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giant madrona

Tall Tales from the Northwest:
Big Trees of Seattle.


History of Seattle's Trees
    Reviewing the history of trees in Seattle makes clear why the city today is so delightfully rich in trees. The first settlers arrived in the 1850s and lost no time in beginning their logging operations. Over the hills they roved, everywhere faced with a seemingly unlimited supply of tall timber growing in dense wilderness. The loggers took some trees, and left some, rather sporadically and erratically in general. Different landowners and logging outfits pursued different policies.
    Seattle was not laid bare from one vast, ugly clear-cut, but some parts of it were. Today a number of the original trees have achieved great stature, having survived the logging, urbanization and other threats we humans can impose. In many cases we can't tell for sure whether a tree standing today is an old one ignored by loggers, or a second-growth one that grew exceptionally quickly. Some parts of the city were logged very early, others much later, some more than once. Even the old-growth forest preserves at Schmitz and Seward parks were partly logged and disturbed.
    In 1909 Seattle sponsored the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. By this time the city was enriched with a diverse network of parks and boulevards, covering many acres of prime land. Book descriptions, postcards and photographs of the period reveal three categories of trees: old-growth natives, second-growth natives, and non-natives.
    During this period, trees from Europe and other parts of North America were first extensively planted, albeit side by side with native trees like the dogwood (Cornus Nuttallii), western red cedar (Thuja plicata), and the most planted tree of all --bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). The result of these early tree-planting practices has been a healthy variety of trees in our parks: old and young, native and non-native, in formal and informal settings.
    Some of the non-native trees that were widely planted by the 1920s are now reproducing here, some extensively naturalized. For example the European mountain-ash (Sorbus aucuparia), one of which has achieved a height over 65 feet, seems to be of record size (died). It is one of several naturalized non-natives that owe their status to the dissemination of their seeds by birds. Holly, Mazzard cherry, hawthorn and English laurel are similarly dispersed.
    As the century advanced, Seattle acquired many new parks, including the Washington Park Arboretum. A thriving nursery trade supplied Asian trees like the dove tree (Davidia involucrata), Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica), Oriental sweetgum (Liquidambar orientalis), and Asiatic birch (Betula albo-sinensis). As population grew, that many more people enhanced their yards with gardens and trees. We now have a full-time Arborist to oversee and care for the thousands of street-trees, most of which have been planted on arterials in the last decade.
    We will now consider a selection of parks on Seattle particularly noteworthy for outstanding trees, especially BIG ones. When we claim that a certain park has the largest individual of a certain kind of tree, we are relying on what we have observed in Seattle; in some cases it could very well be that yet larger trees exist. Also, note that the size of a tree is a measurement not only of the height, but also of the thickness of the trunk and the spread of the branches. So while a very tall and slender tree might be the tallest, another tree could still be called the largest.
    SCHMITZ PRESERVE PARK, 50 acres of forested ravines in West Seattle not far from historic Alki Point, is cited on Kroll's map of Seattle as "The only virgin forest tract in any western city." But this is neither the only tract of land with virgin old-growth trees, nor necessarily the best. Like the other parks in town that have some old-growth trees, Schmitz Park was partly logged and contains some non-native trees and other introduced plants. It has the biggest and tallest grand firs (Abies grandis) in Seattle, in the vicinity of the parking lot. Professor Krishna Rustagi (of the University of Washington's College of Forest Resources) and I established one such tree (the top of which recently dropped all of its needles) as about 185 feet in height. The thickest trunk is over 5 feet in diameter (died). Schmitz Park also has the city's largest hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), with a trunk diameter exceeding 3.5 feet, and western red cedars of a size only matched by some at Seward Park. Some of these have trunks so hollowed out by rot and fire that a person can walk through the tree --in one side and out the other. A significant percentage of towering old Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga Menziesii) at Schmitz and other parks have dead or broken tops. Observing the thickness of the trunks at the point where the tops were lost to the wind, it is obvious that some of the trees once stood 300 feet tall or more.
    LINCOLN PARK in southwest Seattle, is large and rich in trees, both native and non-native. It has a few impressive Douglas firs which are remnants of the old-growth forest. The largest is near the north end of the park, about 20 yards from the beach. In general the steep hillside is forested with native trees, while the top, flat part of the park has natives plus numerous introduced trees. Especially interesting are its rare hardy rubber trees (Eucommia ulmoides), yellow-woods (Cladrastis lutea), goldenrains (Koelreuteria paniculata), gigantic English yews (Taxus baccata) (actually Pacific yews, Taxus brevifolia, one of which died), and Japanese red pines (Pinus densiflora) (actually Scots Pines, Pinus sylvestris). Although most of the other trees in this park are only average in size, their variety and the manner in which they were planted in groves makes for a fine collection of trees.
