Arbor Day originated in Nebraska in 1872 as a way to encourage planting of trees that would beautify the landscape, slow winds sweeping...

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Arbor Day originated in Nebraska in 1872 as a way to encourage planting of trees that would beautify the landscape, slow winds sweeping across treeless plain and provide shade from the relentless sun.

The Puget Sound area doesn’t face quite the same challenges, but the moist and temperate climate makes it home to scores of native trees and a friendly host to species from around the globe.

Washington celebrates Arbor Day the second Wednesday of April (next Wednesday), and the national celebration is the last Friday in April (April 29 this year). Get inspired for your own tree-planting with this story about an honor roll of Seattle trees. Then use the map on the next page to get a closer look at these neighbors of many needles, monster leaves, wide-spreading branches and towering treetops.

The stories about the black-walnut tree in 84-year-old Vivian McLean’s West Seattle back yard span generations. Among them, epic climbs by McLean children among its sturdy limbs, the day a barefoot dancer twirled beneath the summer leaves to bongo drums during a family wedding, and, more recently, a boisterous spring gathering in 1998 to celebrate the walnut’s new status as a Seattle Heritage Tree.

Interactive map of Heritage trees

A hit-parade of Seattle trees

“It’s the biggest tree in the neighborhood except for a couple of firs,” says McLean. “It has character.”

The homeowner jumped at the chance to honor the tree when she heard about the then-new Heritage Tree Program, a cooperative venture between the nonprofit Plant Amnesty group and the Seattle Department of Transportation. At the dedication ceremony, guests donned boating hats and bowlers, speechified, and toasted the tree’s health with glasses of sparkling apple cider. A stone and bronze plaque crafted at the Cleveland High School foundry was installed at the walnut’s base, eulogizing its many qualities.


One of Seattle’s 24 surviving Heritage Trees, this double-trunked Giant Sequoia in the Magnolia area is owned by Paul Shure and Bonnie Douglas.

The Heritage designation, so far granted to 26 individual Seattle trees, celebrates specimens that are unusual in size, form, rarity or history, or landmarks in the community. Only one honored tree, a giant madrona, has died.

The program has also recognized two notable Seattle tree collections at the Washington Park Arboretum and Volunteer Park. Trees are usually nominated by members of the public such as the homeowner or a neighbor, rather than by tree professionals. Promising candidates are visited by an arborist and reviewed by a committee of experts. Trees may be on private property, as McLean’s, or in a park or other public place, and they must be deemed healthy and safe. The owner of the tree (whether public or private) must approve the designation. Fewer than one-quarter of nominated trees gain the status.

Owners receive a framed certificate, a copy of “City Among the Trees,” a 200-page book on urban forestry published by the City of Seattle, and an owner’s manual to help care for the tree. A report card is sent regularly to keep track of the tree’s health, and an arborist will visit to check signs of danger or disease. The designation does not currently protect the tree from cutting by current or future owners, but a voluntary conservation easement is available.

A tree for every taste

There’s a refreshing diversity among this elite group. A rare Japanese umbrella pine greens up a Central District church parking lot, and a fruiting pear in a University District alley seems to float in spring blossoms. Some of the trees are breathtaking, such as an enormous weeping willow near Seattle Community College that sprawls like a shaggy yellow dog; others, like a Ballard big-leaf maple, are big old neighborhood landmarks.

North of Green Lake, two towering trees, a ponderosa pine and a giant sequoia, dwarf a small Craftsman home, while on Capitol Hill a tall, elegant tulip tree fits right in on a street of grand old homes.

If you go

More about trees

For more information on the Heritage Tree Program:

Plant Amnesty, 206-783-9813 or Can also provide advice and referrals for tree pruning and selection.

Seattle Department of Transportation Heritage Tree Program, 206-684-5008 or

Books and Web links

“Trees of Seattle” by Arthur Lee Jacobson (Sasquatch Books, 1989) is out of print but available from the library. A revised edition is due out in 2006. The author’s Web site offers articles and other information on local trees, including lists of recommended trees for planting:

“Champion Trees of Washington State” by Robert Van Pelt (University of Washington Press, 1996) lists some champion trees in the city and state, for wandering farther afield. It’s in print, currently being revised. Van Pelt’s Web site:

A national nonprofit organization, American Forests, maintains the National Register of Big Trees, which includes the biggest trees of all native and naturalized tree species.

Where to buy unusual trees

If you can’t find what you want at your local nursery, tree experts suggest these sources for unusual varieties or native tree specimens:

Colvos Creek Nursery, Vashon Island, or 206-749-9508

Heronswood Nursery, Kingston, Kitsap County, or 360-297-4172

Forest Farm, Williams, Ore., or 541-846-7269

What they have in common, besides photosynthesis, are people who love them. Kay Rood nominated the Chinese Scholar Tree at Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill after years of admiring its sculptural limbs and fall blooms from her front porch. Darlene and Gary Blurton felt at home with their willow, the largest in a grove of them, even before they moved from down the street and took residence in their 1905 farmhouse with its verdant yard. “Our kids came down and climbed the trees,” says Darlene Blurton. “When we moved here we almost felt that they had been our trees.” This tree, too, has officiated at a wedding, and provides a home for wildlife.

Unsung trees

For every passionate Heritage Tree owner in the city, however, there are probably a dozen more who have a favorite tree but have never heard of the honor. Because of this, many of Seattle’s grandest trees go unrecognized.

“There are so many good things. I wouldn’t know where to end if I nominated,” says Arthur Lee Jacobson, noted plant authority and author of “Trees of Seattle,” a comprehensive guide to 740 varieties of trees found in the city. “No city has more different kinds of trees than Seattle does.” There is everything, he says, from 300-year-old firs to oaks, elms, palm and eucalyptus trees, and a huge variety of flowering fruit trees, with more than 100 different varieties of crabapple alone.

The author has worked on the Heritage review committee and written text for the plaques. Asked how a person might decide which trees on their property or in public spaces might be good candidates, Jacobson says health, age, size and historical significance are all important considerations. The status may help protect a tree by bringing attention to it. “It elevates the tree,” he says. “It’s a positive way to let people know some trees are deemed special.”

Not that the tree boosters need a reminder.

Says Vivian McLean, “When you stand beneath that tree when the moon comes and it’s a nice night and you look up and see the beauty and strength of those trunks and limbs. Well, it makes me feel safe and happy.”

Maria Dolan is a regular contributor to Northwest Weekend and co-author of “Nature in the City: Seattle” (The Mountaineers Books, 2003).