By Elisabeth Wall
As a young man, Daniel Boone may have courted his bride under the white oak still standing near Wey Hall off Rivers Street. By the time Watauga Academy — the institution that would become Appalachian State University — opened in 1899, the tree had already weathered close to 200 High Country winters.
According to Appalachian arborist Chris Erickson, the tree is healthy, despite time and a changing campus. It might not be the oldest tree on campus, but it’s close — there are likely older trees in Appalachian’s Nature Preserve, he said.
Erickson said the age of a white oak can be estimated by measuring its diameter and multiplying by five, although the calculations vary by species and many factors skew the results. With a circumference of approximately 16.5 feet and a diameter of 60.1 inches, and allowing for other age factors, he estimates the massive Quercus alba clocks in at between 225 and 300 years.
Until a few years ago, the sidewalks around the tree were salted regularly to keep pedestrians safe in icy weather. Because runoff from the salt is not tree-friendly, Erickson’s Landscape Maintenance crew, which is part of Appalachian’s Physical Plant, quit salting there, he explained.
Current construction on campus requires removing the sidewalk surrounding the tree — a positive for the oak’s well-being.
“We plan on really babying this tree during and after construction,” Erickson said. “That includes a trunk injection system to protect it from bugs and hand watering (the tree).”
Other precautions and accommodations in place for the tree during construction:
- Funding has been provided for dead wooding, or removing dead limbs and branches, as well as pruning and tree care.
- The new pedestrian path has been intentionally angled away from the tree to mitigate salt damage and root compaction.
- A temporary fence will encircle the tree during construction as a visual reminder to workers and pedestrians that extra care must be taken.
- All work in the root zone will be done with hand tools or light machinery.
- Weep holes are being added in the new concrete path to allow water and air to reach the tree’s roots more easily.
After construction is complete, Erickson said his crew will also work to alleviate soil compaction around the tree by air spading the root zone and replacing turf with wood chips or mulch. Air spading uses compressed air to break up and remove soil, works much more quickly than conventional digging and eliminates the danger of damaging tree roots or utility lines.
Although soil becomes compacted by vehicles and equipment, Erickson said, foot traffic contributes more to soil compaction.
About the White Oak
The white oak, according to the Arbor Day Foundation, has these attributes:
- Provides great fall color, with leaves turning showy shades of red or burgundy.
- Develops notably strong branches.
- Can live for centuries.
- Features alternating leaves that are 4–8 inches long with three to four rounded, finger-like lobes on each side and one at the tip. Intervening sinuses sometimes reach almost to the mid-rib.
- Produces long, yellowish-green catkins drooping in clusters in the spring.
- Yields acorns that are up to 1-inch long with a warty cap that covers about one-fourth of the nut.
- Grows in an oval or rounded shape.
- Develops a deep taproot, making it difficult to transplant.
- Is extremely sensitive to soil compaction and grade changes.