Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
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Adams School Planetree June 1990

giant Pissard plum tree March 1988

Special Ballard Trees

It is utter rot that Ballard is destitute of old, rare or special trees. Plenty of great trees grew here even before ReTree Ballard energized the place by preaching the gospel of trees (between 1992 and 1995). Trees of diverse kinds and ages beautify Ballard, some of them far more interesting than you might guess. Spring is a lovely time to admire trees. The air is cool, all is fresh, and summer's searing heat is yet to come.
    These days, citizens are forming Heritage or Landmark Tree committees, and city planners are implementing tree-preservation laws. Groups such as PlantAmnesty (Ballard-based) and TREEmendous Seattle (absorbed by Earthcorps in 2001) are flourishing. Back in 1988, before my book Trees of Seattle was published, I started to list noteworthy Ballard trees. Although everyone tends to have his or her own special favorites, there are certain Ballard trees of citywide importance. Categories of noteworthy trees can be as few or as many as anyone chooses. I like to divide them into into 7 major groups.

1. Old Trees
    Ballard was essentially clearcut, so the only trees still alive today that began their life before Seattle was founded in the 1850s, are a few cedars and firs ignored by loggers in what is now Golden Gardens Park. In pioneer days, trees were more than plentiful, they were ubiquitous, at once both a nuisance and a vital commodity. Minor blemishes such as fire scars or partly hollow trunks therefore were often the salvation of trees --loggers could afford to be picky.
    Early residents of the raw, developing Ballard eagerly planted trees to soften the barren expanse, to provide shade and fruit, to increase property values. But many such trees have since been cut. What are the oldest planted Ballard trees? Are any aged certainly more than 100 years? Probably there are some fruit and nut trees. Does anyone know?

2. Big Trees
    Champion-sized trees are easy to note. They are simply the tallest, widest, or stoutest-trunked specimens of their kind in any given neighborhood, city, state or even the world. Disregarding species that are merely the biggest in Seattle, Ballard has some of greater renown. In fact, the Washington State Big Tree program coordinator is a Ballardite --Robert Van Pelt, living a stone's throw from the champion chinquapin oak (Quercus Muhlenbergii) at Loyal Heights Playfield. There are too many Ballard trees of purely local champion size to detail in this article. But a few champions ought to be singled out.
    Purpleleaf plum (Prunus cerasifera 'Pissardii') originated in Iran, and was introduced to North America by way of France more than 100 years ago. At the west end of 85th street, in a private yard on 32nd, grows an enormous plum tree. In 1987 it measured 48 feet tall, 57 feet wide, its trunk 7'4" around (PHOTO ABOVE). Seattle has more of these purpleleaf plums than anywhere else, for some reason (I have no idea). So it is fitting we have such a monstrous huge one. In March it is supremely attractive with thousands of delicate pinkish-white blossoms. Then its bronzy-purple foliage darkens the landscape until autumn.
    A bit north to be called Ballard proper, not far from Carkeek Park, at 815 NW 116th Street, is what may be the country's largest Chilean fire tree (Embothrium coccineum). Native to Chile and Argentina, this specimen planted in the Ralph Jacobson garden in 1955 was 48 feet tall and 19 feet wide in 1989; smaller specimens exist elsewhere in Ballard. These spectacular trees add a welcome splash of tropical color to our northern lives. They give rise to shocking scarlet flowers in May and early June, very attractive to hummingbirds.
    A third champion tree grows at the locks. Most people know the locks as a place where boats and fish negotiate in and out of our freshwater lakes, and sea lions have lunch. Well, to tree-huggers and flower lovers, the gardens around the facility are an end unto themselves, full of diverse, charming beauties. Primary credit for the development of the locks into a horticultural mecca goes to Ballardite Carl English (1904 - 1976), a man of unbridled enthusiasm, generosity and energy. He brought and imported seeds and starts of thousands of plants, many never before tested in Seattle.
    As a result, an impressive list of noteworthy trees grow at the locks. Many are among Seattle's or Washington's largest. The California buckeye (Æsculus californica), 38 feet tall and 45 feet wide in 1989, may be the largest outside of California. It bears elegant dense narrow clusters of pink-tinged flowers from late June into mid-August, followed by large nutlike seed capsules whose dark shiny seeds peep out like buck eyes.
    I want to remeasure each of the preceding champion trees, because they all grow larger yearly. The world champion European mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia) at the zoo increased its trunk from 10'3" to 11'0" around in the last 6 years (but was essentially dead by 2001). Ballard has other Washington champion trees, such as an Oriental planetree at Salmon Bay Park, a loquat at 612 56th Street, a black elder on 57th Street (cut down) near the post office, etc. Maybe we can run a complete list of them later.

3. Rare Trees
    With so little "competition," rare trees are often of record size partly by default. Rare trees are a mixed lot. Some are deservedly rare because nobody wants them --they're a flop in our climate, or are ugly or in some way objectionable. Others are rare for mysterious reasons, despite their favorable attributes. An exceedingly rare tree, in fact the only specimen I know of in the New World, grows in Ballard.
    This double-flowered catalpa (Catalpa x erubescens 'Adina') is near Adams school, as a street tree on 62nd, just east of 28th Avenue. As of this year it measures 45.5 feet tall, 65.5 wide, its trunk 10.5 feet around. Many other catalpas of several different kinds were planted around the school and playground at the same time. But none is near so large. This remarkable catalpa makes few or no seedpods. It is a curious old hulk, supporting a parasitic bird-sown English laurel in its rotting crotch. The tree really should be propagated by softwood cuttings this summer, because once it dies (cut down!) we will have no other source to propagate from (one at the U.W. died). It bears creamy-white flowers in large clusters in July. No other Ballard tree is any rarer; many are scarce, however.

