New Home for Historic UConn Citrus Tree
August 7, 2023 | Jason Sheldon - College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources
An orange tree believed to be as old as UConn is now accessible to the public the first time in a decade
Students and staff from the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture near the newly rehomed orange tree with roots back to UConn's founding. (Jason Sheldon/UConn Photo)
Installed in a new planter’s box in the Floriculture Greenhouse is an orange tree (Citrus aurantium) with roots dating back to the founding of the Storrs Agricultural School, the forerunner to the University of Connecticut. Said to have been started from seed by Theodore Sedgwick Gold (1818-1906), a member of the inaugural Board of Trustees and an agricultural educator, the tree was brought under the care of the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources when it was donated by Gold’s family in 1955.
While the tree has moved around a bit over the last seven decades, it has resided in a hallway in the greenhouse in the Agricultural Biotechnology Building (ABL). This space is locked for research and teaching purposes, and the location also made caring for and accessing the tree difficult.
“The health of the tree was beginning to decline,” says Shelley Durocher, research technician for the Floriculture Greenhouse. “The pot it was housed in was deteriorating and it was getting to be in the way because of its size. Also, because of the research done in ABL, the greenhouses remain locked at all times. We decided it was time to find a better place for it where the tree could shine.”
The Floriculture Greenhouse was chosen as a permanent home to make the tree accessible to the University community and the public.
The process of relocating the tree across was delicate. It required traversing UConn’s main thoroughfare, Route 195. Repotting the large tree required a team. The project brought the department’s staff, faculty, and students together.
“It was an all-hands-on-deck moment for us,” says Durocher.
The tree was wheeled over on a pallet into Floriculture. The old pot was carefully removed, and the tree’s root ball was then wrapped in burlap for protection. It made its final journey on rollers into the greenhouse and the team used a pulley system to stand it up in the planter’s box.
Robbie Eselby ’25 (CAHNR) says helping with move and repot the tree made him feel like he was involved with a unique part of UConn’s history.
“It was an amazing feeling to finally get it done after it had been in its previous pot for longer than I have been alive,” says Eselby. “It’s surreal to think that this same orange tree has been at the university for so long and endured throughout challenges, many different caretakers, and many different environments.”
Similar to the tree, the planter box it is housed in has some interesting history. It is styled after those found at the Versailles Orangerie, the remarkable citrus garden started in 17th century France at what would become the site of the Louis XIV’s iconic palace. The side panels of the box can be removed to perform root maintenance, a notable improvement from the previous pot.
Even at over 100 years old, the tree is more than a striking conversation piece about UConn’s history. It continues to bear oranges and serve as an active teaching resource in the Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture.
Nick (Frederick) Pettit, greenhouse plant growth facilities manager, uses the tree to demonstrate woody plant grafting. The fruit from the plant is collected and the seeds are harvested and sown to grow a rootstock. A small branch called scion wood is then grafted from the original tree to the new rootstock, allowing the plant to grow faster and bear fruit earlier. It has ensured the orange tree will continue to yet another generation.
The department hopes the tree will also continue to serve as an educational resource, especially since the new location improves access for the general public as well as students.
“We’re glad to have this rare piece of living UConn history,” says Sydney Everhart, head of the Department of Plant Science & Landscape Architecture. “The department’s perpetual care for this tree means it will endure and with this move, it means we can share this special plant with everyone.”
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