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Norway Maples on 5th Avenue

Seattle Heritage Trees

Seattle is enriched by many old, rare or special trees. Plenty of great trees grew here even before folks in the 1990s preached the gospel of trees. Trees of diverse kinds and ages beautify Seattle, some of them far more interesting than you might guess. Now, PlantAmnesty has formed a Heritage Tree committee, and city planners are considering tree-preservation laws. In 1988, before my book Trees of Seattle was published, I began to list noteworthy city trees. Everyone has his or her own favorites: both trees of citywide importance and of only neighborhood celebrity status. Noteworthy trees can be divided into into 7 major groups.

1. Old Trees
    Seattle was essentially clearcut, so the only trees still alive today that began their life before Seattle was founded in the 1850s, are a few cedars, firs etc. ignored by loggers. In pioneer days, trees were more than plentiful, they were ubiquitous, at once both a nuisance and a vital commodity. Minor blemishes such as fire scars or partly hollow trunks therefore were often the salvation of trees --loggers could afford to be picky.
    What are the oldest planted Seattle trees? Some are aged more than 100 years. These are mostly fruit and nut trees. For trees naturally short-lived, an individual specimen merely 50 years old may be special.

2. Big Trees
    Champion-sized trees are easy to note. They are simply the tallest, widest, or stoutest-trunked specimens of their kind in any given neighborhood, city, state or even the world. Some species are merely Seattle's biggest, some of greater renown. In fact, the Washington State Big Tree program coordinator is a Seattlite --Robert Van Pelt. There are many Seattle trees of purely local champion size left out of Van Pelt's book Champion Trees of Washington State. We don't have an up-to-date list of Seattle's champion trees, but Van Pelt's 1996 book includes 540 Seattle trees.

3. Rare Trees
    With so little "competition," rare trees are often of record size partly by default. Rare trees are a mixed lot. Some are deservedly rare because nobody wants them --they're a flop in our climate, or are ugly or in some way objectionable. Others are rare for mysterious reasons, despite their favorable attributes. Some exceedingly rare trees grow in Seattle.

4. Mass-Plantings of Trees
    Repetition is a design feature that can be very effective with trees, even when they are young. Downtown's rows of identical street trees are among the most conspicuous and refreshing scenes. Consider the Norway maples (Acer platanoides) along 5th Avenue. They are excellent unifiers which soften and humanize the architecture, signs and wires. Visualize them gone and you'll easily imagine their value. Many schools and playgrounds are ringed by "necklaces" of trees, and in a similar but smaller way, people often plant 2 or 3 identical trees in front of their own home.

5. Landmark Trees
    These are trees not necessarily very large, old, historic, visually striking or rare --but conspicuous, loved, and would be missed by many people. Sometimes they are normal specimens per se, but simply gain luster from a highly prominent location. Every neighborhood has its own landmark trees. Indeed, every person has his or her own "pet" trees. To choose some trees known to most neighborhood residents is easy; but to single-out some cherished by most is not.

6. Ecologic Trees
    All trees help make our environment healthier. But value to an exceptional degree is the dispensation of few. Such trees supply critical wildlife habitat, build and conserve soil, purify air, etc. In this sense, Seattle's "lungs" are greenbelts and parks. Here we find numerous native firs, maples, cedars, alders, willows, etc., as well as a full range of shrubs and wildflowers. Complementing the natives, many exotic species have been planted, including some of outstanding beauty, record sizes, or of local landmark status.

7. Historic Trees
    Every tree has a story, but unfortunately our local historic trees are poorly documented. This hurts, because they can be the most fun to know about. It is wonderful to hear, for example, that someone's father brought a shoebox full of elm seedlings from Vermont and planted them in Seattle in 1909. Or that the first palm tree to ripen fruit in Seattle was one planted in such and such place during the 1930s. Or, even on only a family-level, to know that an apple tree was planted when a couple's baby was born.
    Despite the appeal of such stories, we who love trees seldom gather them. It is easy to spot landmarks, champion-size or rare trees. But since the tree stories are abstract, and reflected only in human awareness, not in tree appearance, we must share our stories with one another, and write them down. I'll never forget some, and strongly urge you to tell yours. Once I saw an enormous, unfamiliar pussy willow tree in a back yard, so I said to the owner, "you've got me stumped; I have seen many pussy willow species, but none like this; it is most attractive and large." Ms. McConnell replied "it was given to me in 1958 as a twig in a Valentine's day bouquet." After serious research I determined the tree was an obscure hybrid from Europe. It might have been the largest of its kind in North America. Fortunately I rooted some cuttings; the next owner of the house cut it down.
    For every person who thinks trees are messy and don't belong in cities, several think cities without trees are ghastly and barren.
    Want to help document special Seattle trees, or learn more, ask questions? For PlantAmnesty's Seattle Heritage Tree program call (206) 783-9813. For big trees call Robert Van Pelt at (206) 818-0037. For documenting miscellaneous noteworthy trees call Arthur Lee Jacobson at (206) 328-TREE.

(originally written in 2000 for PlantAmnesty, merely as a generalized version of my 1995 article Special Ballard Trees)

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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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