Outside Ewell Hall, in a small corner warmed by the College of William and Mary’s underground steam tunnels, grow two windmill palms — the northernmost palm trees on the East Coast. Nearby, in the Crim Dell Meadow, there are two dawn redwood trees, which until 1946 were thought to have been extinct for 13 million years. When plant explorers in Szechuan, China brought back seeds, some found their home on campus.
What do these trees — and all the others that have taken root at the College — have in common? Many were planted, researched and organized by former biology professors John Baldwin and Bernice Speese. These professors, and those who have followed them in the study of botany, treated the campus as a laboratory for growing unusual, rare or just unlikely woody species. Then, they started taking their students on tours of their work.
There are now approximately 300 species and varieties of woody plants across campus, used both as an archive of research and as a teaching tool for faculty in the biology department. This self-guided tour, which includes 15 locations, has since been named the Baldwin Memorial Collection of Woody Species by the Board of Visitors. While the original contributors to this project are now gone, the Gardens and Grounds division of Facilities Management now cares for the specimens in the collections. Arborist Matthew Trowbridge spends his days taking care of the woody species and assisting others in their research.
“What we do is attempting to make sure that the trees are safe, and we want them to be healthy so they are still making the campus look as nice as possible,” Trowbridge said. “The third thing is that we want them to be aesthetically pleasing.”
Trowbridge said that no two days of his job are the same — within the Gardens and Grounds division, only Trowbridge and his assistant Bob Chretien specialize in taking care of the College’s trees. Trowbridge said he has been working here for 30 years, and that he has never regretted coming to work and is thankful for his job.
“I started working here 30 years ago,” Trowbridge said. “I have never had a boring day. The 1150-1200 acres that the College owns have lots of trees and I never run out of things to do.”
Trowbridge said that he just really loves trees, and that he always wants to make sure the trees stay safe. Over the years he has been working here, the construction of 27 new buildings on campus has required his crew to take down old trees. However, Trowbridge said that he recently has been able to replant some of these trees.
Trowbridge is a certified arborist and has attended classes recently to learn more about trees and campus gardening. While at one presentation, he heard a real estate agent say that approximately 27-43 percent of a property’s net worth comes from the first impression that it makes. For this reason, he said that it is important to make sure the campus looks as beautiful as possible and that College administrators prioritize allocating money to beautify the grounds.
While many of the trees on campus have historical significance, some are special to Trowbridge because of the personal history he has with him. One tree, a white mulberry between Jefferson Hall and Washington Hall, is one of his favorites.
“In 1989 a storm had [the tree] fall apart and I was told by my supervisor to take it down,” Trowbridge said. “I asked, ‘Why don’t we let it have character?’ I just watched it and maintained it, and we did put a concrete column under one of its branches. I used to see pictures of students laying on the branches and studying and that made me feel good. All of the trees are valuable and have character.”
Another of his favorite trees is the linden tree that is behind Tucker Hall, near the cross walk across Richmond Road from Sorority Court. Trowbridge said that it’s often referred to as the “tunnel linden” because it drapes so low to the ground. When he was asked to take all of the big branches down, he made a compromise and just cut things to the height of his shoulders.
“It’s like a church when you walk underneath it,” Trowbridge said.
Trowbridge said that he likes to see students enjoying the trees, but that he has one request for students who hang their hammocks around campus.
“If you are hanging your hammock on a thin-bark tree, you should put a towel first and then put the strap around it before hanging hammocks,” Trowbridge said. “I don’t want them to damage the trees, but I do want them to be able to chill out and relax.”
Before his death in 1974, Baldwin charged his colleague, biology professor Martin Mathes, with documenting the collection. Mathes inventoried the species, which resulted in him publishing a bound collection mapping each species across campus in 1987. He also wrote a second publication in 1992, looking at the history of vegetation on campus. Both are now available in the Earl Gregg Swem Library.
The self-guided tour starts at the Sir Christopher Wren Building and ends back on Old Campus, although it includes stops in New Campus as well. Some of the more recent stops include the Integrated Science Center. Other stops, such as the Millington Hall greenhouse, have not yet been removed from the tour manual.
The other stops include James Blair Hall, the Phillips Garden, the Wildflower Refuge, Ewell Hall and the Adams Garden. The Phillips Garden, located outside of Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall, was initially designed by a student, but has changed over the years.
Some of the trees in this garden include a crape myrtle tree, a mugo pine tree, a weeping cedar of Lebanon tree and a blue ring juniper tree. Right near this garden are dogwood trees — Virginia’s state tree — and a grove of Cryptomeria trees. These trees were some of Baldwin’s favorites, and he is known for planting them all over the College’s campus and throughout the City of Williamsburg.
“I like to think of Williamsburg as the Cryptomeria capital of America,” Baldwin said.
It’s not just the biology department and facilities maintenance staff who are interested in the trees. Office of Undergraduate Admissions tour guides often share fun facts with prospective students about unique species on campus. One, Emily Saylor ’20, said she thinks it is fun to share these facts because they highlight the beauty of campus.
“I do love to point out the palm trees outside of Ewell Hall,” Saylor said. “I think it’s so cool that they can grow this far north.”