Citrus tree has deep roots in UConn history

An orange tree belonging to Theodore Sedgwick Gold, an advocate for agricultural education and an original Board of Trustees member of UConn's founding institution, the Storrs Agricultural School, continues to thrive on campus.

Nick Pettit

Nick Pettit with Gold’s orange tree and a new tree created by grafting.

In the corner of a hallway in a campus greenhouse sits an orange tree that dates back to the beginnings of UConn. The tree belonged to Theodore Sedgwick Gold (1818-1906), who played an instrumental role in advocating for agricultural education in Connecticut. He also helped found the earliest incarnation of the school that would eventually become UConn, Storrs Agricultural School, in 1881. Gold served as one of the original members of the Board of Trustees for the institution and was responsible for shaping its organization and curriculum. The Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture (PSLA) in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources eventually hopes to share this piece of UConn history, and Gold’s legacy, by propagating additional orange trees, possibly making them available for sale in the future.

“Most of the department knows about the tree, but I don’t know how many other people do,” says Nick Pettit, the plant growth facilities manager. Pettit has been caring for the tree during his twenty-seven years with the University. “I make a point of mentioning the tree to anybody that’s with me when we walk by it. There’s a tree that’s as old as the University.”

The tree is a Citrus aurantium and while it bears very bitter fruit, the flowers are extremely fragrant. It currently rests in a large container on a pallet. The tree looks damaged, despite Pettit’s constant tending. The bark on the trunk crumbles easily at the touch and many of the leaves have blemishes and spots.

“It’s seen better days but a lot of this is cosmetic,” says Pettit. “The bark is very old so it comes off easily, but you can see there’s healthy bark underneath. It also gets all the common greenhouse pests: scales, aphids, whitefly, you name it. It’s problematic and does need care, but we spray it and it’s honestly doing pretty well after all these years.”

Orange trees have an average lifespan of fifty years but can live for over a century, like Gold’s tree, if the conditions are right and it receives proper care. Though Gold’s background and contributions to the founding of UConn are known, the origins and history of his Storrs orange tree are not clear, including its exact age. Pettit notes that the written account and oral record diverge in a number of ways and chalks up some differences to grandiose storytelling.

“One story I heard is that it was on the porch and would get moved in and out of the house. It’s a marmalade orange tree so the fruit is really sour. They would take the pulp out of the fruit, add a ton of sugar to make it palatable and spread it on their toast in the morning. Having fresh marmalade off the tree as a kind of novelty. It makes sense in-so-far as the tree doesn’t do well outside so would probably do okay in the house. It’s a fun story and maybe there’s a piece of truth in there, but I put more faith in the researched story,” says Pettit.

Pettit refers to PSLA Associate Professor Emeritus Walter Harper’s information regarding the tree. The tree started from seed and was tended by Gold. At a point, it may have resided in the greenhouse attached to Gulley Hall. The tree was formally donated to the University by Gold’s family in 1955 and it remained in the Floriculture Building for several decades.

“It stayed there for over fifty years until the Floriculture Building was renovated. The lobby used to have a glass entryway and it stayed out there. It did quite well with all the sun. We moved it out of there when the lobby was changed and brought it over to the hallway leading to the ABL [Agricultural Biotechnology Laboratory] greenhouse. The greenhouses in Floriculture are all used for research so we felt it would fare better out of the way over here,” says Pettit.

“In ABL it’s kind of living in a greenhouse environment in this hallway. For the first few years it was in ABL I was wheeling it outside in the summer months. It definitely loved being out in the sun. It’s gotten a little too big now to be moving it around constantly without accidentally breaking branches off.”

Orange trees are not low-maintenance plants, Pettit says, and they require constant attention, even in an indoor environment. Maintaining its well-being is especially important in order to propagate the tree. Pettit can create new trees using the seeds produced by the fruit and the original tree’s buds by grafting onto the new tree’s rootstock.  “I’ve grown one tree using a seed and grafting from the Gold plant. It’s producing a lot of fruit so we collect all the seeds from them. You start the seed in soil and wait for the stem to grow. Then you take the bud in the axil of the leaf of the original tree and graft it on to the new tree. If it was a true seedling, it wouldn’t flower for years, so this is a quicker process. It’s the roots of its own seedling so they are very compatible,” says Pettit.  This process of grafting is known as budding. Orange trees grown from seed bear fruit after about decade. Budding lets the tree mature faster, allowing it to produce fruit after only a few years.

“I can grow lots of seedlings and graft them. It wouldn’t take long to make a couple hundred of these trees in a relatively short time. We’re just not sure if there’s interest or demand for something like this.”  PSLA Professor and Head Richard McAvoy has expressed interest in producing more trees from Gold’s orange tree and using them as a fundraiser.

“We could create more plants by creating clones through tissue culture or micropropagation techniques. Whatever method we use to make them, we would need a structure in place to produce and sell them. With the current closure of UConn Blooms the department’s Horticulture Club might be able to take over those duties,” says McAvoy.

Clones created from cuttings start with softwood from the original tree. Softwoods are young branches that can then be planted in soil and easily root. Tissue culture propagation is done in aseptic culture usually starting with meristem tissues from buds.

UConn Blooms closed due to budgetary issues in fall 2017. The Horticulture Club promotes interest in horticulture by sponsoring social, educational and volunteer activities. Plant sales help fundraise for activities and scholarships.

“We’d want to make them available when they are in flower since they are irresistibly fragrant at that stage. The market would likely be alumni and people affiliated with the University,” McAvoy says.

Propagating the tree could be a way to create a new physical reminder of Gold and his contributions to Connecticut’s agricultural history and UConn’s formative years. A dormitory used to bear Gold’s name. Gold Hall was constructed in 1890, but the building burned down in 1914. Gold was passionate about farming and education throughout his adult life. The Gold family worked on Cream Hill Farm in West Cornwall and were notable not only for their practices and products, but for the Cream Hill Agricultural School, which Gold started with his father, Samuel, in 1845. The boys’ school operated until Samuel’s death in 1869 and focused primarily on teaching agriculture and science. Gold created a Connecticut Farmers’ Club in 1842 and became its first secretary. He also helped form the Connecticut Agricultural Society in 1852. Gold served as secretary of the Connecticut Board of Agriculture from its founding in 1866 until 1901 and wrote the Handbook of Connecticut Agriculture. From 1866 to 1875, Gold served as secretary of the orphanage that occupied the land that Augustus and Charles Storrs would donate to the state to start the Storrs Agricultural School. Walter Stemmons, in his early history of the Connecticut Agricultural College (the Storrs Agricultural School was renamed in 1893 to the Storrs Agricultural College and then renamed again in 1899), noted that the newly established agricultural school was quite similar to the Golds’ school at Cream Hill. As a board member and serving on a subcommittee, Gold infused his knowledge and passion into UConn’s roots.

The orange tree is poignant reminder that Gold’s personal commitment to nurturing and fostering agricultural education and plant science remains visible on a changing campus.

Says Pettit, “This tree outlasted at least one building it was in and we’ll have to see if it outlasts the next one. I say that my career will be a success if I can retire and this tree is still alive. I suppose since I’ve been saving the seeds from its fruit and made another tree, it’s guaranteed now.”