With the abundance of firs, hemlocks and cedars that give our state its evergreen nickname, it’s easy to ignore trees that don’t fit the mold.
And some, along with being a little different, are relatively rare. Luckily, the Garry oak or Quercus garryana, Washington’s only native oak species, enjoys protected status, both locally and statewide.
These deciduous trees, also called Oregon white oaks, are drought tolerant, wind resistant, extremely slow growing and can live to be 500 years old. They are found along a narrow range of latitudes that extend from Vancouver Island to northern California. But oak numbers have dwindled because of human development, domination by faster growing Douglas firs and intrusions by invasive species such as Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberries.
Still, some Garry oaks persist in the South Sound: around the short-grass prairies of Thurston County, on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and in Parkland and Spanaway, Lakewood, and Tacoma.
One of the best places to explore a mature Garry oak woodland is 25-acre Oak Tree Park at South 74th and South Cedar streets in Tacoma. The park is adjacent to the city’s Water Flume Line Trail, a paved path through South Tacoma for walkers, runners and bicyclists.
This time of year, the oaks are easily distinguished by their deeply-lobed, green leaves, which are shiny and dark on top and lighter on the underside. Typically, mature Garry oaks grow to between 50 and 90 feet tall, and some of the trees in Oak Tree Park may exceed that height. In open areas, unlike this park’s dense stand, individual oaks may branch out as widely as they are tall.
These are gnarly-looking trees. Bare in winter and late to leaf out in spring, Garry oaks have crooked limbs that branch out at knobby angles. A leafless Garry oak silhouette would work well as the spooky background of a horror movie or Halloween flick, accented by flashes of lightning.
“In the winter, they look kind of scary,” said Albert Styers, Oak Tree Park habitat steward. A volunteer with Citizens Helping Improve Parks, or CHIP-in, he’s been leading monthly work parties (every third Saturday from 9 a.m. until noon) at the park since 2009. He and other volunteers are keen on removing English ivy, which can strangle trees, as well as other invasive plants.
Garry oaks typically shelter a wide variety of native shrubs and ground covers. Their branches and limbs host dozens of kinds of lichens, mosses and liverworts. The trees produce inch-long acorns, which nourish birds, squirrels, deer and bears. And the nuts aren’t the only way these oaks reproduce. When trees are cut back to the stump, they send out suckers and shoots. This kind of reproduction is believed to have helped these oaks survive fires historically set by Native Americans as a way to preserve hunting grounds and plant-gathering areas.
Today, Tacoma law and Washington’s priority habitat designation prohibit removal of remaining oak stands. Tacoma residents lobbied for preservation of the woodsy area that is now Oak Tree Park for many years before its acquisition by Metro Parks Tacoma in 1996. Now the park is laced with unpaved pedestrian trails, making it easy for many to get up close and personal with Washington’s only native oak species.