    SEWARD PARK is the 275 acres of Lake Washington's Bailey Peninsula, facing Mercer Island. Quite a few of its trees have been cut, but a significant portion of the park is still essentially old-growth forest. A pair of ospreys were nesting there recently. Several different forest types are represented at Seward Park: coniferous forest of Douglas Fir, western red cedar, hemlock, and yew; broadleaf forest of maple and cherry; wetlands with ash, cottonwood, alder, and willows and dry bluff with oak and madrona. Many non-natives are planted here, especially are the perimeter of the park. Because of Seward Park's size and unusual diversity, it is fair to call it Seattle's best park for trees. It has a Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) 64 feet tall, with a trunk nearly 2.5 feet in diameter. As this is probably the region's slowest-growing tree, it must have taken several centuries to attain that size (died). A Scouler willow (Salix Scouleriana), is slightly larger (died). This willow is one of the fastest-growing species in our region. As in the case of the yew, records of larger specimens are extremely rare. In part of the dense forest madronas raise up straight trunks about 100 feet tall. There are also some very large hemlocks (Tsuga heterophylla) and Douglas firs, a few of which have their trunks ensheathed with poison oak (Rhus diversiloba) to a height of 75 feet.
    MARTHA WASHINGTON PARK is close to Seward Park, but most people have never heard of it and most maps do not show its 10 acres at the end of 55th Avenue South on Lake Washington. It has huge, noble and picturesque madronas (Arbutus Menziesii) and Oregon white oaks (Quercus Garryana) several centuries old. At only 75 feet, their heights are not spectacular, but the mammoth size of their trunks and limbs must be seen to be believed (the largest madrona--shown in the above photo by Garth Ferber--and oak, died). Some unusually large non-natives have also attained great size (in Seattle's context), the California laurel (Umbellularia californica) (cut down) and Austrian Pine (Pinus nigra). An old orchard supplies cherries and apples in the summer.
    LESCHI PARK is a small old park near Lake Washington, a mile north of the Mercer Island Bridge. Most of its trees are non-native and of significant size. Several are close to, or over 100 feet in height: bigtree (Sequoiadendron giganteum), silver maple (Acer saccharinum) (died), tuliptree (Liriodendron Tulipifera), and sawara cypress (Chamæcyparis pisifera). A rare hiba arborvitæ (Thujopsis dolabrata) is 50 feet tall, an Oriental arborvitæ (Thuja orientalis) is 25 feet tall, and fair-sized American elms (Ulmus americana) (actually European White Elms, Ulmus lævis), European beech (Fagus sylvatica), English maple (Acer campestre), witch hazel (Hamamelis) and Caucasian fir (Abies Nordmanniana) are present too. The size of the trees is mostly due to their unusual age --nearly 100 years for the oldest.
    THE WASHINGTON PARK ARBORETUM has countless non-native trees which are rare elsewhere in Seattle, and it also has some native trees of record size in the city: a Pacific crabapple (Malus fusca) about 50 feet tall, and a vine maple (Acer circinatum) with a single trunk over a foot thick. In general its biggest, oldest and most impressive non-natives are those along the boulevard which cuts through the park. Regular classes about trees are offered, and guided tours conducted to see them.
    BOREN/INTERLAKEN PARK consists of the forested ravines of the northeastern slope of Capitol Hill. A boulevard meanders through and connects with the western part of the Arboretum. Some 140 different kinds of trees grow in these parks. Boren Park is a very special 6-acre ravine within Interlaken Park. In this secluded and rarely visited ravine grow the city's tallest cottonwoods (Populus trichocarpa, 140 feet tall), Pacific willow (Salix lasiandra, 70 feet tall) (died), and cascara (Rhamnus Purshiana, 60 feet tall) (fell over). Some of the maples easily exceed 100 feet in height; one has a trunk approximately 24 feet in circumference (died)! Wildflowers like bleeding heart (Dicentra), Trillium, wild ginger (Asarum caudatum), enchanter's nightshade (Circæa alpina) and fringecups (Tellima grandiflora) also grow here in great luxuriance.
    The rest of Interlaken Park also has notable trees, both native and non-native: western red cedars spared by the loggers, hemlocks infested with dwarf-mistletoe (Arceuthobium), California hazels (Corylus cornuta var. californica) over 40 feet tall --a size unreported anywhere else; a 90-foot Mazzard cherry (Prunus avium), a 75-foot China-fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata) (top broke off), a 65-foot mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) (died), and a 130-foot redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). Others are gigantic trees of Norway maple (Acer platanoides), English laurel (Prunus Laurocerasus) (cut down) and crack willow (Salix fragilis) (actually a hybrid; and it died). Perhaps no park in Seattle is so rich in trees yet so little known. Nowhere is there a sign giving the name of this park (now there are some).
    DISCOVERY PARK, at over 500 acres, is Seattle's largest park. It has the city's biggest dogwood (Cornus Nuttallii) (died) and bitter cherries (Prunus emarginata) (died), along with fine alders and maples. A great many non-native trees are represented, some of which are outstanding, such as the ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa) and an apple tree over 70 feet tall (blew down), drilled from top to bottom by a sapsucker. Many programs, classes, and some publications are offered --all to help people understand and appreciate the environment.
    GOLDEN GARDENS PARK is known primarily as a saltwater park near Shilshole Bay. A fair forest mostly of native trees, including some possible old-growth, covers the steep unstable hillside above the railroad tracks. The tree which makes the park so special is a red alder (Alnus rubra) with a tremendous trunk very nearly 5 feet in diameter (cut down by Burlington Northern in 1996). Certainly one of the most spectacular trees in the city, it has no peers. It is near the railroad tracks right at the park's northern boundary.
    CARKEEK PARK, in northwestern Seattle, has strikingly beautiful woods, both deciduous and evergreen. The loggers left a few maples, and one such tree qualifies as having the thickest trunk of any tree in Seattle. Several mammoth forks arise from its basal trunk of about 30 feet in circumference! (actually about 29 feet in 2001) The tree is perched on the edge of a nearly vertical hillside above the field for model airplanes.
    O.O. DENNY PARK is a Seattle city park that happens to be on the east side of lake Washington, about one mile south of St. Edward's State Park, in Juanita. This little-known park is significant for a Douglas Fir which is not merely the biggest tree in Seattle, but possibly in King County. A plaque at the base of the trunk gives the height at 255 feet, age nearly 600 years, and trunk circumference almost 27 feet (died). To see this giant you must follow a muddy trail up a wild ravine, where big birds of prey such as hawks and eagles are seen, some nesting. It is worth visiting!

