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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Trees that are centuries old help tell story of Spokane

UPDATED: Mon., May 20, 2019

Jeff Perry, Spokane Parks and Recreation Department lead arborist, visits a white willow tree on May 1, 2019, at the Finch Arboretum in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Jeff Perry, Spokane Parks and Recreation Department lead arborist, visits a white willow tree on May 1, 2019, at the Finch Arboretum in Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

When Jeff Perry wraps his arms around a Douglas fir growing out of the edge of an Indian Canyon Park cliff, his limbs only span about a third of the tree.

Perry, a city arborist, estimates the tree is one of the region’s oldest surviving firs, at around 400 years old. The tree is one of three ancient Douglas firs overlooking Mystic Falls, and just a short walk away from Chief Spokane Garry’s final campsite. He said it’s difficult to measure, because it’s holding together the edge of a cliff.

He said the Indian Canyon’s three ancient Douglas firs are far too big to be logged, and their only value now is their presence in the undeveloped park.

“It has way more value as a living tree here, than it does as lumber.” he said. “It’s very important to this area.”

Before Chief Garry died in 1892, he likely walked among trees that were far older than those Douglas firs, but after generations of logging, industry and fire prevention in the Spokane area, many of those ancient trees have been replaced by smaller, crowded ponderosa pines and non-native species.

The remaining ancient trees in Spokane are only left because a landowner wanted to protect them, or they were too difficult to log, said Jack Nisbet, a Spokane naturalist and author.

“Anything that was easy to get to is gone,” he said.

Nisbet said the trunks of the Douglas firs in Indian Canyon Park taper sharply, making them undesirable for logging. Loggers looked for straight logs in accessible areas, and took most of those trees for the logging industry, or to build Spokane.

People looking for trees that are hundreds of years old can still find them on the South Hill bluffs, on Mount Spokane, as well as in the Mica Peak and Dishman Hills areas. He said many of the oldest trees around Spokane are not the biggest, because growing conditions, maintenance and species dramatically affect how big a tree can get.

Ponderosas that were planted in the past century may be bigger than the older trees because the trees that existed before that were passed over by loggers because they had issues, or were growing in harsh habitats.

“Trees don’t conform to what we think about,” he said. “They’re all very individual.”

He said many of the trees that replaced them, some of which are state champions for their species, were planted because they were comfort trees to the Europeans who moved to the area. Norway maples, the most common tree in Spokane, were a go-to for many Scandanavian settlers moving to the area, and variations of maples are still popular.

“It’s like eating the comfort food you grew up with,” Nisbet said. “Oatmeal tastes good because it’s what you had when you were little.”

Tim Kohlhauff, the urban horticulture coordinator at Washington State University Spokane, said people’s attitudes toward trees has changed dramatically over the years. He said early European immigrants brought in trees that had a practical use, such as fruit-bearing trees or locust trees, which were used for firewood and fence posts, but later became ornamental and shade trees.

“You could probably tell a little bit of the history of an area by the trees that are planted,” he said.

Perry said Finch Arboretum is the home of several unique, or state champion trees planted in the past century. One of the more well-known trees in the city’s park system, the white willow tree, is the biggest of its kind in the state. A woman once stopped by the the arboretum and told parks staff that her family planted it in their backyard more than 90 years ago, when much of the area was housing and not a park. The tree probably has around 30 years of life left, and will start to split and slowly fall over, Perry said. In the wild when willow trees split, the fallen limbs grow into new trees.

Other trees in the park, such as the two dawn redwood trees, are some of the oldest in existence. Dawn redwoods were thought to be extinct for millions of years, but a living specimen was discovered in China in 1943. Seeds were sent to American universities and Spokane received three of the first trees in the 1950s, though only two survived.

Dawn redwoods are also on the city’s list of “street trees” which grow on the strip of grass between a road and sidewalk, and there are a few younger specimens scattered throughout town, Perry said.

Maples are no longer on the approved street tree list because of concerns over a lack of biodiversity: Diseases or insects that successfully attack maples increase the chances of a massive tree die-off if only maples are planted. However, many homeowners still want maple trees in their yards, Kohlhauff said. He said people moving from Western Washington often have fond memories of vine maples, and want them outside of their homes. He said maples are still a comfort tree for many, and others prefer dwarf Alberta spruce, because they look like Christmas trees.

Kohlhauff said customers who come into the WSU plant clinic are also asking for far different advice than they were a decade ago. He said he has noticed a shift that many are wanting to preserve the trees that were there before them, especially native species, and some still want to plant completely new varieties.

He said many people, especially young people, attending the plant clinics are now asking for gardening advice, or how to cultivate fruit-bearing trees. After the 2008 recession, people returned to wanting practical trees, and looking to get the best use out of their land.

“I think it goes in cycles, where we appreciate what we have and then there’s that longing for novelty,” he said.

This story was changed on May 20, 2019 to correct the spelling of author Jack Nisbet’s name.

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