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Trees of Woodland Park Zoo

    To discuss a zoo without mentioning animals is like talking about restaurants while ignoring the subject of food. But the zoo is so refreshing in plant life that even if all of its colorful, howling animals were to suddenly disappear, gardeners and tree-watchers would still enjoy a worthwhile visit.
    More than 150 different kinds of trees grow at the zoo. Unless you've visited recently you'll find it hard to visualize the dramatic upsurge in planting. It is as if the zoo's goal was to ensure the place live up to its name Woodland Park. More than two thousand young trees have been planted in recent years, a model of ecologically aware installation -- high diversity, organic practices, encouragement of wildlife, and a wholehearted rejection of formal checkerboard spacing of clones. To those who recall the zoo as high and dry, windswept, open and sunny, with barren, sandy soil, this transformation into a lush, diverse forest is thrilling.
    Zoo trees, if viewed collectively, are a patchwork of different origins. Practically none of the "old growth" Woodland Park natives still exist. Maybe a bigleaf maple or other native remnant remains on the east side (near Aurora), older than 100 years. Woodland Park once lived up to its name mightily, with hundreds of acres packed with towering old-growth firs. Guy Phinney, an Englishman who amassed a fortune by running a sawmill on Lake Washington, bought the tract and transformed it in the 1890s into an amazing estate. His vision was vast and he had the money to make his dreams come true. The nucleus of a zoo, a rose garden, ballfields and many similar embellishments were created. Phinney opened the 200-acre park to the public in 1889. But then Phinney died, Seattle bought the land in 1900, and soon enough the Parks Department was busy planting.
    During the gradual redevelopment of the zoo an important component has been the special effort to preserve trees. Some zoo species are on the Washington State Big-Tree list, meaning that a designated specimen is either taller or stouter in trunk or spreads its branches wider than any other specimen known in Washington State. Numerous other trees, though not of surpassing size, offer color, shade, sculptured silhouettes and -- in one word -- life.
    Every time a new exhibit or building is constructed, some trees are removed. But on balance, more replacements are planted, so there is net gain in greenery in the long run. In fact, ultimately the zoo may be troubled by having so many trees and people -- windy days and shedding limbs from tall firs create a dangerous duo. Meanwhile, all is safe, and visitors can enjoy a varied, fascinating tree collection. It seems unfair to call forth only a few trees when so many deserve to have their stories told. If I had to show an out-of-town tree lover just six trees at the zoo, however, they would be the following.
Deodar Cedar at zoo