Tales of Tall Trees
    How many cities the size of Seattle have tree over 250 feet tall? Since nature has forested the Pacific Northwest with unusually tall conifers, perhaps we take for granted our giant trees --trees far bigger than most people elsewhere have. Of only 16 kinds of trees in North America which have been known to attain 250 feet or more, all but two (eastern white Pine and giant sequoia, the bigtree) are native to Washington or Oregon. Previously, the tallest tree known in Europe was a Norway spruce 215 feet tall; now the tallest is an imported Douglas fir nearing 200 feet!
    So the Pacific Northwest is indeed singled out. Beyond doubt no other region's conifers can match ours. Nor do we lack in record-breaking tall broadleaf trees, since our black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) has been scaled at 225 feet --taller than any other deciduous tree recorded. Why is the area blessed with so many unusually tall trees? Conducive environmental conditions provide a reasonable answer: the warmth, moisture and cloud cover; the monumental action of glaciers and volcanoes has created a very hilly terrain with valleys which protect trees from blasting wind, allowing for luxuriant growth. The combination of sufficient moisture, comparatively mild winters and glacial soil has ensured the supremacy of conifers in the Pacific Northwest. Not only the native trees, but also most introduced ones grow well given these conditions.
    Seattle is particularly rich in trees first because it has a good climate, then because not all of its old-growth was logged, and finally because it has an enviable and diverse park system. For many who appreciate and admire trees, a 600-foot skyscraper or Space Needle is no more impressive than a tree over 100 feet in height, in which the city abounds. Few structures in Seattle today can match the centuries-old trees in age. Throughout the city are great trees, some in the parks we have discussed, some in other parks and places. As Thoreau wrote about his vicinity, we can observe for Seattle:

". . . I see that all is not garden and cultivated field and crops, that there are square rods in Middlesex County as purely primitive and wild as they were a thousand years ago, which have escaped the plow and the axe and the scythe and the cranberry-rake, little oases of wildness in the desert of our civilization, wild as a square rod on the moon . . ." August 30, 1856

    The accompanying photographs (not reproduced on this website) hint at this natural heritage in the Emerald City, but to fully appreciate their magnificence we must turn to the trees as they are, in the parks all around us.

