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Trees of the Washington State Capitol Campus

    Although the Washington State Capitol Campus has an impressive 120 different kinds of trees, all but 15 species were imported from elsewhere. Blame our dry summers, and glaciers 10,000 years ago, for our comparatively few native tree species. Praise the present climate that allows us to plant so wide a variety of trees from elsewhere. This brochure reveals how trees from other parts of North America, Europe and Asia have been transplanted successfully in Olympia. Each kind of tree has its own story, and the picture presented is fascinating.
    The Olmsted Brothers, nationally famous landscape architects, created the original 54-acre Capitol Campus site plan in 1928. Planting began in 1931 and indeed has not stopped, for as needs change and new buildings are erected, the plantings vary.
    To conduct your personal tour of the 20 most notable trees on the campus you can proceed viewing the trees in the sequence suggested, or, by using the map and numbers, devise your own route.

1. Purple Beech
Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea
Welcoming visitors to the Visitor Center stands a tall shade tree whose leaves are strikingly dark purple. Their deep maroon color, and the way they are borne on attractively arching and pendulous branches, makes this tree a memorable sight. To your north, down by the road, is a paler copperleaf beech. Beeches are oak relatives with smooth silvery or gray trunks. Their tiny nuts in prickly husks ripen in early autumn. Although European beeches thrive and are much planted in Washington, these two specimens are the only larger ones at the Capitol. Sylvester Park, a few blocks to the north (Capitol Way and 7th), has two giant American beeches (Fagus grandifolia), the larger more than 70 feet tall and wide. The American species is similar to the European in its smooth bark, but has more elegant, sharper foliage, and bright fall color.

2. Bigleaf Maple
Acer macrophyllum
Near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and eastward on the spacious acres of lawn before you, are five huge bigleaf maples, native at the Capitol, dating from before the turn of the century. Some of their mossy trunks support licorice fern. Producing leaves larger than any other maple frequently the size of a dinner plate, and sometimes measure nearly two feet, this tree certainly earns its name! In October they turn golden and drop, revealing brown winged seeds covered with tiny bristles. Washington's tallest bigleaf maple, an eye-straining 158 feet, grows in Mt. Baker National Forest. At Maple Park, south of the East Campus, the original bigleaf maples were replaced in 1972 with Illinois sugar maples.

3. Norway Maple
Acer platanoides
Scattered across the east lawn area of the Capitol Campus are five Norway maples, most of them conspicuously wide. Because of its strength and beauty, Norway maple is much planted in American cities. Unlike bigleaf maple, its leaves are not deeply indented, and are proportionately broad. The seeds are flatter, green, and not bristly. In autumn the leaves can be pure yellow, or gold, even orange. One of two dozen different varieties of Norway maple in the U.S. nursery trade, 'Royal Redleaf' grows on the lawn between the Visitor Center and Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was planted on Arbor Day 1984. All summer its leaves are reddish-purple.

4. American White Elm
Ulmus americana
An historic American white elm is on the lawn by 11th Avenue, opposite the General Administration Building parking garage. On July 3, 1775, General George Washington took command of the fledgling Continental Army, under an elm at Cambridge, Massachusetts. After the war of Independence, after Washington was elected first president, the elm became a celebrated attraction. A plaque was placed by it, a fence protected it, a road was deflected to save it. In 1896, a University of Washington alumnus doing graduate study in Cambridge, obtained a rooted cutting of the famous elm, which was sent to Professor Edmund Meany at the U.W. This rooted cutting was planted, and from it cuttings were taken --the tree before you was one such cutting, planted February 11, 1932, the 200th anniversary of George Washington's birth. To the west is a small elm planted from a 1979 cutting. Washington State lacks native elms, and the dread Dutch elm disease is not fully established here. When the original Washington elm in Cambridge died, cuttings from our specimen were sent to replace it.

