Here in Portland, it's easy to take our lush, vibrant urban tree canopy for granted. We might live in a metropolitan hub, but a 15-minute drive in almost any direction will take you to the edge of greenery, meaning you can enjoy both your Sunday morning forested hike and your Sunday morning city brunch with ease. With the spread of COVID-19, the brunch might have to wait, but walking among the trees is one of the few pastimes we can still partake in—with appropriate social distancing, of course.
Portland trees are the gift that keeps on giving, and not just for their aesthetic value. As temperatures rise, they shield communities from oppressive heat by storing and absorbing carbon. They protect our bodies by filtering the air we breathe and cleaning the water we drink. And they might even up your kid's SAT score without having to cut a check for a tutor—some studies have shown that when there are more trees in schoolyards, students achieve higher test scores and are primed for long-term academic success. Basically, the more trees we plant, the more benefits we reap. This is why nonprofit organizations the Nature Conservancy and Friends of Trees have teamed up to spread the green message, encouraging Portlanders to volunteer their time to plant trees in the metro area. Learn more about their work and how you can help at yaytreess.org. For those who can't tell the difference between a poplar and a pine, we've done the work for you—here are five of our favorite trees that call Portland home.
There's a reason why the Japanese maple holds a certain amount of celebrity in the botany world. Throughout the seasons, the tree remains visually striking—thin, curling branches sprawl out in every direction with rich, red-toned leaves that filter in light from sunrise to sunset. A weekend trip to Portland's Japanese Garden will give you a close-up look at one of these beauties, as well as an intimate reflection on the healing power of nature. The garden formally opened to the public in 1967, the product of a cultural exchange between Mayor Terry Schrunk and Japanese landscape architect Takuma Tono. In the years following World War II, Japanese gardens were used nationwide to foster kinship between the U.S. and Japan, a way to bridge cultural division with the universality of the environment. A tree like the Japanese maple needs no translation, with a beauty that transcends culture.
Oregon White Oak
To fully appreciate the appeal of the Oregon white oak, you have to look up. The local tree can sprout up to 100 feet, suggesting that the hardwood might be older than the city of Portland itself. Before European settlement, Native Americans in the Willamette Valley set fires to manage their agricultural production, promoting the growth of berries and acorns while suppressing the land plants that would compete for oak habitat. What resulted was the building blocks of Indigenous trade ecology, as communities gathered, processed and traded acorns plucked from the white oak's branches. Even through the pressures of urban development, the white oak has persisted in Portland, soaring over homes and parks across the city.
The Douglas fir is as much a local favorite as it is an integral part of Oregon's environmental fabric. Recognized as the state tree in 1936, the Douglas fir looks something like a supersized Christmas tree, with old growth that can grow up to 300 feet tall. Take a trip over to Forest Park, one of the largest urban forests in the nation, and you'll find what is said to be the tallest tree in the Portland area: a Douglas fir standing at 242 feet with a trunk 18.6 feet in circumference. Should you take it upon yourself to plant a tree in your own backyard, rest assured that your efforts will be less imposing—homegrown firs tend only to grow about 40 feet tall.
While katsura trees are native to Japan, they hold a distinct place in Portland's ecological history. In 1954, landscape architects Elizabeth Lord and Edith Schryver planted the tree in front of the Portland Garden Club, an organization committed to addressing citywide issues through beautification projects. According to the organization, cities are natural playgrounds for healthy, active communities—not just concrete hubs for economic activity. Here, the idea for the "community garden" was born. Because the benefits of trees are localized, they can be planted strategically in areas like schools and hospitals to increase air quality, negating the harmful effects of urban pollution. Today, the katsura tree and its small, heart-shaped leaves can be seen by all at Laurelhurst Park.
In 1973, the Oregon Historical Society suggested that trees—not just buildings—should be preserved as historic landmarks. By 1975, the Burrell elm became Portland's first "protected" tree, and in 1993 this status assumed legal weight with the creation of the Heritage Tree ordinance. The tree's legal protection meant that any construction or development affecting growth required prior approval by the city forester—in other words, the Burrell elm isn't your run-of-the-mill street tree. Twenty years later, the Heritage Tree ordinance continues to operate in the city, compiling an annual list of trees protected by local government for their remarkable age, size, historical association or horticultural value. And you never know, a tree planted today may very well make the cut a few decades from now, so it's always a good time to start digging.
Header image Burrell Elm, on SW 10th Avenue.
Learn more about how you can help at yaytrees.org.