Hundreds of years later, UO’s oldest tree stands the test of time

Looking across 11th Avenue circa 1895, the old campus oak tree (far left) featured prominently in the early days of UO alongside Villard Hall (center) and Deady Hall (center-right). (Courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives)

The University of Oregon class of 1897 might find UO’s current campus unrecognizable. Large-scale building projects and student enrollment increases have whisked away memories of the university’s modest beginnings. Once the central operating building of the university, Deady Hall today houses parts of the math department and other assorted classes. The entire quad that Deady and Villard Hall overlook — the heart of early UO — is now scarcely utilized.

But the class of 1897 would recognize one landmark — their class tree. Perched on the north edge of “old campus” is a relatively unknown treasure of university and state history: an up to 400-year-old white oak tree.

“Whitokate oaks moved into the valley somewhere between 11,000 and 8,000 years ago,” said Bart Johnson, head of the landscape architecture department at UO. “They were here at the time the first Native people arrived here. They are incredibly important parts to the food web.”

According to Johnson, who has done extensive research on the species, the Old Campus white oak is at least 250 years old and could be over 400. Such a long lifespan is normal for a white oak tree; Johnson said the oldest recorded white oak in Oregon was around 650 years old.

These ageless wonders were once commonplace. Johnson said that up until 1850, 60 percent of the Willamette Valley was oak savannah — open grasslands that allowed oak trees to thrive. Since then, most of Oregon’s oak savannahs were converted to agricultural fields or swallowed up by Douglas fir forests, making the once dominant white oak a rarity today. Johnson said the preservation of white oaks and their corresponding habitat is critical, as the trees serve many other native organisms, including birds, squirrels and insects.

“Their wide-spreading branches are festooned with lichens and mosses which are occupied by insects, so it’s a food web source point,” Johnson said. “They find even now that some of these individual oaks that are just stuck in the middle of an ag field are still very important for birds.”

Oak trees are versatile; they can grow in thin or thick soil, dry or wet climates. Oaks can also adjust their growth rate based on the amount of environmental stress they’re under. This can make dating white oak trees difficult, as a young tree growing under low-stress conditions may be much larger than an older tree under more stress. Despite their resilience to shifting growing conditions, white oaks are still in competition with other trees.

“As soon as you start getting other trees like Doug firs [growing] overtop,” Johnson said, “[the white oak’s] canopy begins to fall apart. You lose that structure and you simply can’t recover it.”

Johnson and his colleagues are working to identify the best remaining oak habitats in the Willamette Valley and are developing ways to restore them before the oaks completely disappear.

“A lot of our work is about thinning out and removing the trees that have grown in around these oaks creating new, open grassland habitat where we can recruit young oaks that can fill in those canopies,” Johnson said.

When the old campus oak ultimately reaches the end of its life, campus will undoubtedly lose a piece of university heritage. But the tree will provide just as much — if not more — ecological value in death as in life.

“There’s been research done that’s shown a dead tree has more life in it than a living tree,” Johnson said. “Once it dies it becomes inhabited by fungus, beetles, bacteria, insects. Squirrels are living inside of it. You end up with more biomass in a dead tree than a live one.”

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