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The City of Trees

A growing history

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Trees are synonymous with Boise. The French word bois (or "wood") entered the local lexicon when traveling trappers referred to our downtown waterway a la riviere boisee, "the forested river." It was natural that we should we grow into the City of Trees or, to borrow from the French, la ville boisee, "the forested city."

Boise's history sprouts from the roots of its urban forest, with some of its oldest and most historically significant citizens still quietly thriving in plain sight. Still, we have lost a good number of some of our most distinguished woody residents—trees planted by U.S. Presidents Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were removed from the Idaho Capitol grounds due to disease, damage or to make way for the Statehouse renovation, which was completed in 2010. Among the other trees that were lost to the Capitol Mall construction was a Douglas fir that was one of 50 seedlings taken to the moon by Apollo 11 in 1969.

There remain plenty of important trees to appreciate, however, and Boise Weekly took a spin around town to get to know a few of these—literal—pillars of the community.

A sapling taken from the horse  chestnut that once grew outside the home where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis. - KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes
  • A sapling taken from the horse chestnut that once grew outside the home where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis.

Anne Frank Horse Chestnut Sapling

Anne Frank Memorial, 770 S. Eighth St.

Looking out the window of her attic sanctuary, teenaged Anne Frank could glimpse little of the natural world. That is, except an old horse chestnut tree growing in the garden of the house where she and her family hid from the Nazis.

Frank's family fled to the Netherlands when German dictator Adolf Hitler came to power in the early 1930s and were trapped in Amsterdam by the Nazi occupation. They sought refuge in a series of small rooms hidden in the building where Anne's father worked and stayed there for two years, until they were betrayed and arrested in 1944. Anne died at the Treblinka death camp. She was 15.

During her years in the attic, Frank wrote often of the horse chestnut in her famous diary.

"The two of us looked out at the blue sky, the bare chestnut tree glistening with dew, the seagulls and other birds glinting with silver as they swooped through the air, and we were so moved and entranced that we couldn't speak."

The only member of Frank's family to survive the Holocaust was her father—and her tree, which was established as a memorial. In 2005, caretakers discovered the tree was suffering from a fungal infection. Chestnuts were gathered and used to grow saplings, some of which were offered to communities in the United States.

In 2015, the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial received one of the 11 saplings gifted to the U.S. Among the other sites chosen by the Anne Frank Center were the White House, Liberty Park (where the World Trade Center once stood), Boston Common, and Holocaust centers in Washington and Michigan.

Planted in a section of the memorial opposite the plaza—which features a statue of Frank peering from a window—the Boise Anne Frank sapling grows behind a protective iron fence, surrounded by pink roses. Behind the small tree stands a rock wall bearing an inscription from Bill Wassmuth, the late Catholic priest who did battle with white supremacists in north Idaho during the 1980s and '90s, and for whom the Wassmuth Center for Human Rights was named.

The quote, as vital today as it would have been in Frank's time, reads: "Saying 'yes' to human rights is the best way to say 'no' to prejudice."

The Tree of Gernika sibling growing at the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga House in downtown Boise. - KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes
  • The Tree of Gernika sibling growing at the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga House in downtown Boise.

Tree of Gernika

607 Grove St.

Visitors to the Basque Block may not be aware, but when they walk past the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga Boarding House—the squat brick house behind a white fence near the center of the block—they're walking past one of the great symbols of resilience and freedom in Western European history.

Since at least the Middle Ages, members of the fiercely independent Biscayan people—a province of the now Autonomous Community of the Basque Country in Spain—gathered under an oak tree in the city of Gernika (or Guernica, in Spanish) to promulgate their fueros (local laws), which were among the most freedom-minded of the era.

