Trees on campus
View of Campus with tree lined paths [1920]
Fallen oak
This 65-year old oak, the largest tree on the Davidson campus, fell during an ice storm on January 20, 1978.

The story of the Davidson College arboretum begins in 1855, when “a few ladies of Davidson College” proposed landscape remodeling in a letter to the Board of Trustees. Their effort did not meet with much success but a few years later, students took matters in their own hands by organizing tree plantings. William Dickey reported in a March 8, 1861 letter, that “All hands were turned loose this morning to plant trees. The ambition to perpetuate their names here was universal and all the students worked faithfully. The senior class not only plants trees for themselves but for their sweethearts. They plant[ed] 22 trees.” In 1869, the faculty sent a  proposal to the Board of Trustees, “to make the Campus in its contents represent in time the forest growth of the State, and, if possible, the general botany of the region.” In the years since, an implicit if not stated goal of the school’s grounds supervisors and landscape architects became populating the college’s campus with all sorts of exotic as well as indigenous fauna. Even future president Woodrow Wilson is rumored to have planted a tree during his time as a student at Davidson, bringing “from the woods a tree and plant[ing] it properly” (Shaw 143).

In 1982 Dr. Henry M. Cathey, a former Davidson student serving as Director of the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., suggested to Davidson College President Samuel R. Spencer, Jr. that the college take the steps necessary to become a national registered arboretum. Cathey’s suggestion came around the same time as a generous gift to the college from the family of Edwin Douglass, who had previously said that his two loves in life were Davidson College and forestry. President Spencer subsequently assigned Mr. Douglass’s funds to the arboretum project. Aerial surveys were made, trees catalogued, gardens mapped, and in 1986 Davidson announced itself as a full-fledged arboretum, complete with a detailed booklet with sketches.

Tom Daggy
Professor Daggy helped tag and map the arboretum.
Tree tour map
The cover of the Davidson College Tree Tour map that gives the locations, descriptions, and information about the trees.

Since then, students and Physical Plant workers have contributed to the continuing project of labeling and caring for the trees on campus. Some 3,000 woody trees and shrubs have been labeled, and the arboretum is a consistent draw for students and tree-buffs.

In addition to President Spencer and his successor, John W. Kuykendall, the cause of the arboretum was greatly helped by the efforts of Professor Daggy and grounds supervisor Irvin Brawley. In the mid 1980s, Professor of Biology John Williamson helped to begin the “legacy planting” program, in which new trees were planted in dedication to various faculty, staff, and students. One of those trees was dedicated in honor of Dr. Daggy, who had spearheaded such efforts.

There have been some threats to the arboretum. When Hurricane Hugo hit North Carolina in 1989, 231 trees, some over a hundred years old, were destroyed. The value of the lost trees totaled over $400,000, as reported by the Davidsonian during clean-up efforts. The weight of ice frozen onto trees during the ice storm of 2002 also took brought down many branches, but did more damage to property than the actual trees, of which only two or three were lost (Giduz). Despite these setbacks, the arboretum has continued to flourish.

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Arboretum – Works Cited

Davidson College. Board
of Trustees’ Minutes. 18 February 1855.

Davidson College. Board
of Trustees’ Minutes. 1869.

Giduz, Bill. “Power
Restored Following Historic Ice Storm.” Office of Communications. 5 December
2002. Davidson College.

Mukenge, Muadi. “Hurricane
Pounds Campus: $400,000 in tree damage.” Davidsonian 11 October 1989:

Shaw, Cornelia Rebekah.
Davidson College. New York: Fleming H. Revell Press, 1923.

Author: Wilson McBee
Date: February 2006

Cite as: McBee, Wilson. “Arboretum” Davidson Encyclopedia February
2006 <>

Related Entries: Historic Buildings

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