4. Mass-Plantings of Trees
    Repetition is a design feature that can be very effective with trees, even when they are young. Downtown Ballard's rows of identical street trees are among the most conspicuous and refreshing scenes. Norway maples (Acer platanoides) line Market street, and hybrid red maples (Acer x Freemanii 'Armstrong') grace Ballard Avenue. They are excellent unifiers which soften and humanize the architecture, signs and wires. Try to visualize them gone and you’ll easily imagine their value.
    Yes, I know, the Caucasian wingnut trees (Pterocarya fraxinifolia) on 24th Avenue caused havoc and had to be replaced. But --nothing ventured, nothing gained; they were worth a try. Many Ballard schools and playgrounds are ringed by "necklaces" of trees, and in a similar but smaller way, people often plant 2 or 3 identical trees in front of their own home. I'm all for diversity of trees in general, but do favor uniformity on major arterial plantings.

5. Landmark Trees
    These are the trees that may not necessarily be very large, old, historic, visually striking or rare --but are conspicuous, loved, and would be missed by many people. Sometimes they are normal specimens per se, but simply gain luster from a highly prominent location. Every neighborhood has its own landmark trees. Indeed, every person has his or her own "pet" trees.
    To choose some trees that are known to most Ballard residents is easy; but to single-out some cherished by most is not. Since I don't even live in Ballard it may be presumptuous of me to proclaim any trees here especially magnificent or well-regarded. Nonetheless, I am the Seattle tree guru, and even if that wasn't the case, everyone can freely express an opinion.
    So my vote for the premier Ballard landmark trees are the two immense trees at the playground by Adams school (PHOTO ABOVE). These trees are hybrid planetrees or sycamores (Platanus x acerifolia). They are near 26th Avenue and 61st Street, are of awe-inspiring stature, perfect health, and possess the power to live for centuries. It is especially rewarding to contemplate them because there are relatively few such gargantuan shade trees, fully open-grown, in this area. If you think more highly of other trees, let me know.

6. Ecologic Trees
    All trees help make our environment healthier. But value to an exceptional degree is the dispensation of few. Such trees supply critical wildlife habitat, build and conserve soil, purify air, etc. In this sense, the "lungs" of Ballard are Golden Gardens Park, Ballard's finest forest. Here you can find numerous native firs, maples, cedars, alders, willows, etc, as well as a full range of shrubs and wildflowers. Complementing the natives, many exotic species have been planted, including some of outstanding beauty, record sizes, or of local landmark status. In 1982 or so I discovered Seattle's largest alder tree while I was hunting for rare mosses at the park. This alder grows at the north end, not far from the railroad tracks, and its trunk is about 5 feet thick (cut down by Burlington Northern in 1996). The salmonberry bushes and stinging nettles growing around it are of proportionate vigor, loving the dark, rich soil. Some of the trees at Golden Gardens tower about 200 feet tall. Certain wildflowers there are known nowhere else in Seattle. It is truly an important asset.

7. Historic Trees
    Every tree has a story, but unfortunately our local historic trees are poorly documented. This hurts, because they can be the most fun to know about. It is wonderful to hear, for example, that someone's father brought a shoebox full of elm seedlings from Vermont and planted them in Seattle in 1909. Or that the first palm tree to ripen fruit in Seattle was one planted in such and such place during the 1930s. Or, even on only a family-level, to know that an apple tree was planted when a couple's baby was born.
    Despite the appeal of such stories, we who love trees have a difficult time gathering them. It is easy to spot landmarks, champion-size or rare trees. But since the tree stories are abstract, and reflected only in human awareness, not in tree appearance, we must share our stories with one another, and write them down. I'll never forget some, and strongly urge you to tell yours. Once I saw an enormous, unfamiliar pussy willow tree in a back yard, so I said to the owner, "you've got me stumped; I have seen many pussy willow species, but none like this; it is most attractive and large." Ms. McConnell replied "it was given to me in 1958 as a twig in a Valentine's day bouquet." After serious research I determined the tree was an obscure hybrid from Europe. It might have been the largest of its kind in North America. Fortunately I rooted some cuttings; the next owner of the house cut it down. Well, life goes on!

    There are other remarkable trees of Ballard. It deserves more credit than it often gets. Through the natural process of growth, and the insatiable appetite of ReTree Ballard, the greenery is burgeoning. There is no stopping it. For every person who thinks trees are messy and don't belong in cities, there are several who think cities without trees are ghastly, barren places.
    If you want to help document Ballard trees, or learn more, ask questions, etc, here are some contact people and telephone numbers. For big trees call Robert Van Pelt at (206) 818 - 0037(author of the 1996 book Champion Trees of Washington State). For documenting noteworthy trees call Arthur Lee Jacobson at (206) 328 - TREE. For PlantAmnesty call (206) 783 - 9813.

(originally written in 1995)


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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