So sacred was the Tree of Gernika—known as the Gernika'ko Arbola—that it was re-planted from acorns several times, creating an arboreal dynasty. The so-called "father" oak was planted in the 1300s and lived for a reported 450 years. No less than Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella stood beneath the tree and swore an oath to protect the fueros of the Biscayans and the Basques in general. The second or "old" tree stood from 1742-1892. To this day, its trunk resides in a special temple next to the traditional seat of Biscayan government. That tree was subject to a sonnet penned by William Wordsworth, in which the poet referred to the "Oak of Guernica" as possessing "holier power/ Than that which in Dodona did enshrine" and suggested better it should be cut down and its branches brought asunder "If never more within their shady round/ Those lofty-minded Lawgivers shall meet, Peasant and lord, in their appointed seat, Guardians of Biscay's ancient liberty."

The third tree went into the ground in 1858 and had, possibly, the most violent life of them all.

In 1937, amid the civil war sparked by Spanish fascist dictator Francisco Franco's seizure of power, the city of Gernika fell victim to the first instance of carpet bombing. Armed with pilots and equipment from Nazi Germany, Franco's forces obliterated the town, resulting in hundreds if not more than 1,000 civilian casualties (the death toll has been disputed since the bombing).

Left standing among the rubble, however, was the Tree of Gernika—unscathed before the collonaded temple that, even now, houses the Biscayan Assembly.

The atrocity shocked the world, prompting Pablo Picasso to create one of his most iconic works, Guernica, which depicted the devastation visited on the people and animals of Gernika by the fascists.

Suffering from a fungal infection, the tree that survived Franco died in 2004. However, it lives on in Boise, which is one of Gernika's three sister cities.

Boise might be the City of Trees, but the Basques could well be called the People of Trees, and at no time has that mutual affection been more on display than when a sapling from the original Franco-era Tree of Gernika was planted in Boise during a historic 1988 visit from Lehendakari Jose Antonio Ardanza, president of the Basque government.

The tree cemented the Basque Block not only as a cultural heart of Boise, but a site of significance for Basques all over the world. The achievement would not happened without Adelia Garro Simplot's efforts to acquire much of what we now call the Basque Block, including renovations and preservation of some of the city's most significant historic buildings.

Today, the tree casts luxurious shade from its stout trunk, which features thick branches that spread into powerful offshoots cloaked in dark, closely woven bands of vertical bark. Its bottommost leaves hang to within no more than six feet from the ground, loaded with acorns—a further symbol that it will continue to live on, as vibrant in the face of history as ever.

The northern red oak growing next to the assay office is believed to be among the oldest trees in Boise. - KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes
  • The northern red oak growing next to the assay office is believed to be among the oldest trees in Boise.

Northern Red Oak

210 Main St.

Among the most important early Boise buildings was the assay office at the corner of Third and Main streets. Built in 1871, the U.S. Assay Building was a seat of federal authority at a time when Idaho was taking an increasingly large part in the nation's mining output.

According to the Idaho State Historical Society, between 1861 and 1866 the Idaho Territory—it wouldn't become a state until 1890—contributed $52 million worth of gold, or about 19 percent of the national total. With so much wealth coming out of the ground, it was decided the territory needed an assay. With $75,000 approved by Congress, ground was broken in 1870.

Part of developing the site included planting trees. Among the many trees still growing on the grounds is a northern red oak believed to be one of the oldest trees in Boise.

Located on the west side of the building, this particular oak has outlasted much of old Boise—including the original function of the assay office.

The building was turned over to the U.S. Forest Service in 1933 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, making it one of 10 such designated sites in the state. The Idaho State Historical Society took ownership in 1972 and, today, the building is home to the State Historic Preservation Office and Archeological Survey of Idaho.

The stately red oak rises higher than 70 feet with a girth of more than 40 inches. Its branches fan out high on the truck to create a sweeping pool of shade that—on the July day we visited—had attracted one Boisean for an afternoon nap in the grass. Indigenous to the eastern United States, northern red oaks can live up to 300 years. However, the assay's oak may be facing the axe as falling branches present hazards to life and property.

As it stands at the time of this printing, however, this is one of the first specimens that put the "trees" in the City of Trees.

The Kentucky coffeetree planted in Julia Davis Park in 2007 replaces a similar tree that was put in the ground when the park was founded in 1907. - KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes
  • The Kentucky coffeetree planted in Julia Davis Park in 2007 replaces a similar tree that was put in the ground when the park was founded in 1907.

