MLK Day Planting Events Bring Communities Together

Volunteers gather at Andrea Ortiz Park in Eugene.

On February 17, Friends of Trees honored the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with six different planting events. Understanding how issues of environmentalism and equity intersect in today’s world is crucial to our work. Making sure that everyone has access to the benefits of trees is why we plant, and MLK Day events are always inspiring.

On Saturday, we had events in Vancouver, Beaverton, Bethany and Salem, and volunteers came out with eagerness and generosity. “Without all of you, we’re just a pile of trees in a parking lot,” Ian Bonham, Senior Neighborhood Trees Specialist, told volunteers in Vancouver.

On MLK Day itself, our Eugene Branch facilitated two particularly special events. In the morning, the City of Eugene dedicated a park in the Bethel-Danebo neighborhood as Andrea Ortiz Park, in honor of the two-term councilor and first Latina on the Eugene City Council. Councilor Ortiz passed away in 2017, and is remembered for her passionate investment in her community.

Volunteers, city staff, and community members gathered in the park as Ortiz’s family planted a magnolia tree dedicated to her. In honor of both Ortiz and King, volunteers planted 60 more trees where the park is expanding and 11 trees in the surrounding neighborhood. “What better way to honor that legacy than to do a memorial planting for our own beloved community member, Andrea Ortiz, for all of the work she did,” said Mayor Lucy Vinis.

Speakers at the dedication of the Andrea Ortiz Park

In the afternoon, Friends of Trees partnered with the NAACP Eugene-Springfield and Willamalane Parks and Recreation to plant trees in five different parks in Springfield. The NAACP organized the event as part of their tree equity project. After opening remarks from Springfield City Councilor Steve Moe, volunteers planted 18 trees and participated in other park beautification projects like weeding, mulching, and tree care work at a past project location.

“It was a beautiful day to plant trees as a community,” says Eugene Director Erik Burke. “We are so grateful to the volunteers in the west Eugene and Springfield neighborhoods for bringing such spirit to the day. We’ve been doing these MLK Day collaborations for years, and we always look forward to it.”

Pints & Pinecones in Eugene

The Eugene Branch showed off their epic cone collection at Oakshire Brewing

This month, the Eugene Branch put on a tree trivia—Treevia!—at Oakshire Brewing. The Eugene staff was joined by partners, arborists, volunteers, and supporters to talk trees over a few pints, and a dollar from each beer went back to Friends of Trees. “It was a fitting place because the brewery is in the Whiteaker neighborhood in Eugene, which is famous for tree advocacy,” says Eugene Director Erik Burke.

For the trivia, they focused on cones, the strange and varied structures that are specific to conifer trees. On a table at Oakshire Brewing, FOT laid out an assortment of cones, big and small, prickly and smooth, and asked folks to match them to their corresponding trees.

“We had a great turn out of familiar faces,” says Taylor Glass, the volunteer and program specialist in Eugene. “Showing them all these really cool cones, it’s a fun way to connect.”

It’s not just pine trees that make cones. Cypresses and cedars also produce cones in order to reproduce. Pines, cypresses, and cedars are all conifers—so named for their cones, of course. “Male cones that put out pollen, which has already started,” says Erik. “What we think of as pine cones are the female seed cones.” 

The little plates in the cones, called bracts, each contain an individual seed. Some deciduous trees, like our native white alder, also produce male pollen structures called catkins and the female catkins turn into cones that look like pine cones.

Sugar Pine: Native people ate valley ponderosa pine and sugar pine seeds. In fact, most of the seeds in cones in the pine family are edible (pine nuts)!

The Douglas-fir is the most common tree in the Pacific Northwest and it’s cone is very recognizable. The story is that a mouse was running along, and a hawk swooped down on it, so it jumped inside the cone, but you can still see its little feet sticking out. 