ADDRESSES OF THE PARKS
Schmitz Preserve Park: Admiral Way SW and SW Stevens St
Lincoln Park: Fauntleroy Way SW and SW Webster St
Seward Park: Lake Washington Blvd. S & S Juneau St
Martha Washington Park: 6612 57th Ave S
Leschi Park: Lakeside Ave S between Blaine Blvd. and S Main St
Washington Park Arboretum: E Madison St and Lake Washington Blvd. E
Boren/Interlaken Park: Interlaken Blvd. E from Lake Washington Blvd. E to E Roanoke St
Discovery Park: 36th Ave W and W Government Way
Golden Gardens Park: the north end of Seaview Ave NW
Carkeek Park: NW 110th St, west of 3rd Ave NW
O.O. Denny Park: 12032 Holmes Point Drive in Juanita/Kirkland

NATIVE TREES CURRENTLY WILD WITHIN THE CITY LIMITS OF SEATTLE
ALDER, Red (Alnus rubra)
ALDER, Sitka (Alnus sinuata)
ASH, Oregon (Fraxinus latifolia)
BIRCH, Paper (Betula papyrifera)
CASCARA (Rhamnus Purshiana)
CEDAR, Western Red (Thuja plicata)
CHERRY, Bitter (Prunus emarginata)
COTTONWOOD, Black (Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa)
CRAB-APPLE, Pacific (Malus fusca)
DOGWOOD, Pacific (Cornus Nuttallii)
FIR, Douglas (Pseudotsuga Menziesii)
FIR, Grand (Abies grandis)
HAZEL, California (Corylus cornuta var. californica)
HAWTHORN, Black (Cratægus Douglasii)
HEMLOCK, Western (Tsuga heterophylla)
MADRONA (Arbutus Menziesii)
MAPLE, Bigleaf (Acer macrophyllum)
MAPLE, Dwarf or Rocky Mt. (Acer glabrum var. Douglasii)
MAPLE, Vine (Acer circinatum)
OAK, Oregon White or Garry (Quercus Garryana)
PINE, Lodgepole/Shore (Pinus contorta)
PINE, Western White (Pinus monticola)
SERVICEBERRY, Western (Amelanchier alnifolia)
SPRUCE, Sitka (Picea sitchensis)
WILLOW, Geyer (Salix Geyeriana var. meleina)
WILLOW, Mackenzie (Salix eriocephala ssp. mackenzieana)
WILLOW, Pacific Black (Salix lucida ssp. lasiandra)
WILLOW, Hooker Pussy- (Salix Hookeriana)
WILLOW, Piper Pussy- (Salix Piperi)
WILLOW, Scouler Pussy- (Salix Scouleriana)
WILLOW, Sitka Pussy- (Salix sitchensis)
YEW, Pacific (Taxus brevifolia)

    In addition, Quaking ASPEN (Populus tremuloides) was once native in Seattle, but all the living individuals now in the city limits have been planted.

NON-NATIVE TREES NATURALIZED ON A LARGE SCALE WITHIN THE CITY LIMITS OF SEATTLE
APPLE (Malus domestica)
BIRCH, Downy (Betula pubescens)
BIRCH, European White (Betula pendula)
CHERRY, Black (Prunus serotina)
CHERRY, Mazzard (Prunus avium)
ELM, English (Ulmus minor var. vulgaris = U. procera) via root-suckers
GOLDENCHAIN (Laburnum anagyroides)
HAWTHORN, Common (Cratægus monogyna)
HOLLY, English (Ilex Aquifolium)
HORNBEAM, European (Carpinus Betulus)
HORSECHESTNUT (Æsculus Hippocastanum)
LAUREL, English (Prunus Laurocerasus)
LAUREL, Portugal (Prunus lusitanica)
LOCUST, Black (Robinia Pseudoacacia)
MAPLE, Norway (Acer platanoides)
MAPLE, Sycamore (Acer Pseudoplatanus)
MOUNTAIN ASH, European (Sorbus aucuparia)
MYRTLE, Oregon or California LAUREL (Umbellularia californica)
OAK, English (Quercus robur)
PEAR (Pyrus communis)
PLUM, Cherry (Prunus cerasifera)
POPLAR, Lombardy (Populus nigra 'Italica') via root-suckers
POPLAR, White (Populus alba 'Nivea') via root-suckers
TREE OF HEAVEN (Ailanthus altissima)
YEW, English (Taxus baccata)

(Originally published in the Winter 1982 University of Washington Arboretum Bulletin. Since then many of the trees cited have died, as indicated in the red parenthetic notes. I also have updated the tree lists at the end.)

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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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