Dear 'Old Willow'

April 27, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – In honor of National Arbor Day on April 29, we take a look at one of Penn State's longest living traditions: Old Willow.

The original "Old Willow" was planted on campus by Professor of Horticulture William G. Waring in 1859, around the time the college admitted its first students.

Waring, who laid out roads, buildings, orchards and landscaping as the college’s first superintendent of farm and grounds, located the weeping willow (Salix babylonica “Pendula”) beside the main driveway of the front campus (on today’s Allen Street mall, across from Sackett Building).

It’s not clear when students dubbed it the “old willow,” but the tree quickly captured their hearts. “So long the ‘picture of loveliness and stately grace,‘” wrote Penn State historian Erwin W. Runkle in 1934. “No one who ever saw it and loved it in its prime will ever forget its beauty and majesty.”

Various claims as to the tree’s origins include that it was brought from Europe by founding President Evan Pugh, a scion of one growing in Twickenham, the famous garden of English poet Alexander Pope. Another legend is that it was planted to mark the turning spot for contractors’ wagons bound for the original Old Main construction site. Or, Professor Waring may have planted it from his own stock, as he tended many willow saplings in the college’s nurseries.

Old Willow in winter

A pre-1923 photograph of Old Willow in winter. “No one who ever saw it and loved it in its prime will ever forget its beauty and majesty," wrote Penn State historian Erwin W. Runkle.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

Regardless of where it came from, the weeping willow was revered by the students. It became “the recipient of boundless sentiment, of many poems of praise, and of myriad photographs,” said Runkle. Freshman bowed and tipped their caps to it on passing; recognized by everyone, it became a favorite meeting-spot on campus. The students' feeling for their "old willow" is exemplified by this excerpt from a student-penned poem in the 1894 La Vie yearbook:

Sentinel thou art!
Dear old Willow!
’Neath thy waving, verdant tresses,
Ever coming, ever going,
Pass the tides of busy students,
Ever ebbing, ever flowing:
Untamed Freshmen, all-wise Sophomores,
Stately Seniors, hearty Juniors,
In a motley, ceaseless thronging,
’Neath thy ever-faithful guarding,
Chatting, laughing, thinking, studying
As they go.

Eventually old age took its toll, and despite the best efforts of the college to prolong its life, Old Willow fell in a windstorm on Aug. 21, 1923.

Fortunately, the college had had the foresight to take a cutting in 1914, and planted near the same site. This second-generation Old Willow grew and flourished through the late 1970s, until it, too, succumbed. In turn, an offshoot of this tree was planted near the southwest corner of Old Main, where it holds the mantle of "Old Willow" today. An historical marker commemorates the location of the original tree.

Penn State several years ago designated Old Willow as a Heritage Tree, a program to protect trees of distinction.

Several other third-generation descendants grow on the University Park campus, including at The Arboretum at Penn State and near Shields Building; and, according to an article in the Penn State Alumni News of October 1966, cuttings of the original tree were given to members of the class of 1921 at their senior banquet, and “the tradition of the old tree may spring up in the backyards of alumni throughout the state and nation.”

  • Old Willow in 1917 La Vie

    A page of Penn State's 1917 La Vie yearbook, featuring Old Willow.

    IMAGE: Penn State University Archives

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 28, 2016