The Oregon native trees that we call natives, incense cedar and western red cedar, are actually in the cypress family.  Incense cedars have little cones that look like duck bills, and western red cedar cones look like little roses.

True cedars are in the pine family and come from Africa, Asia and Europe. Not everything we call a cedar is a true cedar. You can tell the cones of true cedars, like the Atlas cedar, because they stick up vertically and shed their bracts one by one while staying attached to the tree.

How amazing that redwoods and sequoias, the largest trees in North America, come from these little cones and have tiny seeds. 

The Coulter pine’s cone is pretty intense! It’s got sharp points, and it’s heavy too, so heads up!

Pollen: It’s Not What You Think

When you think of pollen, you probably think of springtime. But for trees, pollen season really starts in December. There’s no need to panic! Eugene Director Erik Burke is here to guide you through everything you need to know about tree pollen, what types of trees are actually allergenic, and what circumstances might carry that pollen to your nose. It shouldn’t surprise you that Erik has deep and extensive tree knowledge. He has been doing research on pollen in particular and wants to let you know: it’s not what you think.

“Many people want to make their tree choice related to pollen,” Erik says. “People tend to think that if it has a showy flower, you’re likely to get allergies, but luckily that’s not really the case.” If a tree has a showy flower, it means that it’s pollinated by insects, and it’s almost impossible to get allergies from it. The trees that give us allergies are wind-pollinated and have non-descript flowers, like incense cedar, which just started putting out its pollen cones.

Without pollen, trees wouldn’t be able to reproduce. For the budding scientists out there: pollen grains are transferred from the anthers of staminate (or “male”) flowers to the stigmas of pistillate (or “female”) flowers, leading to fertilization and the production of seeds. Being able to reproduce naturally is important for trees. It increases their genetic variability and allows them to tap into the creativity of evolution to adapt to local landscapes.

To get their pollen where it needs to go, insect-pollinating trees produce a small amount of pollen that’s very sticky and heavy. It comes out of the flower and falls straight to the ground. When the pollen makes contact with bumblebees, moths, butterflies, or bats, it sticks right to their bodies and is more likely to make its way to a female receptacle.

Wind-pollinated trees—like oaks, ashes, pines, and alders—are responsible for almost all the tree pollen recorded in local pollen counts. Their strategy is to produce a huge amount of pollen that’s light and easily spread by the wind. “They’re just throwing that giant amount out there, hoping it lands on something,” Erik says. That’s their strategy—the more they put out, the better their chances of reproduction.”

The Douglas-fir, a wind-pollinated tree, is the most common tree in the northwest. “Anything in that pine family cooks up huge amounts of wind pollen,” Erik says, “but it’s almost entirely non-allergenic. You might get irritation in your nasal passages from all the particulates but you can’t get allergies from it.”

One of the big complaints that the folks at the Eugene branch hear is that cottonwoods  give people allergies. Cottonwoods do have allergenic pollen, but they put out their pollen in February when it’s rainy and cold, so not many people are outside. When people report having allergies from pollen is in April, May and June, when the cottonwood fluff is floating in the air. “Those are the female seeds being dispersed,” Erik says. “But there’s no pollen in the fluff and the pollen’s been gone for at least two months when the fluff comes out.”

They’re more likely allergic to something in the birch family, which puts out pollen in late spring. “In Oregon, the main trees that cause allergies are birch family trees,” Erik says. “We’re talking birches, hazelnuts, horn beams and alders, and those are not commonly planted by Friends of Trees in the Eugene Metro area.”

Weather has a lot to do with how we experience pollen allergies. Trees like the incense cedar are putting out pollen in December, when it’s cold and rainy. Heavy rain will knock the particulates out of the air, cleaning them up for us. Although with some pollen, a light rain can actually break up the pollen granules and make allergies worse. Because we mostly stay indoors in the winter, people don’t really start experiencing allergies until it gets warmer and dryer in April and May.