English Oak September 1999

5. English Oak (PHOTO ABOVE)
Quercus robur
Looming west of the elm is the State's largest English oak, an amazingly vigorous tree with an aspiring crown 96 feet tall, nearly as wide, its massive trunk almost 4 and a half feet thick. This species is famous in England. Is wood was used for everything from common furniture to the Royal Navy's ships. English oak differs from many deciduous oaks because its leaves are comparatively small, not especially lobed, and fade to dull, late colors in autumn. Its acorns are about the size of large hazelnuts, on long stems. Washington State has only one native oak species, no examples of which grow on the Capitol campus.

6. Dawn or Chinese Redwood
Metasequoia glyptostroboides
Cross the lawn beyond a bushy Japanese laceleaf maple. One of two dawn redwoods has a plaque explaining how in 1980 a sequoia tree was planted to commemorate Washington's first woman governor, Dixy Lee Ray. But that tree died, and as replacements we have these Chinese cousins of the mighty California sequoias. Metasequoia means "changed sequoia" in reference to its deciduous habit. Like other sequoias or redwoods, this species grows fast to become very large. Several in Washington are already nearly 100 feet tall. The bark is soft and reddish. The needles are delicate ferny green in summer, then turn bronzy, pinkish or golden before dropping in fall. Dawn redwood was thought extinct, then was discovered growing in remote China during the 1940s. Now it is familiar, being planted wherever the climate permits.

7. Ginkgo
Ginkgo biloba
Westward, in a triangle formed by sidewalks, stands ginkgo --a gaunt, striking tree also of ancient evolutionary lineage, and Chinese. Millions of years ago, both ginkgo and dawn redwood grew in Washington, as proved by fossils. But continental drift, ice ages, and volcanism, changed the face of the earth. Now, we are fortunate to live where the climate permits so many different trees to thrive. Ginkgo, curiously, is one of few trees that can grow in nearly all 50 states. Ginkgo's leaf is weirdly shaped, and turns a clear glorious yellow in November. The tree grows slowly but lives for hundreds of years and becomes huge. Female specimens bear orange fruits consisting of an edible nut surrounded by soft, malodorous flesh. A second ginkgo is on the East Campus, west of the Employment Security Building.

8. Atlas Cedar
Cedrus atlantica
East of the sunken garden, south of the ginkgo, is an enormous evergreen, with a trunk branching like an octopus, supporting a broad crown of limbs 86 feet wide. This Atlas cedar came from the Percival residence on 13th, where it began growing in 1892. Two more are on the opposite side of the street west of the bronze 1938 Winged-Victory Monument. The Legislative building's southeast corner has a powder-blue version. These venerable trees are native in the Atlas mountains of northern Africa, and are close cousins to the cedar of Lebanon. They look very similar to the Lebanese tree, but bear shorter, blunter needles, and smaller cones.

9. Western Red Cedar
Thuja plicata
At the northeast corner of the Insurance Building is a native cedar. Commanding in its great size, it stood here when the buildings were erected in the 1920s. Western red cedar is earth's largest cedar. Its fragrant, lightweight wood is famous for rot-resistance, needed for such uses as decking and shake roofing. The tree's reddish, fibrous bark clothes an often buttressed, swollen trunk. The rich green foliage is scaly, and fragrant with resin. The numerous seedcones are only rasin-sized. Atlas and western red cedars surely don't look a bit like each other. Yet their wood characteristics caused them both to be called cedars. Pacific Northwest Indians greatly valued this tree. Its bark was woven into mats and baskets, and its hollowed trunks served as dug-out canoes sometimes more than 70 feet long, capable of carrying many warriors across Puget Sound.

10. English Yew
Taxus baccata
Each of the two northern corners of the Insurance Building has three English yews: two being males, one female. Yews are very dark, short-needled evergreens that produce juicy red berries. Our native Pacific coast yew (Taxus brevifolia) presently saves lives since its bark contains taxol, an important anti-cancer drug. However, English yews are preferred for landscape decoration because they are stronger and more luxurious. In centuries past, English archers shot arrows from yew-wood bows. English gardeners clipped yew into hedges and sometimes into animal shapes, as few plants are so patient of abuse, or so long-lived. Even though it can look like a giant shrub, this species can live more than 1,500 years. The wood is extremely hard, heavy, dark and fine-grained. Male yews release dusty clouds of yellowish pollen in late winter; females ripen berries in late summer. Four clipped Irish yews are kept as narrow shrubs, between the World War I statue and Tivoli fountain.

