Living Legends:
The Trees of Grounds

by Diane J. McDougall with photography by Robert Llewellyn

Sycamore trees between Rotunda and Chapel
Sycamore leaf

In the center right of this image is one of several sycamore trees in the grassy expanse between the chapel and the Rotunda. UVA landscape architect Mary Hughes (Arch ’87) estimates that the sycamores were planted in the mid-19th century. “You can see them in the photographs taken of the fire at the Rotunda in 1895,” she says, “and they were already pretty large trees. So they were probably planted by William Pratt during the time he was beautifying that area in front of the Rotunda.” Not visible in this photo is the scarring from a lightning strike in 2017—the second time this tree has been hit, according to UVA arborist Jerry Brown.

Rare is the person who can walk by the Pratt Ginkgo in late fall without stopping to stare at branches full of gold coins, shining in the light. And if you’re fortunate enough to be in the right place when the cold snap hits, you’ll see the leaves drop in a sudden, shimmering, golden rain.

But fall isn’t the only magical season for the trees on Grounds. Any time of year, the foliage invites a glance upward, and we find ourselves awed by stately grandeur.

Season after season, the gnarled, low-hanging branches of the Yulan magnolia beckon passers-by to sit a spell, almost hidden, on the wooden bench tucked underneath. And the magnolia is especially breathtaking in spring. “Because it’s so huge, the south side blooms before the north side,” says UVA landscape architect Mary Hughes (Arch ’87). “So it’s really rare that you get the entire tree fully in bloom. … When it does happen, it is a really gorgeous sight.”

Historians might disagree whether Thomas Jefferson ever planned to have trees planted on the Lawn of his Academical Village. But to study beneath one of its majestic ash trees—among the oldest trees across Grounds—well, if that’s not on every student’s wish list, it should be.

Trees evoke mystery, nostalgia, even romance. Just ask Bethy Hagan (Col ’11). She and then-boyfriend Shawn Flaherty (Col ’08, Com ’09) often met up under the Yulan magnolia to spend a few moments together amid the bustle of college life. That one tree grew to mean even more to them both last fall.

Flaherty plotted with the Office of the Architect to secretly endow the tree in Hagan’s name. He then orchestrated a visit back to Grounds with Hagan and her siblings for UVA’s bicentennial launch in October. After surprising Hagan with the endowment certificate under the magnolia’s canopy, Flaherty got down on one knee and proposed. The rest of the family joined them in celebrating. The two were married in July.

“That tree will always be our first and last stop when we arrive back to Charlottesville,” Flaherty wrote in an email. “I am looking forward to bringing our kids and hopefully grandkids there one day and sharing the story. … To think, it all started underneath those beautiful branches.”

Whether you recall one particular tree or simply the fragrance and towering beauty of many, let these photos take you back in time. Some are trees you might also have overlooked: That’s always been there, and I didn’t see it. “They are right in front of you, hiding in plain sight,” says photographer Robert Llewellyn (Engr ’69) about the majestic trees of Grounds.

Llewellyn took all of the photos shown here, and he has a mission, he says: “To get humans to go from looking to seeing—to change the way you see the planet you’re on.”

The Pratt Ginkgo
Ginkgo leaf

This ginkgo biloba is better known as the Pratt Ginkgo in honor of William Pratt, UVA’s first superintendent of buildings and grounds. Pratt is given credit for planting many of the oldest ashes and maples on the Lawn, as well as the old Ginkgos in the grove beside the chapel. According to Hughes, it’s the last ginkgo in Charlottesville to change color. And when the leaves fall, she says, “you see [students] toss the leaves into the air [and] take pictures of themselves with gold falling all around them.”

The dawn redwood
Redwood leaf

The dawn redwood, hemmed inside the McCormick Road triangle across from the chapel, is known as the Husted Redwood in honor of Ladley Husted, biology professor and first chair of the President’s Tree Committee. Every year, Brown reports, someone worriedly tells him that the redwood is dead—not realizing it’s a deciduous tree rather than an evergreen. “No,” he says, “it seems to love where it’s at.”

The Biltmore Ash
Ash leaf

Tucked into the back garden of Pavilion IX, the Biltmore Ash is the relatively diminutive progeny of a huge ash planted in 1826, one year after the University held its first classes. The parent tree (from which the new one was grafted) was known as the McGuffey ash—named in honor of William McGuffey, UVA professor and author of the famous children’s textbooks the McGuffey Eclectic Readers. (See “Gratitude for a Grand Old Tree” also in this issue.)

Holly tree
Holly leaf

Despite extensive, two-year renovations on the Rotunda, Brown says, this holly and its counterpart, which stand at either side of the Rotunda’s north steps, are doing well. Construction is the biggest enemy of the trees on Grounds, he adds. Renovations and new building projects mean that the earth around roots is often disturbed. Brown says he lost his favorite tree that way: “It was a cut-leaf beech, over by Brown College. Beautiful. One-of-a-kind tree. … They had to do a dig underneath it. It just didn’t come back.”

The Yulan magnolia
Magnolia leaf

No one knows the exact date the Yulan magnolia was planted just northeast of the Rotunda, but Hughes estimates that it’s about 100 years old. The magnolia is one of more than 140 memorial trees on Grounds—this one in honor of Elizabeth Anne Hagan and Shawn Patrick Flaherty. Children often skip the bench to sit on one low-hanging branch that just begs for a climb, according to Brown.

Trees on the Lawn
Maple leaf

Sugar maples, red maples and ash trees predominate on the Lawn, planted when the original black locust trees started dying out at the time of the Civil War. And they’re evaluated twice a year. “They’re pampered,” says Brown. That pampering includes being inoculated against the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that has killed tens of millions of ash trees across the country since 2002, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Grounds include more than 140 commemorative trees, some by official UVA designation and others through private sponsorships. Learn more about these trees »

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