In many communities there are iconic trees that nearly everyone recognizes and admires in passing during daily life. The spreading, stately tree at the corner of University and Prospect Avenue in Champaign is certainly a historic and interesting specimen.
I cannot count the times that someone has asked me, “what kind of tree is that?”, nor can I count the times that I have sat at the stoplight on University Ave admiring that tree as I waited.
This gnarly old tree is an Osage orange (Maclura pomifera), or hedge apple tree, centered in current-day Trevett/Finch Park in Champaign.
However, the tree was originally part of a 5 acre farm purchased in 1857 by Oliver Trevett. It’s so fascinating to picture a 5 acre farm at this location given the current urbanization that surrounds.
The 1893 plat book for Champaign shows that surrounding properties to the west were still 5-10 acres in size, making Prospect Avenue the western edge of Champaign’s urban area. By the 1913 plat, many of neighborhoods we know now were filling in the area, although University Ave ended abruptly at modern day Russel Street with a large plot of farmland extending to the west. How interesting to consider this Osage orange looking on as city expanded around it?
A 1969 News Gazette article mentions the tree in reference to a memorial that was donated to the Champaign County Development Council in memory of Mr. Trevett’s great granddaughter, Helen Finch. The article discusses the tree’s significance to the community as Mrs. Finch and her relatives always kept the tree available for local children to play in and around, making it well-known attraction to many Champaign-Urbana residents over the years. In the early eighties, the tree and remaining park-like area around it were donated to the Champaign Park District by the living descendants of Oliver Trevett, so all future generations could enjoy its sprawling limbs and patchy shade.
The Osage orange tree itself has a unique wood fiber that served many valuable functions to both Native Americans and pioneer settlers of the Great Plains. Native Americans used its dense, yet flexible wood to make hunting bows, while early settlers used it to plant hedges which served as living fence for grazing livestock prior to advent of barbed wire. The wood fiber is so incredibly dense that it is difficult to cut with the sharpest chainsaw. However, this density provides some of the highest heat output of any firewood on this continent.
It’s just fascinating to me that the centerpiece of Trevett/Finch Park stands as a living monument to the historical significance of Osage orange while preserving a very special tree of our own local community.
The Osage orange tree in Trevett/Finch Park has occupied the site since the eighteen-hundreds making it a historic local tree.
If you have a question for U of I Extension Horticultural Educator, Ryan Pankau, e-mail them to ciLiving@wcia.com