The Monticello mountaintop has seen many trees over the centuries. But there were two trees in particular that greeted visitors at Monticello for hundreds of years. On this episode of Mountaintop History, Monticello guide Kyle Chattleton tells the story of Monticello's pair of tulip poplars.
This is Mountaintop History, a podcast from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at historic Monticello. My name is Kyle Chattleton.
The Monticello mountaintop has seen many trees over the centuries: copper beeches, European larches, chinaberry trees, ginkgos, southern catalpas, and so much more. Many of these species were introduced to Monticello’s landscape by Thomas Jefferson, who was eager to cultivate a kind of botanical garden where he, his family, and his visitors could engage with plant species from around the world. Historical records show that many of these trees were tended to by enslaved gardeners, such as Wormley Hughes.
There were two trees in particular that greeted visitors for hundreds of years. A pair of tulip poplars flanked either side of Monticello’s famous western view, the one you can find on the back of many U.S. nickel pieces. Both grew to become magnificent specimens, offering shade to visitors into the twenty-first century. The size of these trees caused many at Monticello to believe they were from Jefferson’s lifetime. Documents seemed to support this view, too. The one located toward the south, for example, was argued to be the very same one Jefferson refers to in a memorandum book. On April 16, 1807, Jefferson records that a “Laurodendron,” the name Jefferson used for what many today call a tulip poplar, was planted near the southwest of the house.
Two hundred and one years later in June of 2008, this specific tree, which grew to over one hundred feet tall, had to be cut down. Year after year, the Monticello staff had noticed that the tree was becoming increasingly sick, most likely suffering from root disease. And just a few years later, its other pair on the north side similarly had to be cut down due to the threat it posed to visitors and the Monticello home.
A dendrochronological study, better known as tree-ring dating, was conducted and the findings of the study were published in 2014. The conclusion: that the tree to the south was likely from Jefferson’s era, and the tree on the north side was definitely planted during Jefferson’s lifetime. The hunch that many at Monticello had, that these two trees had seen centuries of history, was in many ways validated.
But there is another part of the story worth sharing. Awhile after that last tulip poplar on the north side of the house was cut down, Monticello’s gardening staff noticed that something was growing in the middle of the giant stump left behind by the original tree. Careful observation and analysis showed that it was another tulip poplar, connected to the original root stock below the ground. This tree was both very, very old, but also creating a new story for itself. And that story still continues to this day on the Monticello mountaintop.
This has been another edition of Mountaintop History, a collaboration between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. To learn more and to plan your next visit, go to our website at Monticello.org.