Guilford’s Ancient Poplar Tree Predates the American Revolution
For many years, it could only be estimated. But now the age of the Underground Railroad Tree is known–310 years, give or take a decade. Earlier this month, Kyle Dell, David Petree and Max Carter joined Paul Knapp, a dendroecology professor from UNCG, to core and date the huge tulip poplar tree in the Guilford Woods that has been known for decades as the Underground Railroad Tree.
After walking through the Guilford Woods, which Knapp described as an “extremely unique and rare example of urban forests in the Piedmont,” he and his graduate students cored the tree in two different places. They have prepared the two core samples in their UNCG lab, one of which will soon be returned to Guilford for display.
Knapp shared this, “The sample we collected dated to A.D. 1778 and we estimated that there were at least another 75 years of growth beyond what we could sample. A conservative age estimate would be approximately 310-years-old, but an age approaching 350 years is possible. We did not detect any rot in our sample, suggesting that the tree is structurally sound. The most recent ring widths showed no growth decline and the tree appeared visually healthy.”
Gwen Gosney Erickson, director of the Friends Historical Collection, offered a disclaimer of sorts, noting, “There are sections of the Guilford College woods which have remained old growth and resulted in some trees of notable size. This tulip poplar is often featured on historical walking tours and has become known as the ‘Underground Railroad Tree.’
“Due to their present size and age, these trees were likely silent witnesses in the forest in the first half of the nineteenth century when enslaved African Americans and others using the woods as a protective cover passed by and so provide a nice sense of continuity. However, there is no documentation that any particular tree held significance. Presumably these trees that are now notable would have been much smaller in their youth, and therefore not used as a landmark as they are today.”
Carter, for one, is glad to have the estimate. He’s been talking about the tree for years, and is glad to know he hasn’t been exaggerating.
Dell, who is a faculty member in environmental science, said that having the tree on our campus provides a valuable touchstone to his students who are interested in experiencing first-hand the human and environmental history of Guilford’s campus.
“When my students bear witness to the tree and even touch it, they become a part of the tree’s history in ways that connect them deeply to the core values and experiences of Guilford,” Dell said. “Paul Knapp, who did the coring, praised Guilford for exercising such stewardship of its land, the forest and the Underground Railroad tree in the face of urban sprawl, pressing economic needs and other factors.
“Sharing our woods with Paul, as an expert on using trees to better understand ecosystems and climate change, was a special experience and reinforced to me the need to maintain robust land management and preservation practices at the College.”