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CU Boulder’s ‘Old Main Cottonwood’ chopped down

Campus' oldest, tallest tree has been cloned, will be replanted

A piece cut from the top of Old Main Cottonwood, one of the oldest cottonwood trees at the University of Colorado Boulder campus, is lowered to the ground while crews from Taddiken Tree Company work to remove it on Monday. After growing next to the Old Main building for more than 140 years, the aging tree developed structural issues that made leaving it in place too risky. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
A piece cut from the top of Old Main Cottonwood, one of the oldest cottonwood trees at the University of Colorado Boulder campus, is lowered to the ground while crews from Taddiken Tree Company work to remove it on Monday. After growing next to the Old Main building for more than 140 years, the aging tree developed structural issues that made leaving it in place too risky. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
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A Taddiken Tree Company arborist cuts a section out of Old Main Cottonwood at the University of Colorado Boulder campus while removing the tree on Monday. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Thick pieces of wood were sliced from the top of a towering tree on Monday as a crew worked to chop apart a colossal cottonwood.

After more than 140 years of life outside of the Old Main building on the University of Colorado Boulder’s campus, “Old Main Cottonwood” had doubled its life expectancy and ran the risk of becoming a safety hazard if left standing.

The first of several days of work began on Monday to remove the tree from campus. Its absence will only be felt for a short time as plans are already underway to replace the tree with a younger version of itself.

“We knew that it would be a huge loss when we took it down, so we thought, ‘Well, what the heck. Let’s try and root some clones’,” said Vince Aquino, CU Boulder forestry supervisor.

About eight years ago, Aquino took cuttings from Old Main Cottonwood while the tree was healthy. The cuttings have since grown from just a few inches to a few feet tall and will hopefully be planted this spring.

Aquino said this is the first time CU Boulder has taken clippings from a tree to be grown and replanted on campus.

Clones from Old Main Cottonwood at the University of Colorado Boulder campus will be grown in the greenhouse for six years before being planted on campus. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Before deciding to cut the tree down, a risk assessment was completed after Aquino noticed its canopy was browning and no longer budding.

“(Due to) a combination of dieback in the canopy with loss of structural integrity at the base, it eventually got to a point where risk thresholds were just too great,” Aquino said.

Old Main Cottonwood was planted in about 1880 near irrigation ditches outside of the Old Main building. The location of the tree is what Aquino and others suspect helped it live so long and grow so tall.

“This was just a really well-irrigated, well-watered area for the entire life of this tree, and other than that, we suspect it’s just some unusually successful genetics,” he said.

An 1879 voucher from the CU Boulder archives showed the university spent $35 out of its general fund for 42 plains cottonwoods, which had a one-year warranty, according to a news release from CU Boulder.

John Clark, greenhouse director for CU, has been tending to 25 new cuttings from the tree since October, he said. Aquino took additional cuttings as a precaution against the original clones not surviving.

Clark said the cuttings will be with him in a greenhouse for about six years, until they are big enough to be planted on campus with the other clones.

“They’ve already begun rooting,” Clark said. “If you put them out too small, the groundskeepers may mow over them. They break easily.”

The wood from the original Old Main Cottonwood will be repurposed in multiple ways. Some of it may be used as mulch for lawns, other pieces will go to the university’s biology department, a piece of the trunk may be used in a new landscaping design near Old Main and other pieces will be given to artists.

CU’s historic cottonwood will live on through its reuse and through its clones that will eventually tower over the campus like it did for so many years.

“It’s such a classic, historic tree for campus, and it’s meant so much to so many people in the campus community for so long,” Aquino said.

Artists interested in wood from Old Main Cottonwood can contact CU Boulder Communications Coordinator Jaime Ray at jaime.ray@colorado.edu.

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