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Treasured University of Iowa tree taken down by storm

European larch on Pentacrest beckoned with low branches for climbing

A European larch on the University of Iowa Pentacrest was felled in a storm Sept. 9, 2019. Here it is the morning of Sept. 10, 2019. (Photo by Thomas Dean)
A European larch on the University of Iowa Pentacrest was felled in a storm Sept. 9, 2019. Here it is the morning of Sept. 10, 2019. (Photo by Thomas Dean)
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IOWA CITY — A beloved European larch, which extended a long, low branch for climbing and photo opportunities on the University of Iowa Pentacrest, fell in Monday night’s storm.

The decades-old tree had been damaged in past storms, including the 2006 tornado that struck downtown Iowa City and a 2007 ice storm. But turbulent winds that remained after a tornado watch expired Monday night brought the larch down along with other trees and branches in downtown Iowa City.

“I saw it coming in to work today,” Thomas Dean, senior presidential writer and editor at the UI, said Tuesday. “It just broke my heart.”

As a tribute to the tree, Dean posted on Facebook his “Elegy to the Pentacrest Larch,” an essay from his “Under a Midland Sky” book published in 2008.

“The Pentacrest larch has invited me back to childhood each time I have passed it,” Dean wrote.

“Its branches are long and straight, nobly announcing the tree’s age, strength, and wisdom. Its needles droop delicately from branches thin and thick, creating a gentle gossamer surround that suggests a retreat, a quiet place to read a book, a home for runaway 5-year-olds.”

Indeed, countless children picnicking on the Pentacrest, resting in the shade during the Iowa City Jazz Festival or running outside from the UI Museum of Natural History, scaled the larch and perched on its low-hanging bough.

Shawn Fitzpatrick, UI grounds supervisor, said he got a call shortly after 1 a.m. Tuesday about the larch falling in the storm. It was one of three campus trees removed Tuesday. The larch was between 50 to 70 years old, Fitzpatrick said.

“It had so much decay at the base, we weren’t able to get an accurate ring count,” he said.

With a rotten base, the tree was fighting gravity even without strong winds.

“While we hated to lose it, it was almost convenient it tipped over in the middle of the night when no one or few people were around,” Fitzpatrick said.

While not native to Iowa, the European larch grows well in the state, he said. As a deciduous conifer, the tree has both cones, like a conifer, and needles that drop in the fall, like deciduous trees do with their leaves.

The UI Pentacrest is home to two state champion trees, an elm and a black walnut. The walnut, located near the larch on the northeastern corner of the lawn, lost a few branches in Monday night’s storm, but was mostly OK.

The black walnut was struck by lightning in the early 1980s, which spurred the UI to install a lightning protection system in 1982. But the tree grew past the copper terminal designed to conduct electricity to the ground without harming the tree. A new system was put in place in 2013.

The UI has a tree inventory if you want to check out other standouts.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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