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Virginia Tech plants a very special tree

Tech is replacing the popular black willow with a clone
Peter Feret/Virginia Tech
Tech is replacing the popular black willow with a clone

Anyone who’s spent time at Virginia Tech knows about the duck pond – a four-acre body of water surrounded by greenery. John Seiler, a professor of forest biology, says it’s a popular spot for students and their families.

“They take graduation photographs down here," he says. "When parents come on campus their son or daughter takes them down to the duck pond to picnic and walk around and things like that. The President’s house is on the hill right above it.”

And for decades there was one giant tree – a black willow – that stood on the shore.

“It was a big, big tree, probably about 50 feet tall, 50 feet wide," Seiler recalls. "People would hoist their children up in the tree and get pictures of their kids on the big limbs, so it was a special tree.”

Campus arborist Jamie King says the black willow was one of several sentimental favorites for many families.

“I know couples who have met at trees on this campus and come back regularly to see the tree. People have been married at trees here on campus, and then people get to bring their kids to meet that same tree.”

But black willows live just 65 years on average, and as they age, Seiler says, they’re more likely to fall.

“It was getting very, very unsafe to have children in strollers and other people picnicking around it, because it’s not a strong wood, and so the limbs can fall and do a lot of damage.”

So Tech took the tree down, but not before it did some trimming.

“We were able to take cuttings from the tree – small branches, and propagate them in the greenhouse into a new tree," Seiler explains. "It’s really easy with willows. You can throw them in a glass of water – practically throw them on the ground, and they’re going to root.”

And now, King says, they’re preparing to plant a clone of the original tree at the pond Saturday at 11:30.

“We’re going to learn the history of the black willow that stood on the bank of the duck pond, and then we’re going to have a ceremonial planting where we’ll go over proper tree-planting techniques and safety, and then participants get to choose their own adventure.”

Faculty and grad students will lead tours of the golf course, an old-growth forest and an urban forest, featuring some of the ten thousand trees that grow on campus. This is, after all, a school that has – from the beginning – taught the science of growing things.

“Virginia Tech is known as one of the best forestry schools in the nation," King says. "We’ve been teaching forestry and agriculture for the history of the university.”

In addition to attracting geese, the duck pond is home to other waterfowl.

“A crew of mine just found a pretty huge clutch of mallard eggs, just this week,” King says.

So wildlife may also be featured on the tours. If you’re not able to join the celebration, King adds, you can still take advantage of Tech’s expertise.

“Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension has a really robust landscape tree consultation service. Individuals and property owners throughout the state can reach out + with tree questions + to learn more about their property, streams, plants – everything."

Also on the schedule Saturday, the annual Mud Bass fishing tournament, free to people of all ages interested in trying their luck with the aquatic residents of duck pond also known as carp.

Special thanks to Meghan Marsh for her help in recording this story.

Updated: April 22, 2022 at 3:47 PM EDT
Editor's Note: Radio IQ is a service of Virginia Tech.
Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief