Our Favorite Trees to Watch in Winter
Many trees have shed their leaves and are on their way to being dormant for the winter. But not all of them! Late fall and winter in Oregon and Washington is still a wonderful time to admire trees. Our Eugene team put together some of their favorites to watch out for this time of year.
One of the most brilliant fall trees is the gingko, whose intense yellow leaves tend to fall all at once, thanks to their unique stems. Although ginkgos have “broad” leaves, they are actually more closely related to conifers. The modern ginkgo has changed little since its ancestors first graced the planet more than 200 million years ago—tens of millions of years before the advent of conifers and more than a hundred million years before broad-leafed trees became abundant.
For many the Douglas-fir, Oregon’s state tree, is a quintessential evergreen conifer, especially as many of them head into our living rooms for the holidays. Douglas-fir dominates local woodlands, and is joined sometimes by valley ponderosa pine, incense-cedar, and grand fir.
Conifers like the Doug-fir are perfectly adapted to our area’s wet winters and dry summers. Part of what makes Eugene special is that while the urban forest is composed largely of broad-leafed deciduous trees, it’s punctuated with firs, incense-cedars, giant sequoias and other conifers.
One of the many reasons we love evergreen conifers—they work year-round, producing oxygen and storing up carbon through photosynthesis, and providing important stormwater benefits by intercepting precipitation in their dense canopies.
Another favorite? The Atlas cedar, one of our true cedars. 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.
The Atlas cedar notable is this time of year because it’s already releasing its pollen. Many conifers, in particular, “bloom” during late fall and winter. Atlas cedars (Cedrus atlantica) have exceptionally large and showy pollen cones, sometimes two to three inches in length and up to half an inch in diameter. The spent pollen cones are most noticeable after they have fallen, when they carpet the ground beneath the tree with what look like big, fuzzy, yellow caterpillars.
Keep in mind, wind pollinated trees are responsible for allergies, rather than showy flowers. Trees like the incense cedar will be putting out pollen in December. But the rain might save us—heavy rain will knock the particulates out of the air, cleaning them up for us.
Many people have the impression that, during the winter, trees—especially broad-leafed deciduous ones—are completely dormant. But thanks to relatively mild winters in western Oregon, it’s possible to find at least one species of broad-leafed tree—and sometimes several or more—in bloom during any given month of winter. In December, the long, dangling, pollen-bearing catkins of European filberts begin to develop—and the tiny, magenta female flowers do, too, though they’re not nearly as conspicuous. And in January, we begin to see the first elm flowers. Keep your eye out for these lovely signs of life!
Two Decades of Planting along the Northwest Expressway
Every season, the Eugene Branch kicks off its planting season along the Northwest Expressway, a five-mile stretch of road parallel to the railroad. It’s not the most glamorous of planting sites, but there is plenty of available space for large trees to grow and provide their benefits to the community.
Friends of Trees volunteers will gather in Eugene on November 5th for Phase 9 of this planting project. The land is owned by Lane County and abuts the Union Pacific railyard. Friends of Trees picked this annual planting project up in 2013, but it actually started back around 2000, with what we now call Phase Zero, planted by the Eugene Tree Foundation (which became Friends of Trees – Eugene). That first planting has grown into sizable shade trees, and has served as the site of a condoned homeless camp for veterans in Eugene.
“Those trees are now providing shade to people,” says Eugene Director Erik Burke. “It goes to show that trees can still have benefits when they’re planted in places besides private property.”
For these Northwest Expressway plantings, the Eugene team is creating pods of plants. After removing a eight-foot diameter of grass, they’ll plant one-to-four trees and four-to-six shrubs. In addition, this year they’ve added camas bulbs to the recipe, and will also be adding native milkweed and Douglas’ aster.
Installing understory layers in addition to trees is an approach that the Eugene team hopes to expand on for all their plantings. This year, they’re offering camas bulbs as an add-on for neighborhood tree recipients.
“We really want to be creating habitat for native pollinators,” Erik says. “So we’ve got 900 camas bulbs to plant this season.”
This year at Northwest Expressway, they’ll plant 20 trees, 50 shrubs and 50 herbaceous plants along Northwest Expressway.
“We started planting at the southern end of the expressway, then moved to the north, and now we’re filling in the middle,” says Eugene-Springfield Program Manager Taylor Glass. “We’re required to space these pods out a bit, but that means we have plenty of space to plant trees that will grow to be quite big.”
The next time you’re driving on Northwest Expressway, keep your eye out for incense cedars, Pacific madrones, valley ponderosas, giant sequoias, and California laurels. What used to be an empty stretch of grass is on its way toward being a happy home for trees.
Community Pruning—An Art and a Science
The Eugene Branch is in the heart of its pruning season, and has already hosted several successful community pruning events. They’ve been keeping these pruning events small and intimate so that each volunteer gets more hands-on experience. Pruning can feel like an art as much as a science, and it’s something that takes a lot of practice before you feel comfortable with it.
“We’ve had smaller pruning events in recent years because of Covid,” says Taylor Glass, Eugene-Springfield Program Manager for Friends of Trees in Eugene. “We decided to keep it small because the pruners really appreciate it.”
Each pruning event has just 15 volunteers, and they split into five groups, with one Friends of Trees staff member on each team. They prune to provide clearance over the sidewalk and the road, and they prune for good structure. In many but not all species, this includes encouraging a strong central leader.
