On Dec. 3, 1792, Revolutionary War Gen. William R. Davie and five other men were having a picnic. It was this meeting that would decide the location of the University, and it was this man for whom one of UNC’s many monuments would be named: the Davie Poplar.
The exact age of the Davie Poplar is unknown, but arborists believe it is around 300 years old. This is much longer than the usual lifespan of a tulip poplar. In addition to its long lifespan, the tree has survived an ice storm, a hurricane, two lightning strikes and, most recently, an attempted arson. Despite all of this, the tree is treated the same as all of the others residing in McCorkle Place.
“We don’t really pay it any special attention,” University arborist and forester Tom Bythell said. “What are we going to do to improve its environment?”
In 1873, the tree survived its first lightning strike. At that point, the tree was already referred to as the “Old Poplar” and had legend that if the tree falls, the University will fall. Kemp P. Battle’s “History of the University of North Carolina” described the strike in a book.
“The friends of the University were grieved, as if it were ominous of the fate of the University, but, although there was a rent through the bark at least from top to bottom, the noble tree survived the fiery attack,” the book said.
The tree recovered from this the following spring, but a storm in 1902 would give Davie its next major natural test. The newspaper "The Observer" reported the tree as blown down, scaring many students and alumni.
“The destruction of this tree is a great loss from a historical standpoint and the fact that it is no more will be heard with much regret by all old students of the University,” the article said.
Over a month later, The Observer reported that the tree had not actually been blown down, but that the top part was completely gone and a large hollow was left. The University did not begin preservation tactics until its second lightning strike in 1918.
“They got scared. They thought they were gonna lose it. So they planted Davie Jr., which is right next to it,” Bythell said.
Cables were attached from Davie to two hickory trees for support, a practice not done today. The ice storm of 2002 proved the futility of the support cables.
“The hickory tree came over in that 2002 ice storm and pulled the cable right out of Davie,” Bythell said. “I thought it was ironic that we cabled it to two trees that we thought were stronger than Davie and we were wrong.”
The tree’s latest trial has come in the form of arson. A man attempted to set the tree on fire with an explosive Nov. 2. Lucky for Davie, the fire failed to damage it significantly.
Bythell is confident in the survival and longevity of the tree. He said it is doing well for its age. If the next disaster strikes, his team will be ready.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.