Encircled by a wooden bench, a grand white ash outside Transylvania University’s library offers students a place to sit in the shade, maybe read a book or just watch people walk by. They know it’s called the Kissing Tree, but they might not know how it got its name—how back when public displays of affection were frowned upon, it offered sanctuary to sweethearts.
Alumni tell many stories about the customs surrounding the tree, which in 2015 made College Ranker’s 25 Most Romantic College Traditions, but the most prevalent seems to be that it functioned as a giant piece of mistletoe for the students. If you and your main squeeze found yourselves under its protective branches, college officials would look the other way while you stole a kiss. This was said to be the only public place on campus where a tacit agreement existed between students and administrators that kissing was allowed.
“The Kissing Tree was sort of like walking under the mistletoe—you had permission to stop and kiss, but only on that one spot on campus,” recalls Virginia Marsh Bell, a 1944 graduate. “Otherwise, you were really a loose woman if you kissed out in public. But even then, you didn’t have a kiss that you just held on. You were discrete, but it was allowed.”
Mark Johnson, from the class of 1958, recalls another tradition. “It was said that you weren’t a true or real Transylvanian until you had been kissed under the Kissing Tree—preferably by a student who was a sophomore or better. It was sort of a rite of passage, an initiation of sorts.”
How old is the Kissing Tree? Probably older than Transy itself. Professor of Biology James Wagner speculated it’s more than 270 years old. “It’s actually nearing the average maximum lifespan for its variety,” he said.
A little more than a decade ago, the ash got a new wooden bench because, like a too-tight collar, the old one was crimping the growing style. The university also has been treating the tree to protect it from the scourge of the emerald ash borer.
While the Kissing Tree’s background may be unknown to current students and recent graduates, some have an appreciation for the tradition.
“I really enjoy Transylvania history,” said David Riley ’07. “Anytime I can learn about something like the Kissing Tree that ties me back to past students, I think that’s fantastic.”