    1) Deodar Cedar (Cedrus Deodara) Of landmark stature at the south entrance near the Education Center (vicinity of the former Poncho Theatre), is an especially verdant and limby Deodar cedar. Deodars possess a gently drooping aspect like hemlocks, but are massive withal, and bear sharp 1"-2" needles, and lemon-sized cones that disintegrate at maturity. The name Deodar is from Sanskrit devadaru (deva, deity, and daru, timber), timber of the gods.
    Though this Himalayan native is common and thrives in Seattle, the zoo specimen is special. Stout, low limbs invite children to climb. It makes very few cones, thereby reserving energy for foliage. It is sited so as to be the center of attention. Being evergreen, grand in size and long-lived, the zoo's specimen is well suited to such an honored place. There is something about evergreens that arouses admiration. The dignity of age, as well as great breadth, only add to the favorable impression. We are fortunate that this tree is a Deodar, because many other species would be inferior in longevity, health or safety.
    2) Black Locust (Robinia Pseudoacacia) The lions, in both a geographic and romantic sense, are at the heart of Woodland Park Zoo in the savanna -- the zoos's glory. It is fitting that the king of beasts should hold court in the midst of everyone else. Who can gaze upon the broad expanse of waving grasses without admiring the achievement here? Find the hippos in their pond and zebras on the plain, giving you a glimpse of another world: a bit of sunny Kenya in a Northern metropolis!
    The landmark Black locust trees in the lion exhibit are fine substitutes for African acacias, being in the same family and similar in appearance. These dark and rugged-trunked, craggy-limbed trees deck themselves in delicate, rich green foliage. From May into early July are loaded with small but numerous, fragrant white flowers beloved by bees.
    In some respects Black locust is high on the "world's greatest hits" of treehood. Native to a small region in the central and eastern United States, it was widely cultivated beginning in 1635. Since then, Black locust has naturalized in many places on earth, including the Pacific Northwest. Many cultivated varieties exist. A member of the Pea Family, this tree is able to thrive even in poor, dry sites. Rapid growth and the ability to either reseed or spread by root suckers, have ensured Black locust remains common. Nurseries, however, now sell mostly pink- or purple-flowered species and hybrids (several of which are also in the savanna exhibit).
    3) English Elm (Ulmus minor var. vulgaris; syn. U. procera) Fourteen English elms adorn the zoo grounds. Four tower above and shade a spacious lawn south of the concert stage. Three envelop the Giraffe House, and five shade the west woodland playground at 59th and Phinney Avenue North. They are at their height of stately form, being at that ideal age where juvenility is far behind and senescence yet to come. They are superb trees to gaze up into.
    Elms have traditionally been valued more for their looks than for their timber or other properties. The Dutch elm disease (DED) more than chestnut blight brought home the urgency of planting diverse trees along streets and in landscapes, not relying too much on one kind. Now that this fatal scourge of elms is in Puyallup and Tacoma, we fear it won't be long before Seattle elms begin to be infected and die. The zoo specimens are reasonably well isolated, however, so don't hurry to write them off as doomed. They might live another 100 years for all we know, although they will shed branches with increasing frequency, no matter what.
    4) Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) West of the gorilla-viewing shelter are plantings that suggest humid tropical jungles. These simulators are broadleaf evergreens including Mahonia 'Arthur Menzies', Myrica californica (wax-myrtle) and Prunus lusitanica (Portugal laurel). But the ultimate tropical motif is supplied by the deciduous Bigleaf magnolia, the zoo's largest; smaller examples are elsewhere (as in the Pheasantry and Trail of Vines). The large leaves are magnificent, commonly 2 feet long, sometimes more than 3 feet. From May into early July, it bears white flowers of celestial fragrance and immense size, 8"-20" wide. A native of the southeastern U.S., this species grows in woodland there. It does very well in Seattle, but becomes a bit sunburnt and windblasted if too exposed.
    5) Empress Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) More than 50 Empress trees have been planted at the zoo recently, and many exuberantly add 6 to 8 feet of growth yearly. The only mature specimen is north of the Trail of Adaptations (formerly the Feline House), flanked west by blue spruce, east by incense cedars.
    Native to China and Korea, this is a pioneer species there. It is stout, and though overall it suggests Catalpa, it has smooth bark. Sometime from March into May, before the leaves emerge, it bears spectacular terminal clusters of trumpet-shaped pale violet to sky-blue flowers, sweetly scented. The leaves are late to flush, huge, dull green, fuzzy, and drop without fall color. They recall those of the sunflower plant. Both the flowerbuds and seed capsules are conspicuous.
    Paulownia is naturalized weedily in parts of the eastern U.S., but is restrained in Seattle, though its powerful root system make short work of paving. The wood is highly prized in Japan, and the Japanese name is Kiri. Paulownia was named for Anna Paulowna (1795-1865), hereditary princess of The Netherlands, daughter of Czar Paul I of Russia.
    6) Chilean Fire Tree (Embothrium coccineum) Explosive floral display from trees is the more glorious if borne by a species that would be quite the "ugly duckling" except for its blossoms. Surprise and anomalous happenings whet our appetite. Chilean fire tree is usually a sparse, leggy small tree of graceless, irregularly upright form, with semi-evergreen foliage. If it didn't bloom, no one would want it; but because of its blooms we cannot resist it. Anytime from mid-April into mid-June this little tree presents intense scarlet flowers. Being a hardy South American native, Chilean fire tree was planted with Antarctic beech (Nothofagus antarctica) across from the prairie dogs. Younger and thriftier specimens are near the bench in the Pheasantry.
    In ideal sites Chilean fire tree grows very fast, but it may be short-lived like a pussy willow. It blooms even when very young. Hummingbirds love its flowers. The tallest specimen ever recorded was 65 feet, and the stoutest trunk 6 feet around. Most are 15 to 50 feet tall, and slender.
    Other trees at Woodland Park Zoo are, in their own way, equally worthy as the six just singled out. Several are champions for size, such as European mountain ash (Sorbus aucuparia), sweet birch (Betula lenta), black cherry (Prunus serotina), Shirotae or Mt. Fuji cherry (Prunus 'Shirotae'), Sargent crabapple (Malus Sargentii), and Chinquapin oak (Quercus Muhlenbergii) -- all are on the Washington State Big Tree list.
    A few tree specimens at the zoo are very rare in our region, such as Kalopanax, which is at the entrance to the Elephant Forerst, and Maackia, in the Family Farm Habitat Discovery Loop. Several have been planted in combinations or quantities perhaps never seen before (e.g., find 600 boreal spruces in the Northern Trail). At any given time of year, some species are show stoppers, with blossoms or bright fall color, or because of winter presence.
    Seattle is truly fortunate to a first rate zoo that serves as a horticultural mecca. The whole world of plants and animals is brought together in one place.

(Originally published in the Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin in 1996)

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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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