11. Kwanzan Flowering-Cherry
Prunus serrulata 'Kwanzan'
More than 30 Kwanzan cherries line Cherry Lane, the street east of the Temple of Justice and the Legislative Building. The oldest date from 1932 when the campus was landscaped by the J.J. Bonnell nursery, which had been founded in 1897. These trees bear showy masses of cotton-candy pink flowers in April, then put on big cherry leaves, but set no fruit. They're Japanese flowering cherries, bred for ornament exclusively. Kwanzan is the best known and most popular flowering cherry in America. It was originally imported from Japan in 1903. Now some measure more than 40 feet tall and 50 feet wide.

12. Golden Lawson Cypress
Chamæcyparis Lawsoniana 'Stewartii'
Cheerful bright yellow, the Capitol's lone golden Lawson cypress stands against the middle of the Insurance Building's west wall. Its lively color contrasts splendidly with the dark firs, hollies, laurels and yews so prevalent. Lawson cypress, also known as Port Orford cedar, comes from southwest Oregon and nearby California, where it has a very small range. In cultivation it has produced numerous color and form variants: bluish, grass-green, weeping, juniper-like, etc. The name Lawson cypress came about because seeds from Oregon were first sent in 1854 to Charles Lawson (1794-1873), then head of Peter Lawson and Son nurseries of Edinburgh, Scotland. The golden 'Stewartii' seen here was raised in 1890 by D. Stewart & Son, nurseries of Bournemouth, England.

13. Saucer Magnolia
Magnolia x Soulangeana
Saucer magnolias are found at five locations on the Capitol grounds. The nearest one is located at the southeast entrance of the Legislative Building. One known as 'Rustica Rubra' resides in the rhododendron bed by the shallow stairs at the northeast corner of the 1959 State Library. When the springtime blossoms are displayed, all eyes admire their beauty. At that time in March or April, the branches are bare except for the large white and purple flowers. Then the big petals drop to the ground, wither brownish, and leaves commence to cover the tree. Only large fuzzy flowerbuds remind viewers of next spring's show. These small trees originated from one of Napoleon's army officers, Chevalier Etienne Soulange-Bodin, who intentionally hybridized two Chinese magnolia species to see what would result. His creation first flowered in 1826 and has been thrilling people ever since.

14. Evergreen Magnolia
Magnolia grandiflora
From the Deep South of this country comes one of earth's most beloved trees, the evergreen magnolia or bull bay. Bold, glossy leaves of substantial texture, often furnished on their undersides with a warm red-brown fuzz that begs for caressing, are the rich background setting for giant white blossoms, sometimes 14 inches wide. Fragrant and arresting, they appear from May through October. Such lush foliage is reward enough; the great flowers are a bonus. You can best see this tree from the Legislative Building's esplanades, then stroll along the east wall of the Temple of Justice to observe two slightly different specimens.

15. Tulip Tree; Yellow Poplar
Liriodendron Tulipifera
Among the largest of all trees on the Capitol Campus are five stout tulip trees by the Temple of Justice and Legislative Building. Native from the Great Lakes to north Florida, this is both an important timber species and a cherished shade tree for its towering size --some are 200 feet tall. The specimens you see are unusually wide and branchy, taking up a considerable amount of space. Indeed, tulip tree is the largest member of the whole magnolia family. Although the June flowers are greenish and inconspicuous, the leaf shape is unforgettable. After the golden fall color, seeds shaped like narrow paddles gradually drop during winter.Yellow poplar is the general name for this tree used in many places in the eastern United States, but landscape architects and nurseries locally prefer to title it tulip tree.

16. Blue Colorado Spruce
Picea pungens f. glauca
Rocky Mountain blue spruces have been widely planted for their beautiful powder-blue color since 1862 when they were made known to science. Two are at the front of the Legislative Building, the westernmost being taller. It was planted in 1964 to honor the memory of Earl S. Coe, a distinguished public servant of Washington. Spruces as a group are distinguished by short sharp needles, and dangling thin-scaled cones. Colorado spruces are usually extra stout in twig and needles, as well as being baby-blue more often than not. Washington has numerous other spruces, some native, others from elsewhere. But none is so well known by name to so many of us as the blue spruce.

