Garry Oak Society commemorates 170th anniversary of town’s namesake

— Created March 3, 2021 by Kathy Reed

By Melanie Hammons

What do oxen and oaks have in common?  Both the animal and the tree symbolize strength and endurance.  And this year, that’s not all they share. 

The year 2021 is the Year of the Ox on the Chinese zodiac calendar.  In 1851, Dr. Richard Lansdale named the town we know as Oak Harbor after quercus garryana, the Garry oak tree. It’s a name that actually pre-dates the town’s incorporation in 1915. So 2021 marks the 170th anniversary of that landmark event, making this year “the year of the oak.”

Many Oak Harborites remember with fondness the large Garry oak which once accented the downtown area fronting the post office.  Sadly, out of concern for the tree’s health, the City removed it in 2014. Tree rings visible in the remaining stump reveal an approximate age of 330 years.

But in the wake of the grand old tree’s loss, rose a cadre of citizens and volunteers who committed themselves with renewed vigor to the care, preservation, and celebration of Oak Harbor’s remaining Garry oaks, and thus the Oak Harbor Garry Oak Society was born.

Society President, Laura Renninger, said OHGOS dedicates itself to the stewardship of the only native oak species in Washington. According to her, that feature alone makes the tree’s stewardship a worthwhile endeavor.

“We are fortunate to live in an area surrounded by such historic trees as Garry oaks,” said Renninger, who founded the organization in 2015.  “Unlike other cities and towns, our town’s name reflects not only a beautiful namesake, but one we can still admire in diverse locations to this day.”

The Garry oaks were likely seeded by Native American tribes who either visited or called Whidbey Island home.  Native peoples from the lower Skagit region particularly appreciated the food source they found in acorns, but also used wood, bark, and the blue camas bulbs which thrived nearby. Settlers found the trees well-established by the time of their arrival. 

One marked feature of Garry oaks, according to the OHGOS website, is that they are slow-growing trees.  That characteristic drives the group’s desire to not only preserve the oaks still standing, but to plant new ones, said Renninger.  People, of course, are integral to the success of that.

“We’ve adopted a three-fold aim to accomplish this:  outreach, education, and preservation.  All three of these build on the importance of highlighting the town’s namesake trees while emphasizing the Garry oak’s unique status as the only native oak in the State of Washington,” she said.

Education is on the very forefront of raising people’s awareness of these goals. That’s where OHGOS involves schools, students and teachers.  This involvement includes educational field trips and provision of lesson guides and other resources to school libraries. Plus, in 2019, for the first time, OHGOS awarded a $500 college scholarship to a local OHHS student.

Preservation ensures that not only do existing trees continue to thrive, but that new ones are planted too, said Renninger. 

“Thanks to the valuable partnerships we’ve formed with others who share this goal, we now have seedlings planted along Regatta Drive, OH School District grounds, the Navy Lodge and almost too many other places to mention,” she said. “One of the most promising sites is planned for the newly re-vitalized Windjammer Park – by the end of March, a half dozen seedlings will be placed in the ground there.”

Renninger said she thinks OHGOS’s successful outreach in just a few short years can be attributed to its hard-working members and the cooperation they’ve met with in the City of Oak Harbor.  It’s also due in no small part to a talented citizenry, who’ve employed their artistry to enhance the stature of the signature Garry oak trees, according to Renninger.

“Take the lovely Garry oak mural in downtown Oak Harbor; not only does it beautifully depict Garry Oaks, it also points the way to historic Smith Park, which contains over one hundred Garry oaks plus many native wildflowers,” she said.

And of course, September 2020 saw the co-naming of SE 8th Avenue as “Avenue of the Oaks,” along with decorative signs to match. That idea was put forward by OHGOS, approved by the City Council, funded by donations and grants and culminated in the display of custom-designed signs along SE 8th Avenue.  “Avenue of the Oaks” hosts the locations of many of the oaks on the Garry Oak Tree Tour, including the famed one located right in the center of the road.

As of this writing, many of Oak Harbor’s cherished local events remain tentative. And while people are looking forward to the time they can once again freely enjoy the tulips and touches of Dutch culture that color springtime Oak Harbor, Renninger suggests taking time now to learn about the town’s other wonderful features.

“In Smith Park alone, there are over 150 mature Garry oaks,” she described.  “We’ve also begun the process of restoring the native ‘understory’  of wild flowers that many years ago thrived in the proximity of these oaks.

“As spring unfolds, you’ll catch glimpses of at least five different flowers, including orange tiger lilies, pink shooting stars, and eventually, blue camas.  There’ll be lots of different blooms to see, if you know where to look,” Renninger continued.

There’s nothing like a visual sighting of a stately Garry oak to start or build on a new-found appreciation for their continued presence,  Renninger said.  Perhaps the easiest way to start is by taking a self-guided Garry Oak Tree Tour. And that couldn’t be easier, thanks to the free PDF tour app listed on the OHGOS website. 

“This three-mile tour is an ideal way to view the trees at one’s own pace, get in a bit of exercise and enjoy the fresh air all at the same time.  It’s also a wonderful way to spend an afternoon during a time when many socializing restrictions remain in place,” Renninger said.

As OHGOS looks to the future when it will lay out its plans, members are similarly open to new ideas and new volunteers, said Renninger.  The group’s website lists myriad ways individuals and groups can join OHGOS’s efforts, including everything from money donations to time donations dedicated to removal of invasive plants such as English ivy, for example.

Just as the ox forms a picture of strength in “the Year of the Ox,” so do the Garry oaks that gave Oak Harbor its name 170 years ago.  From the distant past, many hundreds of years ago, to what we see here today, Garry oaks still stand, grounded in beauty and endurance.  The inscription on the bench in Smith Park, donated by OHGOS, states it best:  “Long live the Garry oaks.”

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