Kentucky Coffeetree

Julia Davis Park, northwest of the Gene Harris Bandshell

Of the Kentucky coffeetree, the Arbor Day Foundation notes there are "certainly no two exactly alike." For almost 110 years, Boise has hosted two coffeetrees in Julia Davis Park and, while certainly not exactly alike, they have shared (approximately) the same patch of ground.

The first of Boise's coffeetrees was planted in 1907 by W.E. Pierce, who served as mayor from 1895-1897 and could be credited with getting the whole "City of Trees" thing started.

Regarded as one of Boise's pioneering developers, Pierce was responsible for the planting of more than 7,000 trees to grace the city's streets.

Pierce's coffeetree was put in the ground the same year Julia Davis Park was established, thanks to a donation of land from early Boisean Thomas Jefferson Davis. A century later, and with the original tree gone, another coffeetree was planted in 2007 to mark the park's 100th anniversary.

So named because of (failed) attempts to brew coffee from its large seed pods, the coffeetree is tougher than its slender trunk of vertical bark strands and upswept, oblong leaves might at first appear. The Arbor Day Foundation describes it as, "Drought-resistant. Tolerant of pollution. Adaptable to a variety of soils."

The coffeetree in Julia Davis Park cuts an elegant figure in a wide grassy area adjacent to the Gene Harris Bandshell. Though it might at first be difficult to pick out from the crowd of trees in the park, with a keen eye a visitor will notice its slightly tapered crown of narrow leaves makes it look just a bit different from the others.

Walk closer to the tree and you'll see a small plaque noting its planting on June 23, 2007. Think back another 100 years and you'll be standing on one of the spots where Boise first started investing in its famous urban canopy.

The giant sequoia on the St. Luke's Boise campus served as the city's first official Christmas tree. - KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes
  • The giant sequoia on the St. Luke's Boise campus served as the city's first official Christmas tree.

Giant Sequoia

148 E. Jefferson St.

Though not especially tall—more on that in a bit—the giant sequoia rising from the middle of the St. Luke's Hospital grounds is massive at its base.

Brought from central California by Emil Grandjean, Idaho's first regional forester, the sequoia was gifted to highly respected Boise Dr. Fred Pittenger, who then lived on the site. Pittenger planted the tree in his front yard in 1912 and it has grown alongside St. Luke's—or, rather, St. Luke's has grown around it—ever since.

Located at the intersections of Avenue B, West Jefferson, Fort and Reserve streets, the tree juts from a disused, bark strewn corner near the St. Luke's human resources building.

Measuring more than 88 feet tall and 18 feet around, the St. Luke's sequoia presents a slightly odd profile: robust and powerful at the base and supporting dense foliage that spreads to cover much of the corner, it abruptly tapers into a dramatically narrow point at the top.

It acquired its strange shape by accident. Among the St. Luke's sequoia's distinctions is that it served as Boise's first official Christmas tree. However, in the mid-1980s, it became clear that the strings of lights were killing the tree from its crown down while asphalt and hard-packed soil around its base was killing it from the roots up.

According to Crandal Bourdreaux, writing on the blog boisethegreat.com, the already-dead portions at the top of the tree were removed and a limb was redirected to repair the decapitation. "Although it has worked to a great degree," Bourdreaux wrote, "it still looks as though there is a vegetative nipple on the top of the tree."

Sequoias have been known to live for more than 3,000 years, but there's a chance this particular specimen may not live out its ample days in its current location.

As St. Luke's gears up for a massive, years-long expansion of its Boise campus, the giant sequoia may need to pull up roots and move on. According to an FAQ from the hospital, it is the opinion of a tree relocation firm in northern California that Boise's sequoia is "an excellent candidate for successful relocation."

What's more, St. Luke's stated it has approached the Boise Forestry Office to gauge whether the city would be interested in taking it off the hospital's hands.

Who wants to suggest where to put an 88-foot-tall, 18-foot-wide tree?