By Ryan Garrison, UW Botanic Gardens Horticulturist
There is a tree on the bank of Arboretum Creek that has seen the entire history of the Washington Park Arboretum, being almost certainly a legacy of the historic site vegetation.1 The seed that would eventually become this giant likely fell to the ground about the year 1896 when the site was logged by its previous owner, the Puget Mill Company. It would have been a tiny seedling when the land was acquired by the City of Seattle in a series of purchases in 1900 – 1904. It probably went unnoticed by John C. Olmsted and his assistant, Percy Jones, when they arrived in Seattle on April 30, 1903.2 Within a month they had outlined a plan for the City’s future park system, including Lake Washington Boulevard, a mere stone’s throw from this tree. It somehow managed to survive the myriad trials that a tree must overcome to reach maturity. It has endured such adversities as snowstorms, temperatures as low as 0°F, and hurricane force winds. Through it all, it has reached inexorably upwards, and now towers above everything around it.
This remarkable tree is known as a Grand fir (Abies grandis), and this particular specimen truly lives up to its common name. Grand fir grows in the stream bottoms, valleys, and mountain slopes of the northwestern United States and southern British Columbia.3 It is not for board feet, but for its beauty that this tree is valued. The wood is too soft, yet too heavy in proportion to its little strength, to make first class lumber. Pulpwood offers its only commercial future, and there are so many finer pulping species that Grand Fir is little felled for any purpose and is usually left in the forest to make music and distill incense.4
Common Name: Grand, White, Silver, Yellow, or Stinking Fir
Location: The bank of Arboretum Creek, in grid # 22-4W. It can be seen from many places in the Arboretum, towering over its neighbors.
Origin: Northwestern United States and southern British Columbia
Height and Spread: On optimum sites in the coastal lowlands of Washington, mature grand firs reach heights of 43 to 61 m (140 to 200 ft) at 51 to 102 cm (20 to 40 in) d.b.h.; occasionally they reach 76 m (250 ft) in height and 152 cm (60 in) in d.b.h. This tree is approximately 140 feet tall and 4.1 feet in diameter.
Bloom Time: Time of flowering may vary over several months, depending on temperatures during the weeks preceding flowering. Flowering occurs from late March to mid-May at lower elevations of most coastal locations, and in June at the higher elevations of the inland locations. The cones, mostly yellowish-green and occasionally greenish-purple, ripen from August to September of the same year, and seeds are dispersed approximately 1 month later.
- Hitchin, R., “The native forest vegetation in the Washington Park Arboretum: community analysis and curatorial recommendations”, (MA thesis, University of Washington, 1998), 49.
- Washington Park Arboretum Historic Review, September 2003.
- Peattie, Donald Culross, and Paul Landacre. A Natural History of North American Trees. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.