One reason that Eugene prunes in late summer, rather than in the dormant season, is that it slows the trees down. “Here, fast growth is a bigger issue than slow growth,” Erik says. Fast growing trees are tougher to manage for strength and stability, and will often have weaker wood more prone to failure, particularly in snow or ice storms, which is something you don’t want in the urban environment.
“Young tree pruning is the most cost effective thing you can do for an urban forest,” says Eugene Director Erik Burke. Pruning helps create a lasting form that won’t suffer as much damage from storms and trucks.
When you walk up to a tree that needs to be pruned, it can be tough to know where to start. Every tree is different. You have a number of goals you want to achieve, but you can only prune so much. Each pruner might make different little decisions toward the same overall goal of forming the tree.
“It’s so personal, the approach each person takes,” Erik says. “We all do it totally differently and no one way is right.”
The small pruning teams allow for a collaborative decision-making process, which grows a volunteer’s experience and confidence. And with experience and confidence, a small team can accomplish just as much as a big group.
“Volunteers can be anxious, because they want to do it right,” says Erik. “But the trees are resilient, and they’ll be fine in the long run.”
Ideally a tree gets pruned every three years for the first fifteen years of its life. We’re not always able to provide every tree with the ideal number of prunings, but thanks to volunteer efforts, we can often give trees pruning attention that they need.
Pruning a tree can be really satisfying, when you step back and look at its form take shape. And it can be especially rewarding when you see the tree grow into that form over the years. Giving volunteers hands- on involvement in the process creates a special bond to these community trees, and volunteers always want to come back to do it again.
“Teaching is a great way to learn,” Taylor says. “And with each season, you learn more.”
Some climate trees can need a little extra TLC
We pay extra attention to all of our trees during their first few years of establishment. Watering, mulching, pruning, inspection, restaking, vandalism repair —this little bit of extra work has a huge impact on the tree’s success in the long run. Over the last decade, the Eugene Branch has been integrating more climate resilient trees into its planting regimen. They’ve found that these trees need a bit more attention, but because these trees will stand up to the changing climate, it’s definitely worth it.
Because these trees are not widely used in the nursery trade, they have not been selected for form in the same way. One guideline of climate change is that by 2050, each area’s climate will become like that of the area 500-700 miles south of them, so many of the trees we are trying are native to the area south of Eugene. Because of how they’ve been selected, more common trees in the nursery trade are more uniform—they tend to have trunks that go straight up and branches that are well-spaced.
Many common trees are cultivars, often patented clones. Of course, these trees still require some pruning, but they have had years of effort to select for form, so they are as predictable as a fast food burger. This process diminishes intraspecific diversity, or the diversity within a species, something that is just as valuable as interspecific diversity, the diversity between multiple species.
Some of the climate resilient trees the Eugene team are working on—like valley oak, blue oak, and California live oaks—often exhibit rapid, explosive growth, sometimes taking on a “rangy” or “shrubby” appearance. During their first three years of growing, they need more pruning and staking attention to achieve a good form.
“These climate trees need about twice as much pruning as a typical tree during their establishment years,” says Eugene Director Erik Burke. “But they are very drought tolerant and tough, and that gives them a leg up in the face of the changing climate.”
The Eugene Branch is about to start its yearly pruning. One reason that Eugene prunes in late summer, rather than in the dormant season, is that it slows the trees down.
“Here, fast growth is a bigger issue than slow growth,” Erik says. Fast growing trees are tougher to manage for strength and stability, and will often have weaker wood more prone to failure, particularly in snow or ice storms, which is something you don’t want in the urban environment.
It’s because our trees are in the urban environment that it’s so important to prune them to have a central leader and stong structure. A tree in the forest or a field will prune itself. But in the urban environment, we want to prune trees before a truck does, which could seriously damage the tree, or before a storm does, which would pose a threat to people and property.
The benefits of any one tree grow exponentially with every year it’s alive. We want our trees to have long, healthy lives so they can provide shade, clean air, and habitat.
“Climate resilient trees are only becoming more and more important, so we think they are worth that bit of extra effort,” Erik says.
What a year in Eugene-Springfield! Every event was full of eager smiles, familiar faces, and enthusiastic treecipients. “There’s nothing better than a fantastic day of planting with community members,” says Volunteer & Program Specialist Taylor Glass. “We had so many great events this year. It’s a great way to connect.”
Even while adapting to the pandemic, the Eugene Branch has done so much to grow their program and expand their impact, and we wanted to report to you some of this season’s results.
- Friends of Trees volunteers planted 524 trees at 12 events in Eugene and Springfield, and distributed 350 more at a tree give-away event.
- 475 total volunteers donated over 1,500 hours of their time to these efforts. We have seen firsthand how planting and caring for trees increases community members’ engagement with the environment and participation in civic life.
- We planted 86 different species of trees, many of which are climate resilient, to grow the diversity of our urban canopy.
The season saw so many highlights, like expanding the use of bicycles, planting trees at schools, and honoring the legacy of community leaders. We grew our relationship with the City of Springfield, an important geography for our equity work. This season’s work was all about being intentional.
“The pandemic, racial justice issues, and extreme heat of the last few years, have focused our urban tree planting work more on equity, sustainability, and resilience.” says Eugene Director Erik Burke.
This work couldn’t be done without our dedicated volunteers, partners, and sponsors. This summer, we will continue to work with volunteers on tree care and inspection, and we’ll be preparing for another incredible season come October!