By Carolee Harrison ::
Portland’s 272nd Heritage Tree, an Oregon white oak, is a street tree that shades a residential block in the Lents neighborhood. It also stands on the edge of Johnson Creek’s historic floodplain, where suburban housing, industrial sites, and protected public lands now co-exist. The tree’s age, presence, and ecological role are links to the area’s environmental past and how it has been shaped by humans and by nature.
The oak probably took root before the area was settled in the mid-nineteenth century, and it was certainly growing when Lents’ early orchards and pastures were first platted for development as a commuter suburb in the 1920s. Housing around the tree developed gradually during Portland’s urban growth spurts in the 1910s, 1950s, 1990s, and 2000s, but lack of paved improvements on the block and its proximity to undeveloped open wetland left the oak to grow into a grand natural feature valued by residents. A homeowner on the block nominated the tree for heritage designation in 2005.
The habitat of this native Pacific Northwest tree diminished after European settlers put an end to indigenous practices of setting controlled fires that encouraged acorn production and held back encroachment of fir forest. Former oak savannas in the Willamette Valley were overcome by taller, faster-growing trees, or prohibited from re-establishment by farm and residential development. Oregon white oak is a valuable ecological ally, providing a niche for wildlife from microorganisms to mammals that depend on it for food and shelter. The presence of even one Oregon white oak is of ecological benefit and supports the restoration and protection of Johnson Creek’s wildlife habitat.