Since the 1950s, allergy rates in the U.S. have risen from less than 5% of the population to more than 30% today. Overall, however, tree pollen is a minor contributor to allergy issues in our area compared to grass pollen. Eugene is often rated the worst city for allergies in the United States during the grass-pollen peak in the first half of June.

Erik says that allergies should not deter us from planting trees. “It’s possible that trees actually take in more pollen than they release. They hold it on their branches and keep it out of the air.” As always, the solution appears to be more trees.

The Eugene Tree Team celebrates the start of planting season

As part of this month’s celebration of planting season Erik and Taylor take us on tree walks in some of Eugene’s neighborhoods and parks. You’ll discover that you can learn a lot about trees in downtown Eugene amongst the sidewalks and buildings; we’ve seen trees with some beautiful fall color in neighborhoods and parks; Taylor IDs a tree with “a really fun name to say” (what’s your “fun” tree name?); you’ll see some cones that look like duck bills … and more!

Here’s a playlist of our Eugene tree walks this month, take a green walk with us!

And here are a couple of highlights from the month – lots of good tree info and fall color!



Upcoming tree walks this month with the Eugene Tree Team:

October 26 ~ NOON ~ LIVE tree walk in Eugene ~ Facebook-Eugene

Join Erik again, this time in the ye olde FOTE office neighborhood!


and, into November! Nov 6 ~ 10 a.m. ~ LIVE tree walk in Eugene ~ Facebook-Eugene

Join Erik for his first November tree walk as he tree talks at our NW Expressway site


Would you like a tree of your own? Create a free, no obligation account to get started!

Check out the Eugene-Springfield volunteer event calendar to plant trees with us!

Building a core of volunteers in Lane County

Over the years the Eugene Tree Team has worked to build a core of neighborhood volunteers, folks in different neighborhoods who help secure staging sites for planting events, who can help get food donations, who help neighbors select trees, and most importantly, reach out to residents to find locations where neighbors want trees (yep, just like the Neighborhood Coordinators of the Portland office!). We have some incredible volunteers who have been key to community tree planting in Eugene, and we’re working on identifying active volunteers in Springfield, too, and in as many of the neighborhoods we work in as possible.

Why does this matter? Neighbors talking to neighbors is one of the best ways to spread the good word about trees, and leads to getting more trees planted. It’s also incredibly helpful to have an ongoing local group who can help with the same event every year.

So here’s what we’re trying: We’re working with neighborhood groups, both the more formal neighborhood associations along with more informal groups of neighbors. We’re connecting groups and residents in different neighborhoods and helping volunteers focus on their specific interests and letting those interests lead the way, and we’ll work to find the intersection between those interests and FOTE’s planting event needs. We also know that some volunteers have resources other than time available to them, and we’ll incorporate that, too.

Eugene Director Erik shares a great example of the intersection of interest + resources + need,

“Jon is really into getting trees into Springfield neighborhoods that need them. He is an owner of a local building and design company, where he is lead for landscape work. Jon not only volunteers to plant trees, he helps water trees near his family’s home with his wife and their two kids (hauling water in a little red wagon :), and his business also helps with post-planting tree care through watering about 35 trees in Springfield and 70 more in west Eugene every summer for tree recipients who need that assistance.”

Springfield volunteer Jon with one of his watering helpers

Here’s Jon on why he volunteers – and, specifically, why he volunteers to water trees,

“Nothing in my life lifts the anxiety, stress and guilt of our current climate crises like watering a young tree. It may be a small tree and it does take time and energy, but if we all participate in this act during our summer months, the anxiety, stress and guilt just might transform into something wonderful. Like pride, safety, and happiness.”

Be like John! Contact the Eugene Tree Team and let us know about your skills + interests (+ resources if you have access to any!) and we’ll work on connecting you with a volunteer role that helps plant trees + grow community in the Eugene-Springfield area. We need Saturday tree planting volunteers too! Check out our event calendar and come join us this season!