17. Crab Apple
Malus 'Ferrill's Crimson'
Eleven flowering crab apple trees line the street west of the Temple of Justice; a twelfth is west of the sunken garden. Believe it or not, more than 170 different kinds of crab-apples are presently available in North American nurseries. 'Ferrill's Crimson' is not among them. This variety originated over 40 years ago at Ferrill's nursery of Salem, Oregon. It bears large, deep-red flowers with prominent bright white centers in late April or May. Then it puts on bronzy foliage, and sets a small crop of narrow fruits up to an inch long, very dark red skinned, blood-red inside, and tasty. Scab disease makes most crab-apples ugly in western Washington unless they are guarded with fungicides. 'Ferrill's Crimson' is less disease resistant, so varieties such as 'Liset' have superseded it. Crab-apples can have practically any flower color, some of sweet fragrance. The leaf size, shape and color vary too --but the fruit most fascinates us with its diversity, from tiny peas to the size of regular orchard apples, and some that taste as good, in all imaginable colors. Behind the Legislative Building, two weeping crab-apples grow with Japanese "moss" sawara cypresses.

18. Yoshino Flowering-Cherry
Prunus x yedoensis
Yoshino cherries are among the first Capitol trees to bloom in spring, with pale pink to white, airy flowers by the millions, in lovely contrast to the dark bark and green grass. After the delicate flowers all drop, leaves come on. The leaf is smaller than that of kwanzan cherry, hairy, and deeper green. Thirty four Yoshino cherries form a 1984 grove south of the Legislative Building. These were donated by Mitsuo Mutai, a Japanese newspaper owner. The East Campus has 136 Yoshino cherries planted in 1972. Donated from the city of Yoshino, Japan, there is a bicentennial grove of 13 near one Norway maple northeast of Tivoli fountain by the Isaac Stevens homesite. Twelve Whitcomb cherries are in front of the DOT and Employment Security buildings; these bear very early, vivid pink flowers.

19. Douglas Fir
Pseudotsuga Menziesii
This is the species whose domain of greenery led to Washington being called the Evergreen State. It coats the hillsides and valleys of millions of square miles in the maritime Pacific Northwest. Colossal dark trunks stand out here and there on the Capitol Campus, for example 10 large old ones between the Cherberg and Institutions buildings. These bare, giant trees are our renowned Douglas firs, which in the great Olympic National Park measure as tall as 326 feet, the thickest trunk almost 15 feet in diameter! Most houses and wooden structures in our state are built of Douglas fir. It is ecologically and economically most important. Its name commemorates the Scottish plant explorer David Douglas, who first sent seeds of the species to England in 1827. Today, some of his seedlings there are 200 feet tall.

20. Eastern Flowering Dogwood
Cornus florida
Lovely shrubby trees from eastern North America, these are relatives of our native Pacific dogwood --Cornus Nuttallii, of greater stature but inferior tolerance of cultivation. Five eastern dogwoods are north of the State Library parking lot; one native stands with them. A lone pink-flowered eastern dogwood is in the Visitor Center parking lot. Our native flowers in April usually, the eastern species follows in May. The two trees are unlike in form, but you can tell easily by looking at the blossoms that they're close cousins. More often than not, the eastern is grown in its pink-flowered version. In fall, the eastern species usually has brighter, more showy leaf coloration. The inelegant name dogwood is of old English origin and referred to still another species that was and is a comparatively dull bush. A second explanation says the name derives from the Old English dagge, a dagger or sharp pointed object. A third assertion is that a mange cure for dogs was made from the bark.

(originally published in 1993 as a 14-page brochure produced by the Washington State House of Represetatives. Due to space constraints, the printed version omitted the lines shown above in red. In 2002 the brochure was revised and reprinted; the Atlas Cedar and Golden Lawson Cypress were replaced with the "Moon Tree" Douglas Fir, and Young's Weeping Birch. The replacement text is not included on this website inasmuch as I did not write any of it.)


Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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