Portland, Oregon, is home to many naturally wonderful sites from Mount Hood to Forest Park to the Willamette River and beyond. But wherever you wander the one thing you can always find is a magnificent tree. You might catch a glimpse of a grandiose oak on your neighbor’s front lawn or find the best climbing tree in your favorite park across town. In fact, Portlanders appreciate their trees so much that in 1993 the City Council passed the Heritage Tree code to promote and protect the finest trees in the region.
The Heritage Tree designation is assigned to trees based on the importance to the city because of their age, size, type, historical association, or horticultural value. The Urban Forestry Commission is responsible for recommending and approving future Heritage Trees, but often it’s a Portland arborist and residents like you and me who submit their own trees for designation.
Once a tree is chosen as a Heritage Tree it is affixed with a sign and listed on the official docket to protect said tree. To date, there are over 300 Heritage Trees throughout the city.
There are so many magnificent trees in Portland it is difficult to pick a favorite, but here are some of the most famous Heritage Trees to be found throughout Rip City.
The Beech at Portland State Library
Let’s start in front of the Portland State University Library where you will find a magnificent European Copper Beech, or Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea. This tree was added to the Heritage Tree list in 1995, but dates back to the 1890s. Students and passer-bys alike often stop to marvel at the impressive tree as they approach the window-filled entrance to the library. However, it was not the stature of the tree that landed it among the city’s favorites. “The history of this tree is a fine example of how trees are some of our best long-term architectural investments in the city.”
The Watson family originally planted the tree that now overlooks PSU. Joseph Franklin Frank Watson, a Massachusetts-based merchant moved to Portland in 1871 and became a partner in Smith & Watson Iron Works, a firm producing many of the city’s cast iron storefronts and fire hydrants. It was around 1890 when Frank, his wife Mary, and their two kids moved into a new house on the corner of Hall and Park around which time one of them planted the now-famous beech.
The Watsons eventually moved and others moved in and out of the home as well until 1965 when Portland State purchased the home and demolished it to build the college library. It’s unknown why they kept the beech tree intact as there was no Portland arborist to jump in and save the storied tree, but it has long been a favorite feature on campus.
The London Street Tree
It was no surprise to learn that business owner Sylvester Farrell planted one of the many historic trees that still line the streets of Portland as prominent homeowners were often adding greenery to their neighborhoods. This is the story of the London Planetree, Plantanus x acerifolia.
Farrell was the owner of a feed and grocery store on Front and SW Alder with his business partner Richard Everding and served on the Portland City Council, as well as various community civic organizations. However, it was in front of his three-bedroom home on SW Park and Main where he chose to plant the tree that is still so well loved that it was second to be marked as a Heritage Tree. Originally planted in 1880, it was allegedly a gift from U.S. Senator J.N. Dolph.
While Portland is still regularly known as Stumptown due to early merchants cutting and clearing the forest, leaving only mud and stumps behind, this tree and many others show that there was another side to our booming city. In fact, while trees were indeed cleared to make room for industrialization, many 19th century settlers actually planted trees. As the city says, “If Portland was Stumptown, it quickly became Treetown!”
The Lincoln High Walnut
Ask any current or former student of Lincoln High School about the large Black Walnut, or Juglans nigra, and they will likely have a story to share. The tree fills so many locals with wonderful memories, but it has been making memories with Portlanders since the 1880s.
Years before there was ever a high school on the land that is now home to Lincoln, stood the newly constructed home of Jacob Kamm. Kamm was originally an immigrant from Switzerland and was a steamship engineer on the Sacramento River during the California gold rush of 1849. He moved to Oregon in 1850 eventually forming the Oregon Steam and Navigation Company. His fortune allowed him to build the home of his dreams, a mansion in the French Second Empire style.
Through the work of an early historic preservationist, Eric Ladd, the house was saved and moved to its current home on SW 20th, but the tree could not be relocated. It still remains in the same spot it was planted more than 100 years ago.
The Twin Elms
The English Elm, Ulmus minor var. vulgaris, and neighboring Dutch Elm, Ulmus x hollandica, are the only two Elms on Flanders Street to survive the 1962 Columbus Day Storm, the most devastating natural disaster in recorded Oregon history costing $5 billion and claiming 50 lives. The storm reached the power of a category three hurricane destroying Portland’s urban forest.
Then, a year later, the Dutch Elm was in jeopardy once again when the property owner wanted it removed because he was concerned with root intrusion. Thankfully, concerned citizens protested the removal and architect Lewis Cruncher even parked his car right next to the tree so it could not be cut down. Eventually, public pressure, press coverage, and research by a Portland arborist saved the tree.
“Heritage Trees embody our ideals, actions and environments at a given time in the past,” so whether you are a history buff, are looking for a new route to run, or want to take the family on a fun, free adventure, check out the many celebrated trees in Portland.
Click here for a free ten stop Heritage Tree walking tour guide.