half centuries. Its blossoms are creamy and shaped like snapdragons.

UWP buildings and grounds superintendent Mike Udelhofen and several grounds crewmembers measured the tree last November. It was no easy task. Using a bucket truck and standing on the roof the library, crewmembers reached with a long pole and still could not reach the top of it, said Udelhofen. The trunk measured a whopping 237 inches in circumference, or about 20 feet around.

Surviving library construction in the mid-1960s and more recently, the building of the adjacent Pioneer Student Center, the tree appears to lead a charmed life. "It's protected by nature and is a survivor," said Udelhofen.

Udelhofen received a letter of congratulations from Avila in late January, confirming the tree's champion status. "We appreciate you sharing this great tree with us," the letter said.

Udelhofen, who has been on staff at UWP since 1980, got involved with entering the tree in Wisconsin champion tree annals because of its size. "I was so amazed at how huge it is, and that it's still alive," he said.

The UWP grounds crew has planted more than 300 trees on the campus over the past 15 years, said Udelhofen.

When the tree was just a spindly seedling, Native American tribes were moving west after the French and Indian War, said Platteville Research Librarian Dan Ellingson. Tribes identified in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin included the Sauk, Fox, Potawatomi and Kickapoo, he said.

Trees are often the stuff of which poets write.

Poems like Joyce Kilmer's "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree" from his poem "Trees" abound.

And while no human hand planted the tree on the UWP campus, it is interesting the tree is located at a place of higher learning. Nineteenth century poet Lucy Larcom in her poem "Plant a Tree" wrote: "He who plants a tree plants a hope. …Thou shalt teach the ages, sturdy tree."

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